As Jean Robillard transitions from leadership role, colleagues reflect on a remarkable career
Before coming to Iowa in the early 1970s, Jean Robillard, MD (74F), would have been hard-pressed to describe the state, its people, and its academic medical center on the west side of the University of Iowa campus.
Iowa, however, would provide Robillard the foundation for a lifetime of remarkable achievements and a “home” that he would return to twice over the course of his 45-year career.
In September 2016, Robillard announced he would step down from his role as UI vice president for medical affairs and dean of the Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine once a new leader takes over. University officials expect to announce the results of a nationwide search this fall.
Robillard is not retiring—a pediatric nephrologist, he will maintain his primary faculty appointment in the Stead Family Department of Pediatrics as well as a secondary appointment in the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics—but his announcement has brought renewed appreciation for his impact on the health care enterprise.
Under Robillard’s leadership as vice president for medical affairs, UI Health Care today stands as one of the few truly integrated academic medical centers in the country. Every aspect of the organization’s tripartite mission of education, patient care and service, and research has experienced remarkable change and growth.
Robillard has served the broader university as well. In addition to his role as vice president for medical affairs, he served as interim president of the UI from August to November 2015 while also chairing the search committee for the university’s 21st president, Bruce Harreld.
A native of Canada, Robillard earned his undergraduate and medical degrees at the University of Montreal. He completed medical internship and pediatric residency training in Montreal, followed by Medical Research Council of Canada-supported pediatric nephrology training at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Robillard first came to Iowa in 1973 to complete his pediatric nephrology fellowship. He joined the UI Department of Pediatrics faculty in 1974 but left a year later for a similar position at the University of Montreal.
He returned to Iowa in fall 1976 as an assistant professor and director of the pediatric nephrology division—and for the opportunity to collaborate with department chairman Fred G. Smith, MD, whom Robillard had worked with at UCLA. For Robillard, it was the beginning of a 20-year period of pediatric research, patient care, and teaching.
“When I came here, the department had maybe 30 people,” Robillard says. “The pediatric nephrology division was small as well, so we were a close-knit group. We had a number of research grants as well as a center grant that was based here. In terms of patient care, we covered everything—the nephrology service but also the general pediatric service, and we attended the pediatric intensive care unit as well. It was a productive time with great people—the place was on the way up.”
The UI medical campus was poised for growth in the early to mid-1970s. University Hospitals, as it had been known for decades, became University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics to better define the enterprise and its purpose. Under John Colloton’s leadership, new construction beginning in the mid-1970s marked the start of a phased capital program over the next two decades. The Willard L. and Susan Boyd Tower (1976), Roy J. Carver Pavilion (1978), John W. Colloton Pavilion (1982), and John Pappajohn Pavilion (1991) greatly expanded and updated existing patient care facilities.
Robillard ascended through the academic and administrative ranks in the pediatrics department, earning professor status in 1982 and being named vice chair of the department in 1987 under the leadership of Frank Morriss, MD.
In 1996, Robillard accepted the position as chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School and physician-in-chief of C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.
The Michigan job was a unique leadership opportunity—one that ultimately prepared him for another return to Iowa, this time in February 2003 as the new dean of the UI Carver College of Medicine.
The college had just celebrated the opening of the Medical Education and Research Facility (MERF), which represented a major upgrade in research and teaching facilities. As dean, Robillard shepherded the construction and 2005 opening of an adjacent facility, the Carver Biomedical Research Building. The connected structures represented the first and second components of a three-stage plan to transform the medical school campus.
In January 2007, Robillard was named UI vice president for medical affairs in addition to his duties as dean of the Carver College of Medicine. The appointment marked the beginning of a gamechanging plan—referred to as “One Vision, One Future”—to fully integrate the college, the hospitals and clinics, and the faculty practice plan into a more unified academic medical center.
Gary Fethke, PhD, former dean of the UI Tippie College of Business who was serving as interim president of the university at the time, made the appointment. Looking back, he notes that discussions with outside consultants, senior faculty and administrators, and members of the Board of Regents, State of Iowa (the governing body for the university), called attention to the need for a singular leadership structure over the operations and strategies of all UI Health Care entities.
“I became convinced that Jean was the right person to provide coherent leadership, and we were able to convince the Board of Regents that this was the right way to go,” Fethke says. “Ten years on, I believe we were right in making that assessment.”
Since Robillard announced he was stepping down from the VPMA role, colleagues have lauded his personality and perseverance.
Robillard “has amazing knowledge and a quick response to problems. He has made a significant contribution and change in the culture of health care at Iowa,” says venture capitalist and philanthropist John Pappajohn, who, along with his wife, Mary, are among the university’s most generous supporters. “He has the positive mental attitude to problemsolving and motivates his associates and employees to respond accordingly.”
Fethke cites Robillard’s intelligence and willingness to address complex problems.
“Leadership in medicine is not easy,” Fethke says. “It’s not enough to know science, clinical care, and education—you also have to understand one of the most complex financial environments in existence.”
Michael Welsh (74MD, 77R), professor of internal medicine, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and director of the Pappajohn Biomedical 14 Institute, credits Robillard’s success—and that of UI Health Care—to his unyielding determination.
“One of his greatest strengths is his optimism,” says Welsh. “That attitude lets him set big goals. And, he believes that we will reach them. His optimism and leadership inspire that same belief in others. That’s what keeps our organization moving forward.”
In terms of next steps post-VP, Robillard plans to pursue projects aimed at fostering innovation in health care. As for the future, he is confident that UI Health Care will continue to excel.
“I have no doubt the next leader will be extraordinary and will move this organization forward at the same rate, if not faster,” Robillard says. “Iowa is a fabulous state—its people are true, honest, and transparent. And the university values collaboration. It’s never been about one person. It’s really about sharing responsibility and then sharing in the success. There are not many places like this in the country.”
Highlights from the Robillard era
Patient care growth: Since 2007, inpatient volumes at UI Hospitals and Clinics have grown by 31 percent, and outpatient volumes have increased 33 percent. Hospital occupancy rates are consistently above 84 percent.
Extramural research funding: UI Health Care has experienced steady increases in total extramural research funding—from $179.3 million in FY2003 to $217.8 million in FY2017.
Philanthropic support: Gifts and commitments to UI Health Care through the UI Foundation in 2003, when Robillard assumed the deanship, totaled $35 million; in FY2017, the total was $122 million. Under Robillard’s leadership, more than $834 million in support of UI Health Care contributed to the $1.975 billion raised as part of the 2007-2016 “For Iowa. Forever More.” campaign.
Bolstered national reputation: The Carver College of Medicine, UI Hospitals and Clinics, and UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital have consistently garnered recognition and placement in national rankings for the quality of the research, patient care, and educational programs:
• Listed annually by U.S. News & World Report in its “Best Hospitals,” “Best Children’s Hospitals,” and “Best Graduate Schools” rankings
• Forbes “America’s Best Large Employers” (2015-2017; named the nation’s No. 1 employer in the health care industry in 2015 and 2016)
Expansion of the clinical enterprise: Under Robillard’s leadership, several new UI Health Care facilities have opened, providing patients easier access to care:
• Ambulatory care clinic at Iowa River Landing in Coralville
• Ambulatory care clinics in Iowa communities such as Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, the Quad Cities, Waterloo, and others
• Multiple UI QuickCare walk-in clinic locations
Statewide health care partnerships: The University of Iowa Health Alliance was established in 2012, creating a partnership among four of Iowa’s premier health care organizations that represents more than 3,000 providers and 18 hospitals throughout the state. The alliance works together to better coordinate care, prevent and manage disease, reduce costs, and deliver care more efficiently for Iowans.
Fraternal Order of Eagles Diabetes Research Center: Established with more than $25 million in support from the Fraternal Order of Eagles.
Pappajohn Biomedical Institute: Robillard initiated and nurtured the establishment of a hub for interdisciplinary biomedical research at Iowa. With the support of a $26.4 million commitment from John and Mary Pappajohn, this became the Pappajohn Biomedical Institute, housed in the newly constructed John and Mary Pappajohn Biomedical Discovery Building.
Information technology: Epic, a comprehensive electronic medical record system, was implemented in 2012. Also, for eight consecutive years (2010-17) UI Hospitals and Clinics has been named one of the nation’s “Most Wired” hospitals by the American Hospital Association Health Forum and College Healthcare Information Management Executives.
Iowa Neuroscience Institute: A comprehensive, cross-disciplinary neuroscience research center was launched with the remarkable support of a $45 million grant from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust.
Commitment to service: Established the Office of the Patient Experience and Service Excellence training for all UI Health Care employees.
New medical school curriculum: Implemented the New Horizons curriculum, an innovative model of medical education.
Serving Iowa’s most vulnerable patients: Developed and implemented strategies to transition health plans for the state’s medically indigent population from the state’s IowaCare program to Medicaid expansion and state health care exchanges.
Commitment to bench-to-bedside research: Played leading role in establishing the UI Institute for Clinical and Translational Science. The institute is committed to improving human health by streamlining scientific research protocols, transforming research training environments, and improving the conduct, quality, and dissemination of clinical and translational study results.
Steven A. Wynn Institute for Vision Research: Established with a $25 million commitment from entrepreneur and philanthropist Steve Wynn. The goal of the institute is to accelerate research that may lead to the prevention and cure of blinding eye diseases.
Expanded educational opportunities and programs: The Carver College of Medicine created new opportunities for medical students by adding summer research programs and distinction tracks in research, service, teaching, humanities, health care delivery science and management, and global health.
Enhance faculty practice plan and leadership structure: Strengthened University of Iowa Physicians as the UI’s multispecialty group practice.
Children’s medicine: UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital, a $360 million facility and the centerpiece of a statewide system of pediatric care, opened in February 2017.