An interview with Dr. King Li, inaugural dean of Carle Illinois College of Medicine

Dr. King Li, inaugural dean of the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, believes that merging engineering studies with clinical instruction will revolutionize the delivery of health care

Carle College of Medicine King Li - dean, College of Medicine
Dr. King Li, inaugural dean of the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, believes that merging engineering studies with clinical instruction will revolutionize the delivery of health care

When a search committee composed of University of Illinois faculty and physician leaders from Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana chose Dr. King Li as inaugural dean of the Carle Illinois College of Medicine—an entity so new it doesn’t really exist yet—Li’s reaction was swift.

“I would drop anything to do this,” says Li, and he did. The 60-something radiologist left a prestigious, challenging post at Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina for the even more prestigious, wildly challenging chance to lead the world’s first engineering-based medical college.

“This is the opportunity of a lifetime,” observes Li, who took on the job Oct. 1. “To have a world-class university with really diverse expertise form a partnership with a top-notch health system that is vertically integrated, with the joint ambition to revolutionize health-care delivery—that doesn’t happen very often.”

The concept for the new College—which has been in the works for several years and was approved by the U of I Board of Trustees in 2015—is an exciting fit for Illinois. Engineering faculty and students are already creating medical innovations on a seemingly daily basis, from inexpensive prosthetics distributed to the poor of Latin America to wearable electronics that monitor heartbeat, respiration and other vital signs. Ongoing UI/Carle collaborations include a computer-based guidance system for emergency response teams, a targeted drug-delivery method to treat liver cancer and an otoscope that employs optical coherence tomography to look inside the ear. (See pg. 30-36, Illinois Alumni, Spring ’16.)

For Li, the chance to meld technological savvy with medical instruction launches sky-high possibilities for student creativity. “We will have engineering rounds,” he noted in an interview conducted soon after his early-fall arrival on campus. “Students will present a case [for their designs and the problems they solve]. There will be input from engineering professors and input from clinical people to [determine] what is practical and what is not. And if it’s a great idea, it will become a project the students work on while they’re in medical school.

“Think about it—students being inventors and changing lives,” he adds. “What medical school curriculum is out there now that allows students to do that?”

Effusive in manner, youthful in demeanor—and on this crisp fall afternoon, outfitted in an orange-and-blue striped tie—Li is a juggernaut of enthusiasm for the College he’s bringing into being. His approach is at once visionary and practical. In the breadth and depth of research and learning at the University, Li sees a vast trove of intellectual resources that can be tapped at a time when innovation is already driving change in medicine as never before. His journey as dean has begun with an exploration of the Urbana campus in quest of strengths and synergies in disciplines across the academic spectrum.

“What we’re doing requires input at all levels—legal, ethical, design. For example, take sociology. How do you reach out to the underrepresented, those from a lower socioeconomic background and still provide high-value care?” he asks. “There’s business, there’s law, there’s psychology. Almost every part of the campus can contribute.”

That includes the University’s undergraduates. “Imagine,” Li says, “undergraduate students doing projects that have real-life impact, projects that can change people’s lives. The most brilliant ideas are about linking up what already exists in an innovative way to make changes. And that’s what the brilliant minds of our students can provide. A lot of this won’t require FDA approval or a lot of investment.”

When the new College welcomes its first cohort—32 medical students whose arrival is planned for Fall 2018—it will be headed into an experience that differs markedly from traditional medical education. Li is an advocate for experiential learning—case-based study with lots of clinical time. Lecture-format instruction in such disciplines as biology and organic chemistry will take place online, as will more innovative educational experiences. Li envisions simulator-style, 3-D gaming environments. Students will, for example, work in teams in a virtual emergency room. “If you are training to be a doctor,” he says, “I want you to play the role of a nurse, so you know what the other team members are encountering.”

Prolific researcher and accomplished administrator

A native of Hong Kong who moved with his family to Canada at age 17, Li received his medical degree from the University of Toronto in 1981. During his third year of medical school, Li read an article in Nature magazine that changed his life. Written by the late Paul Lauterbur, the piece was about MRI imaging. (Lauterbur, who received the Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking MRI research, would join the faculty at Illinois in 1985.) “I said, ‘Wow, that is cool. That’s what I’m going to do.’ ” Li decided to specialize in radiology and “never looked back.”

His career path led to a faculty post at Stanford, then to leadership positions in radiology with the National Institutes of Health, Methodist Hospital in Houston and to Wake Forest, where he was a Wells Fargo Faculty Scholar. A prolific researcher, he holds 16 patents, with six more pending, and is currently principal investigator on a $1 million NIH grant to study targeted drug delivery to diseased areas of the brain using stem cells and ultrasound.

Li’s administrative background is similarly impressive. At Wake Forest, he served as senior associate dean for clinical and translational research and deputy director of its Comprehensive Cancer Center. Wake Forest colleague Steve Kritchevsky says Li was instrumental in winning $4 million in NIH funding to establish the medical school’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute, designed to find ways in which electronic medical records can better meet  clinicians’ needs and provide data for research discoveries.

Collective learning—a new model of medicine

Information technology is central to Li’s vision, not just for medical education but for the future of medicine itself. “Imagine the day when every interaction becomes a data point in collective learning,” Li says. “If, as a doctor, I see only 200 patients with hypertension, and there are four different drugs to treat hypertension, I may not know which drug will be best for each type of patient. But if there are thousands of doctors seeing patients with hypertension, their collective experience can be collected and analyzed. When the patient sees a doctor, and he or she has all that analysis and data available, they’ll be a lot more effective. There will be fewer medical errors.”

Such innovations, Li says, form the foundation of a learning health-care system, a new model for medicine. “Every encounter is a learning experience,” he says. “The whole system is learning, dynamical. [It’s] really the future of health care.”

Clinical instruction at the new medical college will take place at Carle’s award-winning, 393-bed hospital and health system based in Urbana. Li serves as the system’s chief academic officer and views it as an excellent partner because its vertically integrated structure, which includes the Health Alliance health insurance plan, means there are significant data that are easy to share.

“Dr. Li speaks about a learning health system and a learning medical school. In just one phrase, [he crystalizes] what we hope to do,” says Carle’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Matthew Gibb. More efficient health-care delivery and better recruitment and retention of highly qualified staff will be among the College’s benefits, says Gibb. So will the “halo effect” of translational research. “It may attract venture capital funding and help develop the Research Park,” he observes.

For Li, intensive work in technology means graduates of the new Carle Illinois College of Medicine will be uniquely qualified. Their medical and engineering credentials will allow them to make recommendations to improve health-care technology.

“Our students, when they graduate, can become catalysts in the health-care system,” Li adds. “And everyone will come here to learn how to do this.”

That will, of course, be years from now, beginning with the first Carle Illinois College of Medicine cohort to graduate in 2022, if all goes well. To get there, Li faces the immediate challenge of accreditating the new curriculum, a one-year process set to begin Dec. 1.

Fundraising also figures heavily into the picture—the College will use no new state or University monies, relying instead on a $100 million contribution from Carle, as well as research funding, tuition and fees, gifts and endowment income. Beyond such heavy startup lifting—responsibilities he seems to view with grace and good cheer—Li sees a future as big as the world itself.

“If we do this well, the impact will be felt globally,” he concludes, with a smile as sweeping as his statement. “There’s no question in my mind.”

Dr. King Li joins the Carle Illinois College of Medicine from Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina, where he served as senior associate dean for clinical and translational research and deputy director of the university’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. A distinguished researcher and innovator, he holds 16 patents.