Kayse Shrum, DO, was selected to serve as the 19th president of Oklahoma State University (OSU) this past April. Her history-making appointment, the result of an extensive national search, makes her the first woman to lead a public research institution in the state of Oklahoma. Prior to this role, Dr. Shrum served as the youngest and first female president and dean of an Oklahoma medical school.
As the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM) celebrates Women in Medicine Month this September, we recognize that Dr. Shrum’s significant achievements and groundbreaking leadership serve as a powerful and inspiring example to women across the osteopathic profession and beyond.
AACOM spoke with Dr. Shrum about her considerable accomplishments as a leader, her advice and words of wisdom to others, especially women, who are interested in leadership and her thoughts about the importance of supporting, recruiting and retaining women in medicine.
The answers below have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: You began serving as president of OSU on July 1, 2021, and with this appointment, became the first woman to lead a public research institution in the state of Oklahoma. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your first few months in this role and the transition to a new school year?
Dr. Shrum: COVID-19 has absolutely affected the transition. Within the first month of my appointment and tenure here, we saw a spike in the Delta variant and cases were going up. Unlike last year, when most of the instruction was done in an online learning environment, we had our classes and students back in-person. In meeting with students, it was clear that they were excited to be on campus and were happy to be trying to return to somewhat normal. The spike in cases made it challenging for everyone. We managed to get through the uptick and are starting to see our cases decline on campus, so I think we managed to get through the most difficult part, trying to find that right balance of protecting everyone while allowing as much of a normal experience for our students as we possibly can. COVID-19 certainly did change the beginning of my tenure, but it has been great getting to meet students and to be here on campus.
Q: Prior to your role as OSU president, you served as dean and then president of the OSU Center for Health Sciences, becoming the youngest and first female president and dean of an Oklahoma medical school. Under your tenure, the school experienced unprecedented growth, and your leadership helped double student enrollment. What advice would you share with other medical school leaders to help them achieve similar success?
Dr. Shrum: I’m very grateful for my tenure at the OSU Center for Health Sciences. I’m a graduate of OSU-COM, so in some regards I felt that by serving as dean of the college of osteopathic medicine, I was giving back to my alma mater that has given so much to me. My advice for other osteopathic leaders in our profession is, first, no one accomplishes great things without a strong team. So, first and foremost, surround yourself with great people. Second, be true to your mission. Our mission was to train primary care physicians for rural and underserved Oklahoma, and it was through this lens that we looked at every aspect of our COM. We are part of a land grant university, so we tried to see how every decision we made, whether for our research, education or service, fit with our mission. I think we found a lot of success there, because focusing on our mission helped us as we partnered with the Cherokee Nation to open the first tribally affiliated medical school in the United States. The Cherokee Nation, and all our tribal nations, are in rural areas, so that fit nicely with our goal to train rural physicians. We realized early on that from a strategic standpoint we could not truly fulfill our mission unless we had a very close partnership with the tribes. Another big accomplishment was the creation of the National Center for Wellness and Recovery and the $197 million we received in support from the opioid settlement with the state of Oklahoma. However, the national center didn’t start because of that settlement, it started because we recognized that an underserved group of patients were those struggling with addiction. From a public service standpoint, we knew that we needed to open a treatment clinic and start doing research in that area. When we started, that wasn’t a popular space to be in. It’s not a money maker, but I always felt that as a medical school, we had an obligation to society. Paying attention to what is going on in your community and identifying the greatest needs will help make your medical school relevant not just to the students, but to the state and to the nation. Third, as you’re making decisions, keep the students’ best interests at heart. As we would think about expanding our school, my philosophy was that we were going to expand residency programs first because I wanted to make sure that all the students we were bringing in could stay in the state of Oklahoma to practice if they wanted to. To summarize my advice, have a great team, be true to your mission and be student-centered in everything you do.
Q: The COVID-19 pandemic is causing an unprecedented number of women to leave the healthcare workforce. In your view, why is it important to support, recruit and retain women in medicine?
Having a diverse workforce in any industry is important. We know a lot about human nature and especially in medicine it’s important for patients to be able to relate to their physician. Women are a big patient population so having women in medicine is important from a patient care perspective, but it’s also important from a perspective of medicine in general and for decision making. Our perceptions can be different from person to person and gender to gender based on our experience, so having a broad, diverse workforce is important.
As I moved into leadership roles at OSU, we began to see higher and higher percentages of women become department chairs on the medicine side and the biomedical side, and we created leadership development programs targeted not only at women, but anyone interested in leadership. I have six children, three biological and three adopted. I started having my kids in medical school and I was fortunate to have great support from family and friends during my training. When I joined the faculty at the university, several women in my department had children, and we offered a lot of support to each other. Not every woman is a mother, but I am a mother, and having a strong support system around me allowed me to stay in the workforce and continue to achieve the goals I wanted to achieve and take on leadership roles. It’s the same whether you are a caretaker for your children or your parents. My husband is also very supportive and that’s been very helpful.
I am a firm believer that policies protect people from discrimination, but having diverse, female leaders somehow makes a cultural change. I don’t think policy changes culture, and I think that’s what we saw when I moved into OSU leadership, a change in culture. Sometimes, unfortunately, it does take one person to be the first, and that can be challenging in different settings, but once you have become the first, it seems to normalize, and other people can see themselves in you. It makes them believe that they can accomplish something or makes them consider it for the first time. I think that’s part of what changes the culture and I have always recognized that getting the job is not the most important thing, doing a good job once you get it is what drives cultural change.
Q: As a trailblazing leader and example for women, certainly in Oklahoma, but also in all of medicine, what advice would you share with other women in the osteopathic medical field who are interested in leadership?
Dr. Shrum: The first thing that I would say is for me, when I have decided to take on a leadership role, I’ve always tried to be very thoughtful about why I want to take on that position. Your why is always important in finding satisfaction in a particular role because it’s never easy. Leadership is tough, and if you aren’t clear about your why, it can be a disappointing venture. So, start out with your why and let it help guide your principles. Also, don’t wait until you think you’re ready. I’m not sure that anyone ever believes they are ready or that they can be fully prepared as a leader. Things happen that you don’t anticipate. I was serving as the Governor’s Secretary of Science and Innovation when the pandemic started, and he asked me to serve on his COVID response task force. There’s no instruction book for that, and from the very beginning we had to figure it out.
Having confidence in yourself is very important. When there is an opportunity to take on a role, take it on. I’ve said yes to opportunities, which led to new opportunities, and those are always chances to grow as a leader and a person, and to expand your knowledge base. So, don’t wait, and dream big. I tell students that all the time. Don’t limit yourself or what you can accomplish. The most important thing in being successful is putting yourself out there and saying yes, because that’s going to separate you from so many people. If leadership is something you are interested in and it intrigues you, say yes to the first leadership opportunity you have if you can understand why you’re saying yes and why you want to do it. Once you have the opportunity, you’ll figure out whether it’s fulfilling for you. When I say yes to something, what drives me is the ability to make a positive difference. If you know what your why is, it will make your leadership role that much more fulfilling.
Q: A conversation you had with a professor inspired you to go to medical school, and you went on to practice medicine as a pediatrician in your Oklahoma hometown. You later left your pediatric practice to pursue education because you felt you could make a greater difference for more people as a professor. Did your professor’s encouragement and example also inspire you to become one yourself?
Dr. Shrum: I was very fortunate to have a professor who inspired me to go into medicine. It was a large class, I didn’t know him well, but I had the highest grade, which is why I think he pulled me aside. He encouraged me to talk with my family doctor, who was a DO, and to visit a medical school to decide if it was right for me. I wasn’t considering medicine as a career, but having someone tell you, “You can,” is very empowering. My parents aren’t college graduates, and I went to school on an athletic scholarship. I didn’t know what direction I wanted to follow and the scope of what I thought I could do was based on my limited experience of what jobs were out there. We had always gone to my family doctor, and he had been my family doctor for years, but it had never occurred to me that becoming a doctor was something I could do. My parents were always very supportive and would tell me I could do whatever I wanted if I worked hard, but you don’t know what opportunities exist until you see them or until someone encourages you to consider them. That moment with my professor had a huge impact on me and my career, on how I conduct myself with students and others—knowing the difference that interaction has made in my life—and in some ways, on the programs I’ve created at OSU-COM. We started Blue Coats to White Coats, which connects FFA students with a physician mentor. Not only are these students from rural parts of our state, and more likely to go back and practice in a rural community, but they are also less likely to think about or to have been exposed to medicine as a career. We wanted to help them start thinking about this option early. Another OSU-COM program we started is Operation Orange, a free summer camp we hold in five locations across the state that allows younger students to experience a day in the life of a medical student. Given they can interact and connect with current medical students, they see how they are similar and that they may come from comparable backgrounds or families. Operation Orange events are intentionally held on college campuses because my professor told me to visit a medical school, and fortunately I was close enough to be able to do that. However, for a lot of students, that won’t be an option, so we make sure to introduce them to the college environment.
We know that not everyone we interact with is going to become a doctor, but they might set their sights higher as to what they ever thought they could achieve. So yes, that conversation with my professor has changed my view on the impact you can have on your students and becoming a professor myself was an opportunity to give back. That one professor impacted my life greatly, and if we can have that kind of reach and impact in such a short period of time, we should all be doing that every day.
Q: One of your milestone achievements includes establishing the National Center for Wellness and Recovery, which supports addiction treatment and research to address the opioid crisis. Osteopathic training seems particularly well-suited in providing nonpharmacological alternatives to pain management. How did your background in osteopathic medicine inspire your leadership in this area and what more can osteopathic medical schools do to help combat opioid misuse and addiction?
Dr. Shrum: Around 2013, a medical student’s father came to visit me who lost his son to opioid addiction. I had never met him before, and he said he thought medicine was missing the point and medical schools weren’t teaching this right. My initial reaction was to get a little defensive, but he started sharing his experience with me and the challenges he had with his son. It started with an athletic injury and was a very tragic story. As an educator, an osteopathic physician, a pediatrician and a mother, listening to him made me do a lot of soul searching and I tried to imagine myself sitting in his seat. He told me they went to their doctor and said that this is a problem, something is wrong, but when his son started experiencing very difficult times during addiction, no one knew how to help, and that’s tragic. I’ll be honest, in that moment, the stigma about addiction and the stigma with addicts made it difficult for me to fully understand. I had to struggle with that, and as I dug into the science and learned more about opioids, addiction and how it changes your brain, that really changed my viewpoint.
We need to do what we can with osteopathic manipulative therapy to prevent pain and take part in developing non-opioid treatment options, but we also have to teach about addiction. As osteopathic physicians and osteopathic medical schools, we can lead the way in this. Of course, now there’s the HEAL initiative, but in 2013, the opioid crisis wasn’t as talked about and people didn’t understand it as much, so we started early by putting some of our own resources toward this effort. I had people calling my family members, because they heard me out in the community talking about it, and they would say, “Can you get a hold of your sister? My dad is addicted to these pain medications. He has a job, he’s a deacon in a church, he’s embarrassed. We don’t know what to do,” or they’re a veteran and they’re withdrawing, and they don’t know what to do. There were no resources. We started out by bringing in addiction specialists to teach in the curriculum and look at the way we were educating, which led to the development of research, services and clinical care, and now we have a pain medicine fellowship. Today, everyone understands what a crisis we have and how many people we are losing unnecessarily, and this is certainly an opportunity for our profession to lead.
Q: You’ve worked with Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker and his administration to establish the nation's first tribally affiliated medical school and are passionate about expanding access to primary care in rural areas. When you think of the future physicians who will care for Oklahoma’s patients, what should that future look like, and how does this vision guide your leadership?
Dr. Shrum: The truth is that the most transformational partnerships happen when there is a common solution to a vision. The Cherokee Nation’s vision was to improve the health of the Cherokee people through investing in health facilities. Ours was to improve the health of rural and underserved Oklahoma through training physicians. Our partnership was very mutually beneficial.
Today, across the United States, 0.4 percent of medical students represent Native Americans. At the Cherokee Nation campus, 20 percent of our students are Native American, and 50 percent are female. I’m very proud of those demographics as a representation of the state of Oklahoma and what our population looks like. I firmly believe that we need a medical school class that mirrors our population, so we focus a lot on making sure that our Native American students feel comfortable, that we’re being culturally aware for all our students, and that makes a big difference. We can always work on becoming more diverse, but it’s a great environment as we look at getting more physicians in rural and underserved areas and improving access to healthcare. Our students start on day one in a rural location, and they can go through all four years in a rural area and will have the option to do their residency training in rural locations or in the tribal healthcare system. That’s our opportunity to retain residents and physicians in rural communities.
Sometimes you go into a project, and you grow as a person because you learn. In the process of developing and opening the medical school, I learned so much about the Cherokee culture and people and understanding things I didn’t understand before. It’s the same with opioid addiction. Even if that leadership opportunity isn’t where you end up, you certainly grow as a person as you enter new situations if you keep your mind open and go into it to learn as much as to lead.
AACOM thanks Dr. Shrum for helping us celebrate Women in Medicine Month and is grateful for all the important contributions she has made to the profession, along with those of the many other women in the osteopathic medical education community.