April 10, 2009

Jacobson reflects on his time at Med Center helm

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Harry Jacobson, M.D., is retiring in June as Vanderbilt’s vice chancellor for Health Affairs. (photo by Joe Howell)

Jacobson reflects on his time at Med Center helm

Last week Harry Jacobson, M.D., sat down with staff writer Bill Snyder to reflect on the past 12 years that he has served as Vanderbilt's vice chancellor for Health Affairs. Jacobson, 61, who will retire in June, has been a part of the Vanderbilt faculty since 1985. As the chief of Nephrology, he led that division into the top ranks in America. He was appointed Vice Chancellor in 1997, and in little more than a decade presided over an unprecedented growth in its clinical operations, expansion of its research influence and rise in its national prominence. He leaves Vanderbilt with a powerful legacy of excellence and in a strong position to lead the nation in health care innovation.

Why have you decided to retire now?

I am ready to begin the next chapter in my life, one in which I can hopefully apply my passion and commitment to influence health care. This was a tough decision because this Medical Center is such an exciting place. There are many smart and dedicated people who aspire to make a real difference in the lives of others.

(photo by Susan Urmy)

(photo by Susan Urmy)

What are your goals for the next decade?

I have several. First, I want to spend more time with my family. The last nearly 13 years, while enormously rewarding, have also been very demanding of my time. Jan and I now have seven grandchildren, and hopefully more to come. Second, I plan to use my experience and knowledge of health care to continue to advise Vanderbilt, and also to help others to be successful in their efforts to innovate and improve health care. I suspect this will mean working with entrepreneurs and forward-thinking innovative companies and institutions. Finally, I want to work to have my faith have a greater influence on how I actually spend my time and efforts.

How have you come to that?

This last year has been a wake-up call for so many across the world … our value systems have gotten off track. I think we have lost our way a bit, and over the next decade I see that we really need to reach out more to help others and need to focus more on friends and family. My talents are in science, health care and business. I intend to use them to do as much good as possible.

(photo by Susan Urmy)

(photo by Susan Urmy)

Would it be fair to say the events of the last 18 months have shaken your faith in capitalism and the markets?

No. I'm a strong believer in capitalism. I'm a strong believer in the markets. But I think that bad decisions … can lead to bad results. The subprime mortgage mess, excess leverage, complex derivative investments — all are examples of bad decisions we all would like to revisit.

Has your position as vice chancellor gotten in the way of living your faith?

Oh, no, no, no. I believe the way I've approached my job is that I deal with people no matter who they are … with respect for the individual, empathy, sensitivity and gratitude. And I think that is something that is reasonably well developed in the Medical Center, something that I would love to see continue and strengthen.

Chancellor Zeppos has said that you will serve in some capacity as his counselor.

I'm very committed to doing that to the extent that he wants to call on me … The other area where I might be helpful is around technology transfer and entrepreneurial activities at the university … I certainly want to maintain my involvement with the health care MBA, and I teach a course on entrepreneurship in health care.

What do you consider your greatest achievements as vice chancellor?

I wouldn't want to characterize any of them as my achievements. These are Medical Center achievements that I've been fortunate to be a part of … I've always said that the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital may very well be the most significant achievement because of the hundreds of thousands of lives it affects … I think another is the movement of our culture to one of service to each other and service to our patients, our students and our community. And so the whole people and service component of our elevate program I think has been really, really important. I think that our commitment to quality, to evidence-based medicine, to health care information technology, and how those three have to work together to improve health care – I think it's a great achievement for this Medical Center that we're actually a leader in those areas.  And then of course, the other thing I think is a great achievement is the gathering of so many talented people here, not just the faculty but also the staff. We have many wonderful and talented people with the right values. And then last are the things that you can measure, like the growth in the budget and the growth in NIH funding and the growth in the rankings. Some people may immediately jump to those as evidence of great accomplishments, and they are, but they're just indicators of the other things I've talked about.

(photo by Susan Urmy)

(photo by Susan Urmy)

Do you have regrets?

I think one regret that I do have is that I may have been a bit too consumed by my work at Vanderbilt and not had enough balance in my life, especially to connect to my family in a better way. It's not that we don't have a close family. We do, actually. But I'm looking forward to it being even closer. I regret that we haven't been able to find a way to be less competitive and more collaborative in health care in Nashville.

Where do you see the Medical Center going in the next 10 years? What should we be concerned about?

I think the Medical Center is very well positioned. Certainly I believe that both the academic and the clinical missions are in excellent shape. I do believe that the goals of Vision 2020, which are largely to increase our impact, will still be what motivate this Medical Center. I know that my successor, Jeff Balser, is well prepared to lead and, as one of the architects of Vision 2020, will take what we have all built together and make great things happen.
I think in the short term we have to get through this economic crisis facing the country and … we need to make sure that we have the financial strength to move forward when the time is right to … make some significant new investments. I think one concern that we should have is the role of government as a purchaser of health care and what that means with respect to health care reform. Health care reform shouldn't be just to limit the money that the government has to pay. The way to limit spending is to take a look at how we are actually delivering health care and how we change that so the amount of money we need is less: Have health care reform drive how much money is needed, as opposed to having how much you can spend drive health care reform.

What do you want to say to Medical Center employees?

The first thing I want to say is thank you. I have been honored and proud to be the Vice Chancellor. Further, each and every one here needs to stay committed to what they're doing, as well as committed to each other. Vanderbilt is a special place.