Dr. Thelma Hurd’s journey in medicine has taken her from New Jersey to Nigeria, with stops in Texas and Buffalo. Along the way, she gathered experience as a clinician, public health researcher and translational scientist.
Her proficiency in these crucial areas has led Hurd to UC Merced, where she became the university’s director of medical education last month.
“It was an opportunity to be part of a new initiative that really resonates with my passion, which is to improve healthcare in rural, high-needs communities and underserved communities,” Hurd said. “The fact that UC Merced is a young university means there is tremendous opportunity to both join ongoing and create new innovative initiatives, and that was incredibly appealing to me.”
After finishing medical school at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey — now the Rutgers School of Biomedical and Health Sciences — Hurd had a desire to be an academic surgical oncologist, allowing her to combine clinical and research approaches to her methods of treatment. Hurd worked in gastrointestinal oncology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas before transitioning to breast cancer at the Breast Surgery Department at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, N.Y.
She said her interest in examining health at a population perspective came from an encounter with a family at Roswell Park with whom she discussed treatment options.
Despite giving the family materials to review about the treatment in preparation for the treatment discussion, Hurd said the family told her, in unison, “whatever you say to do is just fine.” It was in that moment she realized there was a need to address community knowledge and advocacy.
If there was a need to solidify this new outlook on health, Hurd found it in Nigeria. As a member of the Center for Research on Minority Health team at MD Anderson that worked with the Nigerian government to develop a comprehensive cancer control, she began to consider how to deliver care in low- to moderate-resource environments.
“Need, disparities, inequity and rural healthcare issues and challenges don’t have geographic borders. They affect both high and low resource countries,” Hurd said. “If we can develop systems to address healthcare challenges in rural and less-resourced communities, it will be a critical step in bringing healthcare equity to the U.S.”
The experience in Nigeria also opened Hurd’s eyes to how to perceive healthcare crises in rural and high-needs communities that are often tagged as “medical deserts.”
“Nigeria taught me to stop looking at how empty the glass is and to start looking at how full the bottom portion of the glass is, and that is how I look at the San Joaquin Valley,” Hurd said. “I’m not looking at what it doesn’t have, I’m looking at everything it has that hasn’t been tapped or leveraged. You have community cohesiveness — people actually care about one another here and want to improve community health. People interact at a very different level than you see in highly urbanized areas and the Valley has resources. When you have those elements, you can pretty much do anything.”
"Need, disparities, inequity and rural healthcare issues and challenges don’t have geographic borders. They affect both high and low resource countries. If we can develop systems to address healthcare challenges in rural and less-resourced communities, it will be a critical step in bringing healthcare equity to the U.S."
For the past four years, Hurd has served on the Cutler-Orosi Joint Unified School District’s Health Science Academy Executive Board and worked with teachers as they tailored their curricula to best serve their students’ science education needs. The Tulare County school district is home to a medical education pilot program for UC Merced, and the opportunity to work with the future leaders in medicine in the San Joaquin Valley showed Hurd that addressing the medical disadvantages of the region can be found within.
“There is a tremendous amount of untapped intellectual capital within our students and they simply need to be in an environment that will help them to develop it,” Hurd said. “Our job as medical educators is to provide the educational and experiential opportunities so that they are able to go further than they’ve ever dreamed possible and go beyond what they perceive as limits.”
She said while medical education is thought of as just preparing students for medical school, it plays a major role in producing vital medical professionals in nursing, dentistry and allied health, as well.
“Medical education at UC Merced provides the opportunity to work with people here to not only build a healthcare workforce but to build a workforce that can integrate rural and urban approaches to addressing health and disease,” Hurd said. “Those students who are now in high school or are undergraduates are the future of healthcare and of health in this country.”
UC Merced Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Gregg Camfield said bringing in Hurd — who is a nine-time recipient of the Best Doctors in America designation — is critical to continuing to build the foundation of medical education at UC Merced and in the Valley, one of the most medically underserved areas in the nation.
"She brings a wealth of experience and impressive skills to this very important position on our campus,” Camfield said. “From leading our efforts to further develop programs and initiatives in medical education to continuing her research in health disparities, Dr. Hurd will bring great value to the campus and the community. I very much look forward to working with her.”
Hurd said she is a strong believer in taking time to get to know the community and is looking forward to tapping into the potential of San Joaquin Valley students.
“There are a lot of innovative thinkers here and the university is a crucible for innovative thought. It draws people who think and dwell outside of the box,” Hurd said. “The UC Merced family is one team and together with our communities as full partners, we will be able to change the face of health care and improve population health.”