UAMS Stays on Course despite New Challenges from COVID-19 Pandemic

By Ben Boulden

Vaccinations combined with social distancing and mask wearing made possible a return to in-person classes for students and even some hybrid on-campus gatherings.

As UAMS did everything it could to fight COVID-19, it maintained its commitment to excellence and its core values during the public health crisis — a commitment that was noticed by multiple national organizations and publications.

As part of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s 2021 Best of the Best awards, the newspaper’s readers voted UAMS the Best Company to Work For among businesses and organizations with more than 250 employees.

Forbes magazine named UAMS to its list of the Best Employers for Women 2021, ranking it 86th in its top 300 and the only company in Arkansas to make the list. Similarly, the publication also ranked UAMS seventh in the nation as one of the Best Employers for Diversity.

Insight Into Diversity magazine, the oldest and largest diversity-focused publication in higher education, in October recognized UAMS with 2021 Health Professions Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award.

In November, the university hosted its first Proud to Serve All event, sponsored by the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Its purpose was to reaffirm the commitment of UAMS to provide all Arkansans with quality care, regardless of a patient’s gender identity or sexual orientation.

Praise and recognition didn’t end there though. The Association of American Medical Colleges bestowed its top honor for community engagement on the university — the Spencer Foreman Award for Outstanding Community Engagement. The award is presented annually to an AAMC-member medical school with a long-standing, major institutional commitment to partnering with the community it serves to identify and address community needs.


As the university as a whole was stacking up awards and honors, individual UAMS programs also were earning praise and recognition.

  • Healthgrades in October ranked UAMS among the top 10% in the nation for joint replacement surgery and selected it to receive the Joint Replacement Excellence Award. That followed on Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield in February recognizing its Hip and Knee Replacement and Spine Surgery programs with a Blue Distinction Plus designation.
  • In December, Healthgrades also ranked UAMS among the top 10% of hospitals nationwide for cranial neurosurgery and honored the university as a Five-Star Recipient for Treatment of Stroke.
  • For the third year in a row, S. News & World Report ranked the ear, nose and throat (ENT) department at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) among the top 50 nationwide. The digital news and information company that is the global leader in quality rankings also recognized UAMS as a Best Hospital for 2021-22 and named five areas as high performing: colon cancer surgery, diabetes, hip replacement, knee replacement and stroke.
  • With the university’s orthopaedic program garnering plaudits and expanding, the April groundbreaking for The Orthopaedic and Spine Hospital on the south side of its main campus seemed a very necessary and positive development. The 158,000 square-foot building will provide new operating rooms, patient rooms and offices as well as space for the orthopaedic trauma, orthopaedic oncology and physical medicine and rehabilitation programs.

UAMS Health patient care announced numerous new collaborations and construction projects.

  • Razorback Athletics in March launched a partnership with UAMS to provide comprehensive care for 465+ Razorback student-athletes and all 19 Razorback sport programs. The UAMS team will work in conjunction with the Razorback Athletics Sports Medicine staff on a daily basis.
  • The UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute in April opened a new Breast Center on the third floor of the institute’s building, offering a complete array of services, including mammography, ultrasound and image-guided biopsy.
  • The first UAMS Baptist Health Cancer Center opened in August on the campus of Baptist Health Medical Center in North Little Rock, bringing the full spectrum of cancer research, diagnostic and treatment services available at UAMS’ Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute to more Arkansans.
  • In partnership with Arkansas Children’s, Baptist Health and Proton International, UAMS in late May broke ground on an expanded Radiation Oncology Center, which will be home to the state’s first Proton Center. The Proton Center also will be one of fewer than 40 that exist nationwide.
  • A fundraising milestone was reached in November when $15 million was raised by the university, halfway toward the goal of $30 million for National Cancer Institute Designation. Receiving designation brings substantial benefits, including the ability to access significant federal research funding and offer clinical trials not available to non-designated centers.
  • The Little Rock campus was not the only part of UAMS Health that saw physical and operational growth in patient care. New kidney and liver transplant satellite clinics opened in March at the UAMS Northeast Regional Campus in Jonesboro and at the UAMS Southwest Regional Campus in Texarkana. In May, the Murphy Family Foundation and the Murphy USA Charitable Foundation pledged $1 million over three years to support the creation of a new regional campus in El Dorado.

Ground also was broken through new innovative, medical treatments at UAMS in 2021.


Students in all UAMS colleges were able in the fall to return to in-person, on-campus instruction, but College of Nursing students could take special pride in the experience.

  • That’s because they were receiving their education in one of the Top 50 of nursing colleges in the nation. S. News and World Report in November ranked the UAMS College of Nursing as 43rd out of 694 schools and the only one in Arkansas in the Top 100. Earlier in the year, the publication ranked the College of Medicine 39th in primary care education on the Best Medical Schools list.
  • The Emergency Medicine Interest Group in September received top honors nationally from the Emergency Medicine Residents’ Association (EMRA). The UAMS group was named the EMIG of the Year. This award was established to recognize the outstanding achievements of the most productive Emergency Medicine Interest Groups on a regional and national scale.
  • Just as clinical operations and patient care started projects to build new facilities, the educational mission also saw some physical growth. The UAMS Culinary Medicine Kitchen officially opened Oct. 5 on the ground floor of the UAMS Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging. Culinary medicine is a new evidence-based field in medicine that blends the art of food and cooking with the science of medicine. In the newly renovated space at the institute, UAMS Culinary Medicine program will provide the convenience of on-campus classes for faculty, student and, eventually, community groups.
  • UAMS in September received a $4.75 million federal grant to fund a multipronged approach to enhancing medical student education at UAMS as part of the Arkansas Medical Primary Care Partnerships project. The project aims to recruit and retain medical students from rural and underserved areas of Arkansas in the hopes that they return to practice in those areas.
  • With a similar goal in mind, the South Central Telehealth Resource Center in the university’s Institute for Digital Health & Innovation in November opened five satellite training centers in Arkansas and Tennessee to train health care professionals in the delivery of digital health services. Two federal grants are funding the initiative.
  • Changing, growing programs and facilities met up with some new academic leadership in 2021. Susan Smyth, M.D., Ph.D., started work June 1 as the executive vice chancellor and dean of the College of Medicine, which has a key role in many of the new projects. She succeeds Christopher Westfall, M.D., who retired Aug. 1 after 24 years at UAMS.


For the second consecutive year, UAMS enjoyed double-digit increases in research funding from outside the university. The funding for UAMS and its affiliate research institutions saw a 12.2% rise to $177.4 million in grants by the end of the 2021 fiscal year on June 30.

Team UAMS physicians, nurses, pharmacist and respiratory therapists have continued to vigorously fight the COVID-19 pandemic using vaccines, treating infected patients and educating the public.

UAMS researchers kept up the search for better treatments, drug therapies and new approaches to the pandemic.

  • By the first quarter of 2021, UAMS researchers had received almost $38.8 million from state and federal to help combat the disease. The money funded such projects as statewide antibody testing multisite clinical trials of new treatments, education and prevention studies, mental health research, polling and surveys.
  • One of the roadblocks to further progress against COVID-19 on the public health front has been vaccine hesitancy. A UAMS research team found that trust in vaccines, fear of infection and race or ethnicity play a large role in whether people will get a COVID-19 vaccine.
  • In what could turn out to be a highly significant scientific breakthrough, UAMS researchers, including John Arthur, M.D., Ph.D., and Terry Harville, M.D., Ph.D., found an antibody that shows up weeks after an initial infection attacks and disrupts a key regulator of the immune system. The discovery sheds important new light on the molecular mechanisms behind a potential cause of long-lasting symptoms experienced by COVID-19 patients.