A DIFFERENT APPROACH TO HEALTH PROFESSIONS EDUCATION
Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) is the nation’s federal health professions academy — akin to the undergraduate programs of the U.S. military academies at West Point, Annapolis and Colorado Springs. Like the academies, students are not charged tuition; they repay the nation for their education through service. In many respects, our curricula and educational experiences are similar to those of civilian academic health centers, with one important difference: our emphasis on military health care, leadership, readiness and public health sets USU apart.
Most of our graduates pursue their professional practice within the federal health system that provides extraordinary access to a range of experience and practice around the globe. This practice is shaped by the USU education that prepares them to be leaders, working across professions in teams to focus on disease prevention and health promotion.
Our mission is to support the readiness of America’s Warfighter and the health and well-being of the military community by educating and developing uniformed health professionals, scientists and leaders; by conducting cutting-edge, military-relevant research, and by providing operational support to units around the world.
We were chartered by an act of Congress on September 21, 1972 as the nation’s only federal health sciences university. Our comprehensive, forward-thinking curriculum melds the study of basic science, innovative research, leadership training, and clinical practice in both traditional and challenging environments to ensure students leave USU ready to tackle even the toughest medical and public health challenges both at home and abroad. This signature blend of education and training distinguishes USU as a leader among institutions of learning.
The university story really begins decades earlier than our founding.
As the dust was settling on the battlefields of Okinawa and the American public was reveling in the fruits of victory, the Department of Defense acknowledged the end of World War II with the discharge of more than ten million men and women. This exodus had vast implications for the Military Health System because included in the turnover were many physicians who – having met their civic responsibilities – returned to their public and private practices. This massive departure left the armed forces with a dwindling medical corps.
Immediately following the war, policy leaders in Congress and the Defense Department discussed the establishment of a federally run medical school. They debated the merits of educating soldiers and sailors in the practice of medicine. Opposition was quick to point out the long lead time to organize such an academy, and there was of course, the matter of cost. It would require considerable funding to see this idea to fruition. On the other hand, the Services needed career physicians.
Discourse continued intermittently for years, but action did not ensue until President Nixon called for an end to the draft in 1970. The military could no longer rely on conscripts to provide medical care to our nation's soldiers and their families. The imminent end of a reliable supply of physicians in the uniformed services resulted in a renewed focus on the future of military medicine. And at the forefront was a leading politician from Louisiana. Congressman F. Edward Hébert heavily championed what he called a "West Point for doctors". At the proposed Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, scholars would receive unparalleled education in the health sciences while the nation gained a strong cadre of career medical officers.
THE HÉBERT IDEA
Congressman Hébert lobbied tirelessly for a military medical school and before long, Uniformed Services University began to receive favorable attention from powerful decision-makers. One such proponent, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, realized a federally run medical school could be an important and powerful adjunct to newly adopted measures calling for military scholarship programs. He used the weight of his charge to rally support and received the backing of many influential congressional leaders. Legislation to create USU was passed by Congress, and President Nixon signed the university into law on September 21, 1972.
THE EARLY YEARS
Founding members began the daunting task of actualizing the university. The first order of business was to ensure USU was a center of academic and scientific excellence. Selection of students and faculty would reflect this posture. Both would be competitively chosen and only the most qualified applicants – civilian and uniformed – would be considered. The curriculum would be grounded in educational and scientific rigor, the learning environment would harness collegiality and peer review, and above all else, there would be a commitment to high standards of medical professionalism. This framework established Uniformed Services University as a traditional medical school with a clear focus on the unique requirements of military medicine.
The university's Board of Regents – 15 members appointed by the President of the United States, and who served as an advisory committee – selected a formidable leader to espouse the USU vision and successfully carry out its mission. Dr. Anthony Curreri augmented his experience as a military officer and physician to become the first president of the university on Jan. 7, 1974.
Curreri and staff began supporting the vision, but in humble surroundings. They occupied the third floor of a small office building in downtown Bethesda, Maryland. Residing on the ground level was a Peoples Drug Store and a branch of the State National Bank. Curreri would often jest that a bank and drugstore were fitting companions for an up and coming medical school. And for nearly three years, 6917 Arlington Rd. was home to USU pioneers. The modest facility and other temporary sites served as the first classrooms and laboratories as well as office space for faculty, staff, and administrative personnel.
Of course, these provisions would not be able to meet the needs of a growing medical academy for much longer, so in 1973 the Board of Regents appointed a site selection committee to survey various tracts by ground and helicopter transportation. Several areas were considered but in the end, USU's permanent home now spans 100 acres of wooded land on the grounds of the Naval Support Activity Bethesda, just three miles from Washington, DC, across the street from the National Institutes of Health, and in the hub of a bustling science community. This central location grants faculty and students singular opportunities to work alongside renowned scientists in the nation's top laboratories.
At their new student home, the first class of 33 sworn officers paved the road for thousands to follow, and as the numbers grew, so too did the scope of the university mission; most notably, to include a Graduate School of Nursing, which utilizes international perspectives on leadership, education, and research, while simultaneously equipping the Military Health System with a corps of advanced practice nurses, uniquely skilled to take on a diverse range of challenges and succeed in any environment.
As USU moves into the future, the unfolding story will remain a tale of a continually changing university, but with ideals standing the test of time. Because even as this "West Point of medicine" evolves to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world, through time the people of this academic health center remain the same. And it is their commitment to excellence in military medicine and public health that makes USU a very special place.