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Tufts Public Health

School of Medicine Dean to Retire

Harris Berman “has that physician’s capability of being really thoughtful, of listening carefully, of caring,” said Michael Wagner, former head of Tufts Medical Center. “He would take those skills as a healer and apply them as a leader.” Photo: Kelvin Ma
Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Tufts University School of Medicine Dean Harris Berman will step down from his post at the end of the year. The managed-care pioneer and former chief executive of Tufts Health Plan will continue at the university on a part-time basis, fundraising for the medical school and university and training academic leadership in development.

In his time at the medical school, Berman has championed curriculum improvements, ushered in a new anatomy lab and other learning spaces, guided the development of a unique training program for rural doctors in Maine, and was actively involved in fundraising, which last year saw gifts of $37 million, the largest one-year total in the school’s history.

While a search for a new dean is underway, Vice Dean Peter Bates will serve as interim dean. Before joining the Tufts School of Medicine this summer, Bates was senior vice president of academic affairs and chief academic officer at Maine Medical Center.

Bates and Berman worked together on one of Berman’s proudest accomplishments at Tufts: launching the Maine Track Program. Berman recognized that rural areas in Maine have trouble attracting and retaining physicians, limiting patients’ access to care. So, in collaboration with Maine Medical Center, Berman led the development of a training track geared toward students interested in rural medicine with the goal of creating a pipeline of new physicians who would settle in Maine. Introduced in 2008, the program serves “a part of New England that needed help, in a very innovative way,” Berman said. “It was a real turning point for Tufts.”

Bates said the outgoing dean’s intelligence, judgment, and collaborative nature were instrumental to the initiative’s success. “He has accomplished so much in his career, yet is so humble, and is always focused on the goals of the school and its partners,” Bates said.

Berman also oversaw the decommissioning of the old anatomy lab. “Not only was it crowded, but there were air circulators that were so noisy, you could barely hear yourself think,” Berman said. A new, state-of-the-art lab, made possible by a gift from the Jaharis Family Foundation, opened in 2017, doubling the space and incorporating cutting-edge technology that “really transformed the way we teach anatomy,” Berman said.

One of his cherished moments was watching the class who had taken the first half of their anatomy course in the old lab return from winter break to finish their course in the new space. “They truly appreciated the change,” he said.

Berman has held influential positions in his career, but his favorite job was his first one: a Peace Corps physician. It was there, coordinating the care for doctors throughout the corps’ network in India, that his outlook on medicine took shape.

When Berman expressed concern that India did not have the facilities for taking care of very ill patients, a local health official set him straight. “He said, ‘Look, young man, in America you have plenty of money to take care of patients. The few rupees we have to spend on health care we spend on prevention,’” Berman remembered. That conversation stuck with Berman. “It was the best education I ever had on the importance of prevention and public health,” he said.  

Berman attended Harvard College and earned his M.D. from Columbia in 1964. After completing his internship and an infectious disease fellowship at Tufts Medical Center (then called Tufts-New England Medical Center), Berman and four other physicians decided to open a health clinic in Nashua, New Hampshire. Their approach was novel. They would charge their patients a flat fee each year, even if they had to see specialists. Although the term had yet to be coined, the model was essentially an HMO. They called it the Matthew Thornton Health Plan, after a New Hampshire doctor and politician who signed the Declaration of Independence. Specialists worked closely with internists, helping keep down costs.

“We eventually convinced all the other multispecialty group practices in the state to join us,” Berman said. “We really did start a revolution.”

When Berman left Matthew Thorton in 1986, it had 50,000 patients and was the second largest insurer in New Hampshire. From there, he joined Tufts Health Plan as its chief executive. He led the company for seventeen years, growing it from 60,000 members to more than one million.

Jon Kingsdale, then the senior vice president for planning at Tufts Health Plan, cited the way Berman decided which Medicare preferred plan for seniors the company should adopt. After six months of careful research, the staff had narrowed it to two choices, but could not decide between them. “‘Well, it’s obvious,’ Berman said. ‘This plan has integrity, and this one doesn’t, so let’s go with this one,’” Kingsdale remembered.

Integrity is central to every Berman decision, agreed James Roosevelt, who succeeded him as chief executive at Tufts Health Plan. “The message that Harris always communicates, both in action and words, is do the right thing,” Roosevelt said.

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker was the chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare when Berman was at Tufts Health Plan. He called Berman a “friendly rival,” but also a mentor. “Harris was an innovator and a leader in every way,” Baker said. “His leadership in every role he has ever had has been outstanding, and his commitment to improving health care for everyone has been long lasting and steadfast.”

Berman was able to see medicine’s bigger picture and see it clearly. Atul Gawande, the surgeon and bestselling author who reports extensively on health care as a New Yorker staff writer, found a rare resource in Berman. “He was one of the first people who ran an insurance company who could tell me what was wrong with the insurance system,” Gawande said. “When I was grappling with what is wrong with the way we train people to be physicians, he would be the first to acknowledge this isn’t the way it should be.”

After leaving the insurance industry, Berman joined the School of Medicine administration as chair of the Department of Public Health and Family Medicine in 2003. Then sixty-five years old, he planned to ease into retirement. It didn’t turn out that way. He showed up every day for his part-time post and soon figured out that the department felt like a distant cousin to the rest of the medical school, which focused on training physicians.

“I can fix it,” Berman told the dean, Michael Rosenblatt, “but I need to have the authority to be responsible for it.” Thus Berman became the school’s first dean of Public Health and Professional Degree Programs.

By better integrating public health into the rest of the school, “we are sending a very clear message to our medical students and our public health students that you’ve got to work together,” Berman said. “Medical doctors need to understand public health diseases and get involved in their communities, and public health people need to be able to deal with doctors.”

Berman continued to—in his words—"flunk retirement.” He became vice dean of the medical school, and in 2009, when Rosenblatt left to take a job in industry, stepped in as interim dean. “I had no idea I would be dean for ten years,” Berman said.

As dean, he helped reinforce the bond between the school and Tufts Medical Center. Michael Wagner, the former chief executive at the hospital, said Berman was always available to talk. “He has that physician’s capability of being really thoughtful, of listening carefully, of caring,” Wagner said. “He would take those skills as a healer and apply them as a leader.”

And it is the patience and trust he shows as a leader, his colleagues at the medical school say, that allowed them to flourish. He respects everyone on his team, said Naomi Rosenberg, dean emerita of the Sackler School. “That is a pretty amazing thing, because I’m not sure you can say that about many people and really mean it,” she said. “He might not always agree with you, but he always supported you. That’s true whether you were doing something easy or something that was incredibly hard. And we worked on both kinds of things.”

“No matter what Harris did,” she said, “he did it with the best interests of the school in mind.”