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Sanne Magnan: In a top policy job, alumna finds her clinical work feeds her passion

Medical School alumna Sanne Magnan, M.D., Ph.D., was appointed commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health in September.

As the recently appointed Minnesota commissioner of health, Sanne Magnan, M.D., Ph.D., has an ambitious to-do list: prevent disease, advance health-care reform, and ensure that the 5 million-plus people living in Minnesota are protected from public health threats.

Magnan, a 1983 Medical School alumna, says she’s up for the challenge. “Every job I’ve ever had has prepared me for this one, and this job is every job I’ve ever had rolled into one,” she says.

Medical practice included. As she has through most of her career in health policy, Magnan squeezes a half-day into her schedule each week to see patients at the nearby Tuberculosis Clinic at the St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health Department. She also teaches residents there as a clinical professor.

“It’s an ideal situation for a commissioner of health,” she says. “I enjoy staying connected to patients and to the practice of medicine. Patients and their stories feed my passion for what I do.”

A long-term connection

The daughter of an independent pharmacist and that pharmacy’s bookkeeper, Magnan grew up in North Carolina loving chemistry and math. After completing her undergraduate degree in pharmacy at the University of North Carolina, she received a Bush Fellowship to study medicinal chemistry at the University of Minnesota, where she became the first American woman in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry’s graduate program.

Magnan worked as a pharmacist while finishing her Ph.D. and then enrolled at the University’s Medical School, where she also completed her internal medicine residency. During that time she married a Minnesotan, David Magnan, and bought a house a mile from campus, where she lives with her husband and two daughters today.

Magnan’s work as a primary-care physician piqued her interest in creating better health policies to prevent disease, and she began advocating for change.

“Physicians should never underestimate their voice in helping to shape the community in which they and their patients live,” she says. They can influence health policy by asking city councils to add walking and biking trails to promote exercise, advocating for smoke-free environments, and volunteering to help respond to public health emergencies.

A call from the governor

Magnan spent 13 years working on health-care quality and disease-prevention initiatives at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, finally as vice president and medical director of consumer health.

In 2006, she became president of the Institute for Clinical Systems Improvement (ICSI) in Bloomington, Minnesota, an independent nonprofit organization that promotes health-care quality improvement.

After just 15 months at ICSI, Magnan got the call from the governor’s office.

“My gut reaction was, ‘No—why would I want to change now?’” But friends convinced her that at least interviewing for the commissioner’s job would give Magnan a chance to share her vision for health care with Governor Tim Pawlenty.

The more she talked to people about the opportunity, the more she began to see that the state’s top health job was a great fit for her, she says.

Magnan says Pawlenty sold her on his vision for the Department of Health, especially about working toward health-care reform. “It’s going to take a lot of work over years, but I am encouraged by what I’m seeing,” Magnan says. “We can’t give up.”

Her clinical work reinforces that assertion.

“I see patients with high blood pressure who can’t afford medications and have no insurance,” says Magnan. “It’s that real-life experience that helps fuel my passion for quality, affordable, accessible health care for all Minnesotans.

by Nicole Endres

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