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

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.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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.”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.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.”

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Health Canadacihr logo1This initiative has been generously funded by grants from Health Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the funders.