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Battling zombies with brains: SPPH celebrates career of Professor Emeritus Morris Barer

Dec 06, 2017 |

Professor Emeritus Morris Barer has been battling zombies for much of his career.

But forget cricket bats and crossbows: for 40 years, Dr. Barer has been using health services and policy research to deal with ‘health care zombies’ – ideas without evidence about health care that just will not die.


Professor Emeritus Bob Evans, Associate Professor Kimberlyn McGrail, Professor Clyde Hertzman, and Professor Emeritus Morris Barer. Credit: Nancy Meagher

Now, with a 55-page curriculum vitae, more than 115 articles published in peer-reviewed journals, and a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) award named after he and colleague Colleen Flood, (“it feels really weird”), Dr. Barer says he is slowly adjusting to his retirement, but knows the zombies won’t be defeated any time soon.

“Health care policy is one of the world’s longest running soap operas – you can go away and come back 10 years later to address the same questions that keep healthcare policy makers awake at night.”
Professor Emeritus Morris Barer

Dr. Barer pursued a doctorate in health economics after taking a directed readings course with Professor Emeritus Bob Evans, and meeting fellow student, now McMaster University Professor Emeritus, Greg Stoddart – an ‘ah ha!’ academic term, he says. Health services research is important because “it comes down to, do you want policy decisions to be guided by evidence or not?”

Some of the most vexing, enduring healthcare policy challenges relate to questions of economics, Dr. Barer says, and he followed this interest to a job with the Ontario Economic Council’s healthcare file until 1979, as associate director of the Division of Health Services Research and Development (HSR&D) at UBC until 1988, and then director to 1991, and as an Assistant Professor in the School’s predecessor, the Department of Health Care and Epidemiology from 1981, then a Professor in 1991.

CHSPR Staff Awards

At the CHSPR Staff Awards, 2010.
Credit: Lixiang Yan

Dr. Barer served as the first Scientific Director of the CIHR Institute of Health Services and Policy Research from 2000 to 2006, during which time he worked to establish the Canadian Association for Health Services and Policy Research, training programs across the country, and the Healthcare Policy journal. These initiatives to help the health services and policy research community were career highlights, he says, as was the establishment of the Centre for Health Services and Policy Research (CHSPR) in 1991. He served as director of CHSPR until 2001, and then again from 2007 to 2012.

“It’s just one line on my CV, but it’s helped a whole lot of colleagues and graduate students for decades now.”
Professor Emeritus Morris Barer

Health services and policy research in Canada has grown since he first began in the field, and in an ideal future, Dr. Barer hopes strong evidence will be taken into more frequent and serious consideration by policy makers, with policy changes reflecting this.

His own research has focused on physician resource policy, health care utilization focusing on the impact of an aging population, and access to care. The “infamous” Barer-Stoddart report – “it still comes up” – on medical personnel in 1992 was an example of people cherry picking research, including focusing on just one of the 50-odd recommendations made in the report, Dr. Barer says. “It was right at the time, and for the time. Our point was that you couldn’t just implement one recommendation.”

CHSPR Staff Awards

At the CHSPR Staff Awards, 2011.
Credit: Lixiang Yan

Over the course of his career, Dr. Barer also worked with colleagues to establish the B.C. Linked Health Database, which has evolved into Population Data BC, served as Senior Editor for Health Economics with Social Science and Medicine, and developed the first economic evaluation and health care policy courses for the Department.

He also collaborated with various combinations of local fellow Professors Clyde Hertzman, Bob Evans and Sam Sheps, and McMaster colleagues Greg Stoddart and Jonathan Lomas, in the 1980s and 1990s, forming the ‘catchy titles cabal’ which produced such works as ‘Apocalypse No: Population Aging and the Future of the Health Care System’, ‘Riding North on a Southbound Horse’, and ‘The Quick and the Dead: The Utilization of Hospital Services in British Columbia.’ “We would literally gather in a room together, around a single computer, and do joint writing, with ideas and turns of phrase filling the room.”

While he feels the university has become a more difficult place in which to work, including becoming more bureaucratic and financially restrained, Dr. Barer says he was able to work with amazing people throughout what he describes as an “accidental career – I had lots of luck and met the right people at the right time.”

“I got to surround myself with brilliant people and just hang on tight.”
Professor Emeritus Morris Barer

As for the future of health services and policy research, realistically, he believes there will continue to be evolution in the sophistication of the methods, but not much change in the targets of their application.

Barer retirement party speech

Professor Emeritus Morris Barer.
Credit: Lixiang Yan

“By and large, our research community are beating their heads against the same old questions. And so they should be – these are the things that preoccupy the policy makers.”
Professor Emeritus Morris Barer

With an ongoing CIHR-funded project and continued involvement in CHSPR activities, Dr. Barer may not be quite done fighting those healthcare zombies. But, he says, “I won’t miss the meetings, the travel, or the alarm clock.”

“Morris Barer – what a guy!”

SPPH Co-Directors Carolyn Gotay and Chris Lovato noted Dr. Barer’s long history with the School. “Morris has one of the longest tenures of any SPPH faculty member. We are grateful for his sustained contributions over the years.”

Professor Emeritus Bob Evans said Dr. Barer was a moral researcher who was ahead of his time in a number of things, including big data, which had earned him the nickname of ‘Megabyte Morris’. Dr. Barer “gets things done”, Dr. Evans said, keeping his co-authors on track to publish the book ‘Why Are Some People Healthy & Others Not?’

Dr. Evans said he had had very few graduate students in his career, including Dr. Barer, and thinking back on them, he was reminded of Aesop’s fable about the mother rabbit mocking the lioness for her lack of offspring. “‘And how many children do you have, dear?’ And the mother lion says, ‘One. But he’s a lion.'”

Barer retirement party

Professor Emeriti Sam Sheps and Morris Barer.
Credit: Lixiang Yan

“So, this is one of my graduate students. And he’s a lion.”
Professor Emeritus Bob Evans

Associate Professor Kimberlyn McGrail said she had the pleasure of working with Dr. Barer for more than 20 years, as a staff member, a student and more recently as a colleague. Dr. McGrail said she would not be where she is now if not for Dr. Barer, and is especially thankful to him for keeping her from jumping off dangerous cliffs “and then gently pushing me to jump off the ones that I really did need to.”

“Morris is a builder – the number of initiatives, organizations, and people that he got started and nurtured, and helped to become what they are today, is amazing.”
Associate Professor Kimberlyn McGrail

Professor Jeannie Shoveller said the scholarship and leadership of Dr. Barer at UBC and CIHR provided the foundations for health services and policy research, the field that he helped to build. “His intellect, collegiality and wit have had a huge impact on me and many others.”

“Morris has been speaking truth to power for as long as I’ve known him and I will greatly miss his one-liners that provide a welcomed ‘pop’ of those balloons full of “hot air” that dare to float within his range!”
Professor Jeannie Shoveller

Professor Shoveller said thankfully, researchers had his canon to turn to, even after his retirement, including the Barer-Stoddart Report and ‘Why Are Some People Healthy & Others Not?’, to feel refreshed and ready to redouble efforts to tackle the challenges that remain in terms of improving the health of Canadians and the health care system.

Professor Emeritus Sam Sheps said Dr. Barer was an excellent colleague. “His wry sense of humor, acute and logical thinking, as well as keen writing ability made collaborating with him on research projects a continuing learning experience.” Dr. Sheps said he was drawn to Dr. Barer’s, and others’, vision, of what would become the CHSPR. “Over the years there were many engaging discussions about research projects, successful grants and the inevitable round of edits on papers regarding which Morris was a thoughtful and incisive editor.”

At one point, the Centre offered additional space for faculty and staff in one of the old university fraternity buildings. Dr. Barer and Dr. Sheps went to scout out it out on a rainy day, and found the vacant building to be a disaster. “As we entered, we stepped into several inches of water, there was mould everywhere, the roof leaked, windows were broken and we hesitated to try the stairs.” But Dr. Barer worked hard to make it a very nice set of offices with sufficient conference space and more, Dr. Sheps said.

“From a very unpromising beginning, the building worked very well, one of many practical contributions by Morris to the Centre and University, and characteristically not flashy but eminently useful and indeed well-used.”
Professor Emeritus Sam Sheps

Professor Craig Mitton said having watched Dr. Barer over the years chair sessions, give key notes, organize conferences, run countless meetings and events, and interact so skillfully with colleagues, he had a tremendous amount of respect for Dr. Barer and had learned much. As important as Dr. Barer’s professional contributions, he had also always been generous in taking time to just talk, and Dr. Mitton had received “amazing” advice from Dr. Barer over the years.

McMaster University Centre for Health Economics and Policy Analysis Professor Emeritus Greg Stoddart said it had been a privilege to collaborate with Dr. Barer for 40 years, as one of Dr. Stoddart’s most valued and trusted colleagues, and a great friend. “Through numerous projects and over 30 publications together I have admired his insight, dedication to excellence, and work ethic. He has been a leader in health economics and health services research, taking delight in ‘busting’ health policy myths with careful research, thereby performing a valuable public service.”

University of Ottawa Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics director Colleen Flood said she got to follow in Dr. Barer’s footsteps as CIHR IHSPR director, and that these were big and impressive shoes to fill. Despite having a “whipper-snapper successor”, Dr. Barer was ever-generous, kind and supportive, Dr. Flood said. “Morris Barer – what a guy!”

As CIHR Scientific Director, Dr. Barer pulled together the disparate communities that made up health services and policy research to be more than the sum of the its parts and to drive it increasingly to speak to the needs of the health care system, Dr. Flood said, requiring commitment, vision, diplomacy, and hard work, “all of which Morris possesses.”

“Morris is a soft-spoken guy, a gentleman through and through and an utterly decent person — such qualities are too rare these days — and all of his myriad achievements – in research, in influencing policy, at the UBC Centre, in research at CIHR — these have never been achieved on the backs of others without proper reward, never achieved through making others feel less — but instead by way of an unstinting, relentless intelligence, work ethic and decency.
University of Ottawa Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics director Colleen Flood

Postdoctoral fellow Lindsay Hedden was supervised by Dr. Barer for her doctoral degree, and said she credited him with a change in career direction, from surgeon to a doctorate focusing on health services research and health human resources. She said over the 14 years she had known Dr. Barer, she had learned “so much” from him, including how to be a principled scientist, how to write about what is important even if the message is unpleasant “and the messenger inevitably ends up shot”, how to effectively respond to criticism, and how to persevere through adversity.

“I consider myself very privileged to have had Morris as my PhD supervisor and to have worked with him over these last 14 years. He has shaped me as a scientist more than any other individual I have worked with.”
Postdoctoral fellow Lindsay Hedden

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