Since the 1960s, the U.S. government has relied heavily on academic health centers to solve society’s health care woes: from training the next generation of doctors and nurses, to leading the research that cures disease and providing equitable health care to the community.
McKnight Land-Grant professor Dominique Tobbell studies the social, political and economic history of the American health care industry. Her current project examines the relationship of academic health centers in the United States with the communities they serve, and their impact on health care policy.
“I’m interested in the tensions that characterize academic health centers, as they not only juggle the needs of their faculty and their students against those of the state, but also federal pressures,” says Tobbell.
Telling lost stories
The untold stories of the University of Minnesota could occupy volumes, and Tobbell is working to capture many of those stories. In addition to her other research, she serves as oral historian for the Academic Health Center History Project. As part of the project, she’s compiling a history as told by the people who make the center great.
To get a varied perspective on the AHC, Tobbell has interviewed former and current faculty, staff and students. One of the interviewees earned her degree from the School of Nursing in 1929, and others trained at the U of M in the ’40s and ’50s.
“We don’t always get to hear about the faculty who are going about their jobs very well, who work with patients and do important research. I get to talk with the people who don’t have such a prominent voice.”
A scientist, a writer and a fighter
Growing up in England, Tobbell was curious about science and showed great potential as a writer. At 16 years old, a story she wrote about synthetic hemoglobin earned her the runner-up prize in a national science writing competition sponsored by the Daily Telegraph.
After beginning her career doing bench science for AstraZeneca, she veered away from the typically drawn-out practice of experiments, and rediscovered her appreciation for the overarching concepts and their historical context.
“I love to shed light on contemporary problems by using history.”
Students and colleagues are often surprised to learn Tobbell’s field of research even exists. Nonetheless, she hopes her work will ultimately improve the quality and availability of health care in the U.S.
“I want to get a better sense of how academic health centers tend to dominate the health care landscape. They have benefited but also constrained the development of affordable and accessible care to citizens.”
When she’s not grappling with complex health care issues, Tobbell is grappling at the gym. She trains, coaches and competes in judo and holds the rank of second-degree black belt. Watch out, world.
When asked about the future of academic health centers, Tobbell points to the following trends:
Rural reach: The U of M will continue to play an important role in providing health care to rural Minnesotans.
Economic impact: AHCs will play a huge role in economic development by generating startups, collaborating with industry, and developing tomorrow’s health care technology.
Changing workforce: If the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented, there will be greater demand for primary care professionals — and it will be more important that AHCs design their education programs to meet the biggest needs of society.
Portrait by Richard Anderson; slideshow by Andria Peters