Six months ago, I made the decision to leave my position at the University of California in San Francisco to become the new head of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota. It was a decision I didn’t take lightly. I knew the history. I read the coverage of the Dan Markingson case and other allegations of misconduct by researchers. I had reservations about coming to a department that had a cloud of controversy hanging over it.
I made the move because I saw real progress in how the university was protecting participants in research. I also saw enormous scientific potential here. I chose to come to a university that is known worldwide for its advances in brain imaging and neuroscience research. I knew that under new leadership the department would be uniquely positioned to move psychiatric care to new levels. Finally, I would be able to achieve a lifelong dream: to bridge the gap between discoveries in brain science and the ability to translate those discoveries into much-needed new treatments that will improve lives.
We first must deal with the past. Once I accepted the position here, I made several trips to meet with people who had provided important criticism of the university. I have been pleased by the thoughtful, committed and constructive nature of these conversations. In particular, I have been grateful for the engagement of Mike Howard, a friend of the Markingson family, who has taken an active role in helping us learn from past mistakes and move toward a better future.
I have also examined the reports and reviews of the department’s and university’s research practices. I am happy to see the real progress that has been made since those reports. Next month, the Board of Regents will get a report about the many changes and the plans to continue working to become one of the best institutions in the nation when it comes to protecting vulnerable patients.
The university recently received confirmation that it’s on the right track when the Council on Association for the Accreditation of Human Research Protection Programs not only awarded the University of Minnesota full re-accreditation, but also awarded us an Area of Distinction for our practices to protect patients with diminished mental capacity.
So how do we move forward now?
First, we must continue to be vigilant about protecting the rights of all research volunteers. This includes monitoring industry-sponsored drug trials and hiring new specialists to make sure we are following all regulations and properly advocating on behalf of all patients.
To strengthen our connection with the community and the people of Minnesota, I have convened a Community Advisory Council that will provide regular feedback about our department practices. I have also developed a Chair’s Advisory Group within the department focused on the well-being of research volunteers.
In addition, with the blessing of Dan Markingson’s family, I am instituting an annual Dan Markingson lecture on the role of the family in mental health recovery.
Beyond these measures, I am — along with the rest of the department — completely committed to developing breakthroughs in mental health research, discovery and patient-centered care. We will work with colleagues across the university to advance our understanding of brain function, to better understand the trajectory of mental illnesses and to find new ways to stop these illnesses in their tracks.
I feel very lucky to now live in a state that has invested strongly in neuroscience research through the MNDrive initiative and the Medical Discovery Team on Addiction. The state of Minnesota has also committed a sizable grant for us (and the Hennepin County Medical Center) to establish evidence-based clinical programs for young people experiencing their first episode of serious psychotic illness. We have a strong philanthropic community that has supported mental health research.
Now we need to capitalize on these strengths to help patients and families.
Going forward, we are going to push the envelope to become the premier academic psychiatry department in the Midwest. We may make mistakes along the way, but we will be transparent about them and we will learn from them. We will create new knowledge so that young people experiencing mental illness will not have to suffer as Dan Markingson did, but instead will be able to look forward to healthy and happy lives.
Sophia Vinogradov is department head of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota.