Leaders in Medical Education

Leaders in Medical Education : Dr. Harris Berman, Dean of Tufts University School of Medicine

Osmosis Team
Aug 4, 2016

Harris A. Berman, MD is Dean of Tufts University School of Medicine and Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine, and Professor of Medicine. Prior to that, he was Vice Dean of the Medical School, and Dean of Public Health and Professional Degree Programs and Chair of the Department of Public Health and Family Medicine. Before coming to Tufts University he was a pioneer in the development of managed care in New England, and for 17 years, the CEO of the Tufts Health Plan.

A graduate of Harvard College and Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, Dr. Berman served as a resident on the Harvard Medical Service of Boston City Hospital and at Tufts-New England Medical Center, and an Infectious Disease fellowship at Tufts-New England Medical Center. He is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians.

How did you decide on a career in medicine?
Growing up as a kid, I always thought I wanted to be a doctor. I had an uncle who was a well-respected doctor. I also enjoyed business, and for a while, I debated back and forth between business and medicine before ultimately deciding on medicine.

What were a few key steps in your journey from an aspiring medical student to your current position as Dean of the Tufts University School of Medicine?
The first key step experience came after my internship, when I chose to join the Peace Corps. As a Peace Corps physician in the mid-1960’s, when the Peace Corps was quite new, I spent two years in India as the doctor for the Peace Corps Volunteers there. My main job was the care of the volunteers; it was a very formative experience in a number of ways. I really enjoyed practicing, but I also found that I enjoyed being a part of a management group. At the time, the Peace Corps in India was the world’s largest program, with over 1500 volunteers. However, part of the job was interacting with the other managers within the Peace Corps staff, and I found that I really enjoyed management as well. As a result, when I finished the rest of my training following my return from the Peace Corps, I decided that I wanted to practice medicine as well as run an organization. I ended up being the cofounder of the first nonprofit health maintenance organization in New Hampshire, and there I practiced medicine and served as an executive of the program. I found that I enjoyed that part as well, running the organization for fifteen years. I was then invited to come to Boston to run the Tufts Health Plan which we grew into a much larger organization. Only after being CEO of Tufts Health Plan for seventeen years did I announce that I would retire from that position and begin thinking about what I would do next. I decided academia would be a good place to finish my career. I joined the medical school as the Chair of Public Health and Family Medicine, and eventually found myself the Dean!

What is the greatest difference between the clinical side of medicine and the administrative side?
In the clinical side, you receive the opportunities to help people directly, which is very satisfying, and yet on the administrative side you have the opportunity of affect the lives of many more people as opposed to just individuals in a clinical practice.

What does an "average" day look like for you?
Filled with meetings; one-on-ones in office, group meetings with my team of administrators at the medical school, and many meetings with alumni and donors, since a large part of a Dean’s job is raising money.

What was/were the most memorable experience(s) during your medical education?
I trained a long time ago, in the 1960s. At that time, medicine was taught by intimidation, and it was not uncommon for professors to really try to scare students into learning. When I came to Boston for my internship here at Tufts, I was surprised at what a different atmosphere and approach was taken; it was a much more student-friendly approach. I suspect this has probably changed for the better at ,any medical schools, so that students can enjoy learning the tremendous amount of material they have to learn in medical school.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing physicians today?
For one, I think it is very different for young physicians than it is for older physicians when dealing with technology. Electronic medical records have been a major problem, and to some extent, it contributes to the burnout seen in some older physicians because they find the task of using electronic medical records too odious and burdensome. On the other hand, I think that young physicians are appalled to find that some physicians are still using paper records. Obviously, using computers comes much more easily to young people than it does to older people. I think for young physicians, the challenge is quite different. I think that they find that there are so many opportunities to use their medical education for startup businesses or to help develop technology, or to do things other than practice medicine. There is some danger of creating a workforce that will not take care of patients.

In a time where technology is rapidly advancing and there is a push toward “precision medicine” initiatives and moving medical records to electronic databases, how can we best streamline this process while keeping in mind patient privacy?
Some will just happen. Technology is moving very quickly. It will improve because physicians will try to fight it and make it better and because technology just improves, period. One of the things we can do is look for technology and applications being successfully used in other industries and adapt those to medicine and health care. An interesting example I heard of recently was a group of physicians in Houston using the same software restaurants use -- “Open Table” -- to book appointments online.

There is an enormous debate these days as to whether resources should be primarily allocated to fighting diseases or the distal causes of diseases. What are your thoughts on this issue of proximal causes versus distal causes?
Prevention is always better than treatment; we really should be devoting more resources to prevent diseases rather than waiting for the disease to progress to point where it is so costly to treat.

What are most the important facets of an undergraduate’s application to medical school from an admissions perspective?
I think the face to face interview is the most important part, with the interviewer keeping in mind the question, “Would I want to have this person as my doctor?” Obviously, accomplishment in undergraduate studies is important, but once we are sure that the student has the adequate intellectual capacity, we want to make sure to foster doctors who have the right temperament and personality to be caring physicians.

How do you foresee medical education changing in the next few years?
I think that technology will advance and we will teach students in ways that we can’t even fathom yet. When you think of the technology that is enabled with the iPhone or with an iPad nowadays, and that we could not have even imagined a mere ten years ago, I’ve stopped trying to predict what technology will do. I expect that wonderful things will happen from it, and that it will affect medical education for the better.