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Injecting History into Health Care

Paul Dutton: PhD

Professor of History

Executive Director, Interdisciplinary Health Policy Institute

College of Arts and Letters
College of Health and Human Services

Paul Dutton knows about the importance of good health care policy. As Executive Director of Northern Arizona University's Interdisciplinary Health Policy Institute, Dutton regularly brings together a wide spectrum of experts to tackle health policy issues. With national debate still raging over health care reform in the United States, for instance, he recently assembled a top-level group of Arizona policymakers, industry representatives, and academics for a round-table discussion on health care coverage and policy. The goal, he says, was to help key Arizona decision makers understand the attitudes on all sides of the debate: gaining such understanding, he says, is better for the long-term health of the state.

"What we do is to ask participants not to take positions but rather to talk about interests and values," he says. "If we do that, I think we may find positions that fit the interests and values of people who thought that they disagreed completely. I think there are issues where people need to understand why they disagree: this will be an opportunity to learn those answers."

Dutton is uniquely positioned to understand the importance of finding common ground with regard to health care. As author of the widely acclaimed book Differential Diagnoses, a sharp comparative study of national health care systems, Dutton clearly understands the many ways that health care policy can impact a citizenry. As he surveys the current situation in the United States, Dutton notes the potential economic impacts that health care policy might have: an inability to move forward with health care reform, he says, could cripple the country in many ways.

"You can't have a country where between 25 and 45% of the people are job-locked, and can't leave jobs because of a pre-existing condition," he says. "You can't have a growing economy—or a productive economy—if people are looking first and foremost based on health insurance rather than on education or on their skills and innate talents. In other words, a would-be Bill Gates won't leave a job making widgets—even though he's thought of a better widget—because his son has Type One diabetes. That's why health care reform is so important."

His ability to cross different academic disciplines has proved helpful to a broad range of audiences at Northern Arizona University: Dutton teaches courses for both history students and for students enrolled in health sciences courses. Ultimately, however, Dutton feels that he make the greatest difference by combining his twin passions, and injecting a historical perspective into discussions surrounding health care.

"What I like to say is that other health care systems didn't have a 'big bang'," he says. "As knowledgeable as many of the participants (in the health care debate) are, they often don't have that historical view that health care systems didn't start with big bangs. We need to understand that the process is slow and plodding. It's hard work to get this right, and there have to be political compromises made. There needs to be some hard work going forward, where people are listening to one another and coming to agreements."