Fisher Awarded the John E. Wennberg Distinguished Professorship

Elliott Fisher, MD, MPH, has been named the inaugural holder of the John E. Wennberg Distinguished Professorship at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine. Internationally known for his research and writings about health care systems and policy, Fisher directs The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice, founded by John “Jack” Wennberg in 1988, at the Geisel School of Medicine.

"This is a wonderful and fitting honor for Elliott Fisher as he continues Jack Wennberg’s legacy of excellence and innovation in research and education through the application of rigorous epidemiologic methods in health-care delivery,” said Duane Compton, Interim Dean of the Geisel School of Medicine.

The John E. Wennberg Distinguished Professorship was made possible by the generosity of 26 donors, who together gave $5 million to establish the endowed professorship. Distinguished professorships are the highest honor awarded to faculty members. They provide a stable source of funding to enable senior professors to pursue their passions in research, teaching, and other academic activities.

“I’m incredibly honored and humbled to receive this professorship,” said Fisher, who co-directs the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care and is a Professor of Medicine and of Community and Family Medicine at Geisel. “Jack has been a mentor, a collaborator, and the single greatest influence on my career.”

Forty years ago, Dr. Jack Wennberg and Dr. Alan Gittelsohn published the seminal article on geographic variations in health care in the journal Science.  Their paper revealed that much of what doctors do was based less on science than on professional opinion and the capacity of the local health-care system.  The questions raised by Wennberg’s early findings established the research agenda for a generation of investigators and led Health Affairs to name Wennberg the most important health services researcher of the last 25 years. (For more on Wennberg’s legacy, read From Pariah to Pioneer.)

One of those questions was whether one should assume that more health care means better care.  It was Fisher who, three decades after the Science paper was published, showed that the greater-than-two-fold differences in spending across U.S. regions could not be explained by differences in health status or patient preferences.  And, more importantly, he demonstrated convincingly that higher spending was largely due to greater use of discretionary services, such as potentially avoidable hospital stays, and that greater use of these services was not associated with better quality or outcomes. Fisher’s research was the first to show that up to 30 percent of U.S. health-care spending was being wasted on potentially unnecessary care.

“I first read about Jack’s research on geographic variations in health-care spending and outcomes when I was a medical student at Harvard,” said Fisher. “Even then, I knew he was asking really important questions about health care. When I finished my training, I felt incredibly lucky to join the Dartmouth faculty and have a chance to collaborate with Jack.”

"I’m extremely proud of Elliott and very pleased that he has been appointed to the professorship named in my honor,” said Wennberg. “Under his leadership, The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice is assured a bright future--and many more important questions about health care will continue to be asked."

Fisher has been highly influential in his own right. He has developed and evaluated policies to slow the growth of health-care spending while improving quality. He is one of the originators of the Accountable Care Organization (ACO) concept and worked with colleagues to conduct research that led to the inclusion of ACOs in the Affordable Care Act. His current work focuses on exploring the determinants of successful ACO formation and performance, as well as understanding how to create successful local health systems. Fisher is also a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.

Fisher earned his undergraduate and medical degrees from Harvard University and completed his internal medicine residency and public health training at the University of Washington. He was a Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar before joining the Dartmouth faculty in 1986.