May 28, 2011

Now’s the time: Award and endowment hail Dr. Wagner’s lifework

This week, Group Health Research Institute (GHRI) applauds two remarkable honors for Dr. Ed Wagner, our Institute’s founding director (1983–1998) who now heads GHRI’s MacColl Institute for Healthcare Innovation.

  • Ed was chosen to receive the 2011 William B. Graham Prize, the highest national recognition for health services researchers. (Among previous winners are Princeton’s Uwe Reinhardt, Dartmouth’s John Wennberg, Stanford’s Alain Enthoven, University of British Columbia’s Bob Evans, and Don Berwick, founder of the Institute for Health Improvement and acting leader of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.)
  • The Group Health Foundation and GHRI launched the Ed Wagner Endowment for Health Care Transformation. The fund will support translation of GHRI research into everyday practice, initially emphasizing projects supporting “safety-net” providers—caring for the poor and uninsured.

This recognition for Ed and his work—particularly development and dissemination of the Chronic Care Model (CCM) and the research that supports it—couldn’t be timelier. Medical advances now let populations live longer. Rather than dying early from acute infectious diseases, heart disease, or cancer, more people survive to old age. That’s a triumph, but what remains is the need for chronic illness care. About half of Americans over 65, our population’s fastest-growing segment, have at least two chronic conditions, like diabetes, arthritis, depression, or dementia. Today’s challenge is that our health care system seems best suited to care for acute or episodic illness and not the care of people with chronic diseases. So treatment for ongoing conditions is often fragmented, inefficient, and costlier than necessary.

Ed and his colleagues began research that ultimately led to developing the Chronic Care Model at Group Health in the early 1990s. Early studies into care for frail seniors and for patients with diabetes and other chronic conditions was formative. Then, in 1999, Ed received a large grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to begin a program known as “Improving Chronic Illness Care.” The goal was to refine and disseminate the CCM to health care organizations nationwide. Now the CCM is recognized globally as the premier design principle for chronic care.

The CCM is also the cornerstone of the patient-centered medical home, a redesign of primary care that integrates patients as active participants in their own health and provides care that is accessible, continuous, coordinated, and comprehensive. The CCM and the medical home are part of The Affordable Care Act, and both Democratic and Republican proposals would harness them to streamline Medicare.

Meanwhile, Ed and his team at MacColl are improving primary care for Medicaid populations nationwide. In the Commonwealth Fund-sponsored Safety Net Medical Home Initiative, MacColl and Qualis Health are helping 65 practices that serve the poor and uninsured set up medical homes and develop sustainable funding.

We established the Ed Wagner Endowment to support more of the kind of critical work that defines Ed’s career. Believers in Group Health’s capacity to foster innovation through research can contribute to the fund to give back to the organization while strengthening our communities and helping those most in need.

It’s also a way to honor a great colleague and mentor. No one can count how many lives Ed’s research has touched. And as GHRI’s founding director and University of Washington Professor of Health Services, Ed has encouraged many young health scientists who went on to build their own influential research programs.

Through his leadership as a founder of the HMO Research Network and the Cancer Research Network, Ed has helped establish a highly valued nationwide platform for pragmatic research based in the “real world” of integrated health systems.

Through his scholarship with the Institute of Medicine, he contributed to its 2000 landmark report, “Crossing the Quality Chasm,” and helped document the problems of our nation’s broken system of health care financing.

A few months ago, Ed announced his plans to step down as director of the MacColl Institute, preparing the way for the next generation of leadership. Luckily for all of us, he will continue his research as senior scientist at MacColl.

Now, as “everything’s comin’ up Wagner,” please join me—and countless enthusiasts—in honoring him and his transformational approach to American health care.

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