The Beginning of the Department

In 1988, the administration of Harvard Medical School created a new department devoted to health care policy based on the belief that the field was becoming more relevant to physicians at all stages of their careers as well as to policymakers who valued information from both social scientists and physicians.

This was the first department of its kind, and there was no roadmap to follow. In this new department, physicians and social scientists were on equal footing, taught and conducted research together, were located in the same physical space, and had the same chances for academic advancement. Since our founding, approximately fifteen other medical schools have established academic departments, centers, or divisions devoted to research and education in health care policy.

The Department of Health Care Policy has appointed 1,200 faculty and staff since July 1, 1988. It all started with our four founders: Barbara J. McNeilJoseph P. NewhousePaul D. Cleary, and Arnold M. Epstein. Over the next six years, six more core faculty members were added: David BlumenthalSusan EttnerConstantine GatsonisEdward GuadagnoliCarl Morris, and Sharon-Lise Normand.

The combined expertise of our original faculty and later recruits allowed us to study important policy areas related to health care costs, patient outcomes, clinical effectiveness, and technology assessment. Faculty in the new department, along with colleagues from other institutions, organized its first collaborative research project, one of the first patient outcomes research teams on acute myocardial infarction. This grant provided a model for research that has continued to this day: multidisciplinary groups that have a statistician, a physician, one or more social scientists, and outside co-investigators.

Those at the inaugural celebration of the department, “Health Care in the ’90s: The Impending Revolution”, listened to a talk titled “Financing Health Care: A View from the White House,” from William Roper, then deputy assistant for domestic policy and director of the White House Office of Policy Development. Joseph Califano, former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (now Health and Human Services), presented his viewpoints in “America’s Health Care Revolution: The Doctor as a Revolutionary.” Their remarks were prescient. A recording of the symposium can be viewed here.

 Our work has continued to emphasize collaborations with groups inside and outside of Harvard while conducting research that has immediate policy relevance. Large grants spanning several years have allowed us to recruit talented social scientists and physician-researchers. The department has created eight endowed professorships: the Margaret T. Morris professorship, the McNeil Family Professorship, the Leonard D. Schaeffer Professorship, the Ruth L. Newhouse Professorship, the Warren Alpert Foundation Professorship, the 30th Anniversary Professorship, the S. James Adelstein Professorship, and the Daniel C. Tosteson Professorship. These endowments will help solidify our base for years to come.

Our department has become a pivotal component of education for medical and graduate students in the health policy doctoral program. More than 350 students have received or are pursuing doctoral degrees in health care policy through the department. Thousands of medical students get their first introduction to health policy through our courses and grants program.