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History lessons

Oral historian Dominique Tobbell, Ph.D., has interviewed dozens of longtime Academic Health Center faculty members. (Photo: Richard Anderson)

How the Academic Health Center’s Past informs its future

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.

University of Minnesota McKnight Land- Grant professor Dominique Tobbell, Ph.D., 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, assistant professor in the History of Medicine program.

“I want to get a better sense of how and why academic health centers tend to dominate the health care landscape,” adds Tobbell, who expects academic health centers to play a “huge role” in economic development regionally and nationally by generating startups, collaborating with industry, and developing tomorrow’s health care technology.

Telling lost stories

Researching such trends is only part of Tobbell’s mission. As a historian for the Academic Health Center’s Oral History Project, she’s also working to capture many of the AHC’s untold stories, which, she says, could occupy volumes. As part of the project, she’s compiling a history as told by the people who made the center great.

To get a varied perspective, Tobbell has interviewed former and current faculty, staff, and students. One interviewee 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,” she says.

Looking back to see ahead

Growing up in England, Tobbell was curious about science and showed great potential as a writer. But 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,” she says. For instance, how has the University’s Academic Health Center helped to address shortages of primary care practitioners in the state historically?

The answers are particularly relevant today, says Tobbell, who believes the demand for primary care professionals will grow if the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented.

“There’s a caveat with historians — we always look back, never forward,” she says with a laugh. “Wherever the AHC goes in the future, it should always be attentive to where it came from. History does matter.”

Adapted from a story by Bridget Aymar with permission from Research @ the U of M, a blog produced by the University of Minnesota’s Office of the VP for Research

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