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LSMU Rector Prof. Rimantas Benetis: I will be doing as much good as possible

In October it will be one year, since the Council of the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences (LSMU) have confirmed the famous Cardiologist Professor Rimantas Benetis as the Rector of the University. On this occasion Lithuanian News Agency ELTA together with the Rector reviewed his first year of fulfilling this important role.
 
You are not a leader who came “from the side”, since completion of your studies at then Kaunas Institute of Medicine (present day – Lithuanian University of Health Sciences) you have climbed your career ladder at Kaunas Clinics, in 2005 you became a member of the LSMU Senate, prior to becoming a rector you were the Chairperson of the Senate for four years. Therefore, you have analysed, understood the university, from many different angles. Do you see many things that need to be changed?

 
I cannot say, that there were many things that needed changing, because until then I saw the whole essence, the processes from up close and together with the former Rector Professor Remigijus Žaliūnas, as well as the whole University’s community we were solving (quite successfully) various problems. I was the Chairperson and member of the LSMU Senate. Of course, there are things that are better to be seen from another position – as a Rector. I became the Rector of the University during a great period of change in the country, - parliamentary elections, formation of a new government, many things changed, people also – were changing. The change of time is a natural process, and along with-it new challenges unavoidably arise, new tasks are set. A year can seem like a brief period of time, however, increasing demands quickly adjust the plans.
In the coming year the new strategy of the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences will be confirmed. At the moment the University’s 2022 – 2026 strategic development guidelines and their plan of delivery is still being developed, the strategy is discussed at various levels, at the University’s departments. This is the plan of development for all of the activities of the University, which will reflect studies, LSMU financial, economic parts. In includes plans for new structures to be built – which is relevant to the whole community in an aim to raise the standards of studies and research.
 
Was it an accidental coincidence, that You have replaced a colleague in your position – an Academic Professor Remigijus Žaliūnas, or is it ordinary, that heart healing specialists – are the most important, whilst cardiology, heart surgery, Cardiology Department at the University – are strongest not just in Lithuania but also far and beyond, therefore the environment to raise bright leaders here is the best?
 
It can be called a coincidence. Yes Prof. R. Žaliūnas and I, are both from Plungė (ELTA ed. and both honorary citizens of Plungė). He began his medical studies in Vilnius, whilst I – in Kaunas. Of course, cardiology and heart surgery – are truly closely related disciplines, therefore we have known each other for many years. It is easy to share and transfer, explore, create, and improve ideas whilst working together. Those who work a lot, you must agree, become visible. Whilst the Rector is elected via a secret vote of the members of the Council.
 
When making your debut as a Rector you have stressed, that the University needs an energetic, active, innovative and harmonious community, which unites students, alumni, academic and non-academic staff, fearless of change, open to new ideas and world-wide competition. Today can you confirm, that the thousands of employees at the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences create a community which is capable of conquering numerous challenges and fulfilling many beautiful plans?
 
Our wonderful community has proven that a lot can be achieved. This September we have received confirmation that in the latest prestigious Times Higher Education  (THE) World University Rankings Lithuanian University of Health Sciences has taken a high place and is evaluated amongst the top 601 to 800 best universities of the world. In this year’s ranking – it is the highest rank of all higher education institutions of Lithuania. We are a very international institution, we follow the highest standards, and today we see the results of the long, continued and thorough work grounded in the unity of studies, research and clinical practice. We see the results, which were brought to fruition by the whole community of the University. Today it is made up of more than 28 000 people, connected to the university in multiple ways. LSMU – is one of the largest such institutions in the Baltics – Kaunas Clinics, and Kaunas Hospital, which was recently founded by our University.
 
LSMU has overtaken all other higher education institutions in vaccination levels (almost 100% of vaccinated members of the community).
 
It would seem strange, if future healthcare specialist or someone who recently became one, individual working at a hospital would refuse to vaccinate. What kind of outlook do they hold towards sciences and result that they are aiming for through their studies, or work? University’s employees understand, what are they fighting for – for that which is dearest, for – life. Therefore, they must do absolutely everything to protect it. I would like to stress, that a lot depends on leaders, colleagues, what example do they set.
 
You have taken up the role of the Rector during a complicated pandemic period, and at this time there are no hopeful signs of its end. Lithuanian University of Health Sciences, its hospital Kaunas Clinics bear a great responsibility, while all of us together are trying to defeat the COVID-19 infections. When public discussions arise that doctors should explain about the benefits of vaccination even more actively to those opposed to the vaccines, as if then the number of vaccinating individuals would rise, do You believe that this can change the opinions of those opposing to the vaccination in principle?
 
When the pandemic began, there was no quality communication and the society was not united with the healthcare specialists, scientists for the sole purpose – of conquering the virus, with minimal losses. Many functions were overtaken by the Ministry, it is only natural, but at the beginning a lot of things happened – miscommunication, distrust in specialists, science, lack of shared information who is responsible for what. A great share of medias contributed toward negative evaluation of the process, stressing even the smallest percentage of complications from the vaccines against COVID-19 infection, often staying quiet regarding the significant benefit they are providing by preserving millions of lives. An individual hearing such negative information may think, that it will be them who will end up in the very short list of people who have experienced complications.
 
Last year whilst presenting the University’s five-year plan (the length of the Rector’s term in office) programme concept, you stressed the aspiration to foster LSMU’s internationality and openness to change and novelties. You, as well as other scientists present in international conferences, successfully partake in various projects. Just before 1st September, you rejoiced at having accepted several dozen more percent of international students than last year. What else should be done by the LSMU community to improve its international status?

 
For more than 30 years, when the University (back then – Kaunas Institute of Medicine) began becoming famous abroad, it was influenced firstly, by one of its leaders, a famous Lithuanian Cardiologist Prof. Vilius Grabauskas, who was the rector of our institution in the last decade of the past century, international experience and fame. I would think, that my personal experience has contributed towards this as well. We worked, studied at famous research, medical centres, we would receive many international colleagues from distant countries – Cuba, Czech Republic, West Germany. We learned from their experiences and shared our own. At first, we did not have a strategy on how to establish, strengthen international connections, - it was more based on personal collaboration. Slowly the situation changed.
In Lithuania only two Universities prepare healthcare specialists – Lithuanian University of Health Sciences and Vilnius University. We might compete, in regard of future students, but we cannot deny that Kaunas cannot compete with Vilnius as a phenomenon, the capital factor, there is no way. However, we see that the number of international students at LSMU is increasing, we successfully attract young scientists, lecturers. In the most recent years the interest in studies by international students at the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences kept increasing. This year we have accepted more than 300 international students, that means 21 % of all first-year students are international students. We already have international graduates who have chosen to continue their careers in Lithuania. This – is an important and motivating process.
The field of international collaboration is very big. A group of our scientists recently returned from Ukraine which is important to Lithuania (and EU). We train, partake in projects, collaborate, learn ourselves. There are projects which are funded by the World Bank or the World Health Organization. We have specialists who travel to Scandinavian or other countries, - perform surgeries, present in conferences and congresses. Our specialists are famous as far as in the Arab Emirates or even more distant countries. Of course, presently the pandemic is subduing certain connections, but smaller events, meetings – take place at our University as well.
 
Among the problems affecting the public, bribery is often mentioned, – a  phenomenon, which despite stickers on the doctors’ offices doors cannot be ridden of in Lithuania, – this has even received the attention of the current Minister of Health. In your opinion, would corruption be reduced if our doctors without having to run between three or more employments would be able to earn as much as their colleagues in Denmark, United Kingdom, Sweden, where you had the opportunity to work, or Kazakhstan – a country where you personally received an award for your work? Or maybe everything would stay the same, as in the expression: “there aren’t those who do not take, only those who do not give”?
 
Do we have a real statistic of this phenomenon, is it only the field of medicine that is spoken of in this manner? In the society the stereotype: “If I won’t pay, they won’t treat me” is alive and well. I do not say that bribery does not exist in healthcare, but it is not a mass occurrence. When in Lithuania, we have an official respectable wage for knowledge, work, the corruption phenomenon will be reduced. However, to change such a system – is not the mission for the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences – it is beyond its scope.
 
What was the hardest in the first year as a Rector for you, maybe you have already regretted taking up the post?
Such steps are never taken without thinking in advance, thus I thought about this long and hard before making the decision to try for the position of a rector. As is everywhere, there are various issues to address – the easier ones, the more complex ones. Whilst in this post, grounded in my knowledge and experience I try to be doing as much good as possible.