July 9, 2019

Change and constancy in a time of transition


Reflections on KPWHRI’s incoming leader, the institute’s accomplishments over time, and its sustaining values

By Eric B. Larson, MD, MPH, Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute executive director, and Kaiser Permanente Washington vice president for research and health care innovation 

This summer is an exciting time of transition as we prepare to welcome Dr. Rita Mangione-Smith as Kaiser Permanente Washington’s new vice president for research and health care innovation and executive director of Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute (KPWHRI).  

After 17 years in this position, I’ll pass the baton to Rita and turn my full attention to my own research—primarily in the areas of healthy aging, prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, and pragmatic clinical trials and their implementation.

It’s a change I’m looking forward to. Rita brings great enthusiasm to her new job and tremendous experience as an organizational leader and physician/scientist. This includes skills she has honed as chief of the Division of General Pediatrics and Hospital Medicine at the University of Washington’s (UW’s) Department of Pediatrics. While there, she has served as director of its Health Services and Quality of Care Research Fellowship.  She’s also an investigator in the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. 

Rita’s proficiency at the science and practice of quality assessment and improvement is a great match for Kaiser Permanente’s strategic focus on leveraging its research to meet its mission—providing high-quality, affordable health care and improving the health of its members and the larger community.

My, how we’ve changed

As with many of life’s big transitions, this one has me thinking of all that has changed and that which remains the same.  KPWHRI has grown in so many ways over the past 17 years.  We have a much larger faculty and staff than we did in 2002, administering a portfolio of research projects that has increased from $12 million in annual revenues to over $50 million. 

We have also expanded the scope of our research, giving increasing attention to social determinants of health and adding programs that address emerging issues such as opioid overuse and the prevention of firearm injuries and suicide. We’ve vastly grown our research in vaccines, drug safety, aging, and treatments for obesity. We continue to learn more about ways to improve cancer screening and care for chronic illness. We’re doing increasingly more work in mHealth and other information technologies, finding ways to more affordably reach patients with effective treatments.  We’ve also learned to work more efficiently and effectively with our partners in the health care delivery system, developing a Learning Health System Program that merges research capabilities with the needs of care delivery to improve everyday patient care.

With our growth, we’ve recruited an amazing cadre of talented new faculty and staff members who bring new skills and new attitudes. I’m impressed by how this new generation of researchers embraces big data resources, new technologies, and new research methods, including pragmatic trials and implementation science, always advancing our unique scientific capabilities.

Getting stronger through solid values

At the same time, one of my greatest satisfactions comes from observing that which has not changed at the Institute over the past 17 years. From day one, I’ve been proud and grateful to work among some the most socially responsible, mission-driven people one could meet. Through the years, our institute has continued to attract people who consciously choose a career in science to serve the greater good.  They see the value of working at a public-interest research institute that’s embedded in real-world health care—a place squarely focused on helping everyday people live healthier lives. That dedicated spirit appears to be growing, particularly among newer faculty and staff who take seriously our commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion—both in our workforce and in our research. Their expressed concern for improving access, affordability, and quality of health care for all people seems especially cogent as our society grapples with issues of income disparity, homelessness, discrimination, and other social problems that can adversely affect people’s health and well-being.

Watching the news, it’s easy to feel discouraged and overwhelmed by challenges we confront in our community, nation, and world.  There is an antidote: working alongside people who have the skills and commitment to discover solutions and implement them, turning challenges into opportunities. Come August, we’ll have Dr. Rita Mangione-Smith at the helm to lead us.

As for me, I’ll be moving my office from the 16th floor to the 12th floor, where I’ll focus on my ongoing research programs. With our nation’s population aging, society faces unparalleled challenges in caring for older people. As scientists, we have unprecedented resources available from the National Institutes of Health and others to find new ways to reduce the burden of illness and disability in old age by advancing research on brain health, Alzheimer’s disease, late-in-life care, and more. Our team has also emerged as leaders in pragmatic trials and their implementation—an area of growing opportunities. I’m optimistic about the value of this work, involving my Kaiser Permanente colleagues, UW collaborators, and others around the country and world. The end of one journey marks the beginning of another—with boundless possibilities ahead.   

So, I look forward to our continued work together under our new leadership and guided by our constant commitment to highest quality science, public service, and our mission to improve health and health care for all.

--  Eric

P.S. I’m also looking forward to having more time to spend with my wife Teresa, our growing cadre of grandchildren, and our backyard farmette.

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