Robert W. Naismith, PhD has always displayed entrepreneurial tendencies and an ability to see unexpected connections and unanticipated needs. Nowhere is this foresight more apparent than in his role as a founder of Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine. His initial vision for the school was that it would be a gift to the community and, among other benefits, would pay dividends in better health and improved wellness for the region.
Once the school was firmly established, Dr. Naismith could have said, “Mission accomplished.” The school was built, new MDs were graduating and the table was set for an enhanced physician workforce in northeastern and central Pennsylvania. This fact alone fulfilled Dr. Naismith’s original rationale for helping to build Geisinger Commonwealth. This was not, however, the way he saw things.
“My initial vision of our medical school was as an institution that would benefit the entire community — not an ivory tower on a hill, but a place that improves and enriches everyone,” he said. “I thought about the overall health of the region — our rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. It was clear to me that the medical school should play a primary role in addressing and improving these things.”
Dr. Naismith’s own experiences and research convinced him that nutrition can prevent and mitigate heart disease. That knowledge changed his life and he wanted to share it with the community. Likewise, he knew that other lifestyle issues, like smoking and physical inactivity, were taking a toll on public health. “I thought, ‘We have the medical school and we see the disease burden. We know pharmaceuticals only fight the symptoms. Shouldn’t the school have an active focus on prevention?’”
Dr. Naismith concluded that Geisinger Commonwealth was the perfect — in fact the only — platform that could exert positive influence on the region’s population health. In addition, he believed medical students would benefit by learning more about how lifestyle impacts health. For these reasons, he and a group of like-minded donors established the Preventive Medicine Lecture Series, which kicked off in April with a wildly successful lecture by surgeon and author, Caldwell Esselstyn, MD.
An overflow crowd — the largest ever to attend an event at Geisinger Commonwealth — flocked to the lecture and many enjoyed a plant-based dinner at The Colonnade afterward. Despite the impressive attendance, Dr. Naismith only half-jokingly said he was “disappointed — disappointed that all of northeastern Pennsylvania wasn’t there.”
Future lectures will invite thought leaders who will provide the tools the community needs to make healthy decisions. The lectures are free, public events and future topics include nutrition, the role of exercise in maintaining wellness, substance abuse, smoking cessation and other lifestyle changes that improve health and substantially lower health risks. In addition to the public lecture, there are lectures for medical students and healthcare professionals designed to aid them in providing high quality patient care. One important goal of the program is to advance regional, disease-centric research collaborations.
“There was such an incredibly favorable reaction to the first lecture,” Dr. Naismith said. “I heard from many people afterward who said they attended because they were worried about their heart health and they were made aware of ways to improve it. Some things aren’t obvious until someone tells you. All of this will have a positive ripple effect on the well-being of our community. I think there’s great demand for more lectures.”
Pictured in photo: Gathering to plan a recent preventive medicine lecture at Geisinger Commonwealth are, at center, Sonia Lobo Planey, PhD, interim associate dean for research and associate professor of biochemistry at Geisinger Commonwealth and Robert W. Naismith, PhD, a founder of the medical school and also a founder of the Preventive Medicine Program at Geisinger Commonwealth, surrounded by student leaders of the Preventive Medicine Interest Group, all second-year medical students, from left, Danielle Peters, Miranda Chacon, Darla Fink and Leanne Woiewodski.