Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Harvard Cut Money for Primary Care "Step-Child"

This story, about cuts in the funding for Harvard Medical School's minimal program in primary care, has received little attention in the US. I was alerted to an article about it in the Harvard Crimson by a news article in the British Medical Journal that was picked up by Medscape.

Here are the main points, from the Crimson article,
Harvard Medical School has suspended funding for its Primary Care Division as part of a broader departmental restructuring effort, prompting students and faculty to circulate a petition calling on HMS Dean Jeffrey S. Flier to reaffirm the School's commitment to primary care education.

According to Nancy J. Tarbell, dean for academic and clinical affairs at HMS, the School had provided roughly $200,000 in funding each year to the Division. She said that the Division, which has not been disbanded but whose structure and administration is being reviewed, will remain affiliated with HMS. The Division has always been funded exclusively by the Medical School, according to HMS spokesman David J. Cameron.

'The reorganization of this division is really a narrow administrative issue,' said HMS Dean of Medical Education Jules L. Dienstag. 'It has nothing to do with the commitment of HMS to primary care, which is unchanged, undiluted, and undiminished.'

Nevertheless, as of Thursday afternoon, over 450 individuals had signed the online petition, including students, residents, faculty, and physicians from HMS and its affiliated hospitals. The petition calls for the School's administration to present a detailed plan of action for expanding institutional support despite the budget cut, expand loan forgiveness initiatives that financially enable students to pursue primary care specialties, support efforts to strengthen primary care in a reformed national health care system, and solicit and implement proposals from the HMS community to improve primary care education.

The Division was previously part of the HMS-HPHC jointly administered Department of Ambulatory Care and Prevention (DACP), which Tarbell said was recently restructured and renamed as the Department of Population Medicine and placed solely under HPHC's administrative purview in order to better reflect its core research and teaching activities.

Tarbell, who seemed unclear about what actual services were provided by the Division, said that the HMS administration is conducting a 'comprehensive review' of the its programs and that the Division has historically been 'relatively small.'

'When you look at [HMS's primary care initiatives] as a whole, at the big picture, you can't make the argument that funding has decreased for primary care training at HMS,' Tarbell said, adding that the school is expanding its funding this year for a required third-year medical clerkship from $600,000 to $800,000.

But despite administrators' reassurances that primary care education remains a top priority at the Medical School, some students and faculty maintain that the cut sends a negative message about the School's priorities, which they say have traditionally centered on specialty medicine and research. And the petition expressed concern about the future of outreach activities previously coordinated by the Division, including a Primary Care Mentorship Program, if funding or a Divisional home were to be eliminated.

'Primary care, from the perspective of the Medical School, was sort of a stepchild [in the past], and not much was done to provide students with information about primary care careers or to connect them with role models in primary care,' said Susan Edgman-Levitan, executive director at The John D. Stoeckle Center for Primary Care Innovation.

'Harvard's goal has always been to create leaders in medicine, with regards to basic science and new developing fields. Primary care has never really been a major emphasis, although I think on a global basis, Harvard has put a major emphasis on reaching out to the rest of the world,' said Martin P. Solomon, an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the Brigham. 'People like Jim Kim and Paul Farmer are all very important and have had an enormous impact on primary care worldwide, but in our own backyard, Harvard has had very little impact. [Primary care] is not ... glamorous....'

Indicating where the medical school's priorities lie, during the month in which the cuts were announced, Dean Flier took the time to open, and thereby endorse the meeting of ACRE (the Association of Clinical Researchers and Educators). The grandiosely named group promotes unrestricted financial relationships among medical academics and health care corporations, and dismisses those concerned with the effects of these relationships (see our posts here and here).

It is true that the cuts in primary care occurred at a time of general belt-tightening, due to the sudden decline in the value of Harvard University's endowment. However, as reported in a muck-raking article in Vanity Fair by Nina Munk, even the reduced endowment is still the largest of any university in the US.

Furthermore, primary care generated relatively small costs to the university. However, as reported by Vanity Fair, the current financial crisis was generated on the University's tremendous building binge during the years the endowment seemed like it would grow forever:

... the university is facing the onerous financial consequences of over-building. Consider this: Over the 20-year period from 1980 to 2000, Harvard University added nearly 3.2 million square feet of new space to its campus. But that’s nothing compared with the extravagance that followed. So far this decade, from 2000 through 2008, Harvard has added another 6.2 million square feet of new space, roughly equal to the total number of square feet occupied by the Pentagon. All across campus, one after another, new academic buildings have shot up. The price of these optimistic new projects: a breathtaking $4.3 billion.

The University also rewarded the managers of the endowment with pay sufficient to make them very rich.

By the early 2000s, Harvard’s top moneymen were making as much as $30 million to $40 million a year. Finally, in 2003, seven members of Harvard’s class of 1969 wrote a strong letter of protest to the university’s president, Larry Summers. They spoke out loudly, publicly, informing any member of the media who would listen that compensation at Harvard Management Company was 'obscene.'

At other American universities, where investing money for the institution is regarded as a kind of public service, Harvard’s swagger raised deep suspicion. 'Harvard became a bunch of mercenaries,' the chief investment officer of another big private university told me.

Most of these managers decamped, taking the money with them, before the endowment value crashed.

By 2005, Jack Meyer had had enough. After 15 years at Harvard Management Company, frustrated by the circular fights about compensation, and sick of justifying himself to Summers and Rubin, he walked out and started his own giant hedge fund. Shamelessly, he took many of Harvard Management Company’s best people with him, about 30 portfolio managers and traders, along with the chief risk officer, chief operating officer, and chief technology officer. Harvard’s trading floor was decimated.

No one in the current or past Harvard leadership has yet been held accountable for the overspending that seemed predicated on the absurd (at least in retrospect) assumption that the endowment would continue to grow indefinitely.

At some point in the last five years, the men and women who run Harvard convinced themselves that the endowment would grow at double-digit rates forever. If Harvard were a publicly traded company, those people would have been fired by now.

Because of the case of the Harvard endowment, the US Internal Revenue service is reportedly investigating how university endowments were run (e.g., see Reuters).

But meanwhile, primary care, already a step-child, was cut.

The case of primary care at Harvard shows how the leadership of academia, and academic medicine in particular, has become entranced by the glamorous, the glitzy, the high-tech, and the prospects of wealth to be made by their pursuit, while neglecting the core academic and health care missions that are the reasons for the existence of universities and medical schools.

No wonder US health care is in a crisis. Those who want meaningful health care reform should find a way to push academic medicine to uphold its mission rather than enrich and glamorize its leaders, and to allow health care professionals to reaffirm their professionalism (regardless of past interpretations of US anti-trust law to the contrary).

ADDENDUM (5 August, 2009) - see more comments on Harvard's failed governance here on the ACTA Blog.


Anonymous said...

What's going on with medicine, and it's absence of its importance progressively in the U.S., doc?

Kris Newby said...

The Vanity Fair article on Harvard's mismanagement of their endowment is a good read, and quite shocking. It's definitely worth reading on the beach. Harvard's going to have to make cuts everywhere to survive.