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Good medicine for all

Eric Campbell leads research that is improving health services nationwide

When Eric Campbell won a national award for the impact of his research on health care this year, some of the first people he thanked were his Ph.D. advisers at the University of Minnesota.

“To think it all started with a couple of dissertation questions,” he wrote. Today Campbell is the director of research at Mongan Institute for Health Policy in Massachusetts General Hospital and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. But when his research began in the early 1990s, he was a doctoral student in educational policy and administration, with a particular interest in academic medicine.

What kind of gifts were academic researchers getting from drug companies? he wondered. How common was it, and how often were they called upon to show any kind of support for those companies in return?

Campbell’s co-advisers were faculty members Melissa Anderson and Karen Seashore. Anderson has focused on the academic research environment in the sciences; Seashore was interested in faculty involvement in technology commercialization.

“Eric took it to a whole new level,” says Seashore, “with his concern about the effects of research-industry connections on the structure of academic science.” Figuring out how to design the study and get access to data was difficult and time-consuming, but his ingenuity, collaborative style, and patience paid off. The study showed that scientists with industry support (28 percent) were significantly more productive but also engaged in more secrecy.

Campbell’s dissertation won him a postdoctoral fellowship in Boston, where he was soon hired to help build a research institute in health policy at Massachusetts General Hospital. His study also became the first of several to benchmark and track over time the frequency, benefits, and risks of industry support in academic research. The results became evidence that helped to change policies and practices across the nation, such as the Physician Payment Sunshine Act.

The most recent studies have shown the percentage of physicians accepting medication samples, gifts from drug companies, and other industry payments has decreased significantly.

“I’m passionate about improving health care for people,” says Campbell. “My goal is to help those who make decisions about health care to do it based on scientific data, and to evaluate the impact of those decisions.”

The list of Campbell’s publications is long and testifies to his advocacy for patients, taxpayers, and payers of insurance premiums.

“We are enormously indebted to the American people,” Campbell says of the academic health care sector. “I see it as a duty to use wisely the resources the public so generously provides.”

Campbell grew up in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, and is a third-generation U of M graduate after his grandmother and his mother, a nurse. His own interest in medicine began early.

“Some families’ kids work in restaurants, some at the golf course—my siblings and I worked in hospitals,” he says. At 14, he got a job as an orderly.

That interest carried into college, although it was a bumpy ride at first. “I was a horrible student in high school and not prepared for college,” Campbell remembers. He was accepted in General College, which he considers the most important opportunity of his life. “When I got to the U, I was so thrilled to be a student there! I knew I was missing certain things and it quickly brought my skills up to where they needed to be.”

When Campbell transferred to the College of Liberal Arts as a sophomore, he immediately registered for Chemistry 1004. Surrounded by freshmen on his first day in the lab, he was overwhelmed and dropped the class.

“At the end of the day, I closed the drawer and never went back,” he says. “It was the only class I ever dropped. After that I got really good grades.” Campbell found a job assisting with an anatomy class and his career goals migrated toward education. He finished a B.A. in psychology (’90), then a master’s in adult education (’93) and a Ph.D. (’96).

“Eric realized early in his graduate study what it takes to be successful in research—he worked very hard, networked widely, kept current in the field, and has always been generous with colleagues,” co-adviser Anderson says. “He became a master researcher.”

“He finished his dissertation in almost record time,” says Seashore. “Once Eric became engaged in research, there was no stopping him.”

Campbell thought he would come back to Minnesota after the postdoc in Boston, but he quickly became immersed in building the MGH research program. The commute to work—an hour or so on the train plus a mile’s walk, each way—turned out to be a boon for writing.

“It’s perfect for a junior faculty person,” he laughs.

These days, Campbell’s job takes him around the halls of hospitals, universities, and government working on research. Physician professionalism—such as when doctors don’t tell the truth to their patients, or when they don’t report impairment or incompetence of fellow doctors—is a topic of growing interest.

Campbell comes back to Minnesota, too, not just to keep up on the health care sector. He likes to schedule family visits so he can go to the county fair and spend some time at the lake.

And one day, Campbell says, he plans to return to the U to complete Chemistry 1004 and 1005!

Read more about Eric Campbell’s work at the Mongan Institute for Health Policy and about the Health Services Research Impact Award.

Learn more about graduate programs in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development, including educational policy and administration and the higher education track.

Story by Gayla Marty | July 2012

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