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Meet Sandra Wong, MD, the new dean of Emory School of Medicine
Sandra Wong environmental portrait

Sandra Wong, MD, MS, has joined Emory as the new dean of the School of Medicine. She will also serve as the chief academic officer for Emory Healthcare.

She is an international leader in surgical oncology, specializing in the management of soft tissue sarcomas, melanoma, and non- melanoma skin cancers, and a globally recognized health services researcher. Wong previously served as chair of the Department of Surgery at the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center and professor of surgery in the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth.

With “everything I own in a truck headed toward Atlanta except for two suitcases,” she answered a few questions about her leadership style, her passion for health care delivery and being the first female dean of Emory School of Medicine: 

How do you enter into new experiences? Do you lead with curiosity, getting the lay of the land? Do you have high expectations of yourself? 

It is about curiosity, wanting to understand how things work and what motivates people. Clearly sometimes you have to have a certain level of experience and know-how, but I never assume I have it. I’m always trying to learn something different and new. Honestly, things are changing pretty fast, and the second you think you have it, you’re behind.

What drives me is to make things synergistic, to get people and processes to work together so you have a one-plus-one-equals-three situation. What I love about health care is the conglomerate of taking care of patients, teaching students how to care for patients even better, and thinking about discovery and innovation, so we can maximize people’s talents. That’s what gets me excited about this position quite frankly.

Everyone talks about the tripartite mission, but you say there are four variables: clinical practice, teaching/mentoring, research and the community. Tell me about your passion to include the community.

Yes, it’s a quadruple mission. It’s about community but it’s also about stewardship. I’m a health services researcher, and sure, you can discover the latest and greatest innovations, you can have the best health care in the world, but if it’s not accessible to the people in your catchment area, the region that you serve, you really wonder if you’ve done your best. We have to try to make sure that the quality of health care we can provide in town can be extrapolated to rural areas outside of metro Atlanta and beyond. I’m passionate about ensuring the best delivery of care. We need to get health care to the people.

So many transformations are happening in health care right now, with AI, robotic surgery, technical diagnostics you can do at the bedside. How do you believe that we can effectively apply technology without letting it take over the process?

Globally, there need to be some boundaries around how we apply technology, but we can’t let those boundaries slow us down in terms of discovery. There will be a good balance and everyone collectively will need to figure out what that looks like.

Emory is already doing that, pushing that envelope while making sure that everything remains safe for patients. Machines are only as good as the data the machines see. The role of an academic health system is to find a way to push the boundaries of discovery, but also to consider potential unintended consequences.

AI should be a tool, not ever a substitute, and we need to determine how to best make use of those tools, such as making things more efficient, reducing the burden of paperwork, helping with clinical decision support. Take telemedicine, and how rapidly it accelerated during the pandemic. Patients and physicians adapted so much faster than anybody thought possible.

Why Emory? What particular challenges did this opportunity present that fascinated you?

Why Emory? That’s easy — Emory is a world class institution known for outstanding health care, for cutting-edge tech and research. What I would say was really exciting during the whole process, though, was the energy I could feel from every single person and the dedication to the mission toward a greater good.

When I come to a new place, I believe my role as a leader, part of a leadership team, is to pull all those individuals together, to make that momentum happen. Everybody does great things on their own, but when you can see a team pull together, actually move faster toward a higher trajectory, that’s the key. That’s what gets me excited. It's about inquiry, understanding where the bottlenecks are and fixing those areas. This is not change for change’s sake, it’s about managing change that’s already happening, assuring that key milestones are met, constantly looking for ways to improve.

A lot of what I’ll need to do is talk to and learn from everyone. I love walking around, seeing people in their own environment, letting them show me their space and what they’re most proud of.

Also, staff development is so important, that’s true for the entire team. You take a job because you see the potential to grow in it. Questions I will ask people are, “What keeps you here? What programs do we need to build for professional development?”

How do you feel about being the first female medical school dean at Emory?

It didn’t come to front of mind until it was written in the original press release, but I’m really proud to have that honor. I hope I won’t be the last. What I find is that it’s meaningful to others, to see that it’s possible, and I do appreciate the ability to be a role model in that regard. But I don’t think it should be what defines this role, which transcends gender and race and ethnicity.

I’ve had a few folks reach out, which means they are watching, and I appreciate what this means to people on their own leadership journeys. A lot of it is about the support you get — and give — along the way.

What are you most looking forward to, in a practical sense, upon your arrival?

I’m most excited to continue meeting people and learning more about the incredible work happening here. I’m looking forward to getting to know our students and trainees. And honestly, I’m excited it’s spring. How warm it is outside, people are happier, walking around more. I love universities in the spring, coming out of the winter gloom. It’s a time of renewal.

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