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Many Paths, One Destination

Many Paths, One DestinationDr. Harris Berman, newly appointed vice dean of academic and clinical affairs for Tufts School of Medicine, looks back at his many paths in the field of medicine.

Boston [09.22.08] Harris Berman, M.D., has one piece of advice for those looking to map out the rest of their lives-don't overplan.

"If you ask people who are doing interesting things with their lives how they got there, they'll always starts with, 'Well, it's a funny story,'" Berman says.

This rings true in his own life and his recent appointment as vice dean of academic and clinical affairs at Tufts School of Medicine. The position is the culmination of more than four decades of working in both the trenches of the developing world and in the executive suites and boardrooms of health care organizations.

Berman came to Tufts in 2003 after retiring as CEO of Tufts Health Plan, a not-for-profit regional HMO founded in 1979 by dean emeritus of the School of Medicine, Morton Madoff, M.D. He was brought on by then-Tufts School of Medicine Dean John Harrington as the chairman of the department of family medicine and community health, (now known as the department of public health and family medicine), a role he has since passed on to former Vice Chair Aviva Must, Ph.D., with assistance from now-Associate Chair Christine Wanke, M.D.

Since coming to the medical school, Berman has helped set up international summer programs for students in India, East Africa and Central America, where they not only see patients but also gain experience in how health care is managed in small villages.

Berman's interest in international medicine was sparked by his involvement with the Peace Corps in the 1960s. At the time, Berman had just finished making his first mark on the Tufts community, interning in 1964 at what was then the Tufts-New England Medical Center. After a year of interning, he switched gears and headed to India, where he spent two years as a Peace Corps doctor.

"The Peace Corps used to send young doctors to the countries where they had volunteers, and our job was primarily to take care of them," Berman says. "By the mid '60s, the Peace Corps was at its largest, and when I went in there were 15,000 volunteers around the world, 10 percent of whom were in India. We were the world's largest Peace Corps program."

Stationed in New Delhi, Berman's work entailed running an area clinic for volunteers as well as traveling the country and making arrangements with local hospitals and selected physicians to ensure that volunteers would be taken care of within their communities.

"It was a fabulous job, and it changed my life in a number of ways," Berman says. "First of all, it got me interested in infectious diseases-that's what we saw in India and what I saw a lot of-so I came back and did a fellowship in that, and became a specialist. It was also how I got into public health."

In addition to pinning down a specialty, Berman says he was able to play the role of a manager, realizing he liked the administrative side of medicine. This interest led him to his position as co-founder of one of New England's first staff-model non-profit HMOs, the Matthew Thornton Health Plan in New Hampshire, named after a physician who was one of the state's signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Returning from the Peace Corps and finishing his residency, Berman had begun to think about what he would do when his work was complete when he ran into fellow resident Dr. James W. Squires, who was at a similar crossroads.

"We started talking, and he said he was thinking about going back to New Hampshire and starting a group practice, with the hopes of financing it the way Kaiser Permanente does," Berman recalls, referring to the managed health care organization. "No one was doing that in New England yet-having some sort of prepaid mechanism so that when people came you would know that everything was taken care of and you know they could afford whatever you needed to do."

At the time, Berman was in the process of trying to pull together ex-Peace Corps doctors to form a local practice in the U.S. with projects overseas. Being in the beginning stages of his process, and seeing Squires' ideas aligning with some of his own, Berman decided to join him in his efforts.

"Over the next two years we started this non-profit, gaining interest from a number of community leaders who became the board of directors, and we got a New Hampshire bank to finance a building," Berman says. "As soon as I finished training, the next day I moved up there, we started construction on the building and five months later we were in business."

Berman stayed in New Hampshire working for the Matthew Thornton Health Plan until 1986, when he became CEO of Tufts Health Plan. In his 17 years with the company, Berman says he "helped it grow from 50,000 members to over one million."

In his new role at Tufts School of Medicine, which officially began in July, Berman will be working to help maintain the strong relationships the school has with its various teaching hospitals, as well as developing its new relationship with the Maine Medical Center in Portland.

Berman expects that partnership will allow the school to teach 20 new students remotely, with the hope that they will continue to practice in Maine once their education is complete and boost the medical manpower in the state.

"We think it is a very interesting model that could become a national model for how to train physicians for areas that really need them."

"I'm a physician, so medical school is a comfortable place for me,"Berman says. "I'm having a great time learning about medical education, andwe have a wonderful group of faculty and administrators, so its been a pleasure."

Profile by Kaitlin Melanson, Web Communications.

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