Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies Program on Energy and Sustainable Development Stanford University

Douglas Owens, left, speaks with Philip Pizzo, dean of the School of Medicine, center, and Coit Blacker, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
Photo credit: Steve Fisch

October 7, 2011 - FSI Stanford, CHP/PCOR News

Douglas Owens takes helm of health policy and research centers

By Adam Gorlick

When he first came to Stanford as a freshman in 1974, Douglas K. Owens expected his education would lead to a career in engineering. But a new interest in medicine soon took hold, and he graduated as a biology major four years later. By 1985, he was practicing as a general internist.

Since then, he’s blended a doctor’s understanding of disease with an engineer’s approach to problem solving to understand the value of health policies and help develop better ones.

“I’m really most interested in the intersection of health and important policy questions and being able to use quantitative, analytic tools to get insights into those questions,” he said.

As the new director of the Center for Health Policy at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research in the Department of Medicine and School of Medicine, Owens will lead an interdisciplinary group of Stanford researchers interested in judging the efficiency of health care policies around the world.

Owens – who is a professor in the school of medicine and a senior investigator at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System – was one of the first faculty members to join CHP/PCOR when the centers were founded in 1998. He replaces Alan Garber, who led the centers since their inception.

“I'm delighted that Doug has assumed the directorship of CHP and PCOR,” said Coit Blacker, director of FSI. “He has just the right combination of skills to lead both centers at a critical time in their development.  He is smart, seasoned, strategic, and committed.  He also has a wonderful way with people – be they faculty, staff or students – without which none of the other talents matter when it comes to building strong academic institutions.”

Much of Owens’ work has centered on HIV and cardiovascular disease. He’s worked on policy issues in Russia and Africa, trying to measure the benefits of certain treatments and interventions against their costs.

In Russia, where the spread of HIV is most often caused by injection drug users, Owens used mathematical modeling to analyze whether it made sense to spend more money on giving antiretroviral medication to infected drug users or other HIV patients.

“It turns out that if you focus resources on drug users, you prevent more infections,” he said. “They’re the engines driving the spread. So if you ignore them, you have little effect curbing the disease.”

He studied the cost-effectiveness of widespread HIV screening in the United States and found the money spent on those tests were well worth it. His conclusions informed new recommendations issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2006. Rather than testing only high-risk patients, the CDC said all patients in any health care setting should be tested.

“There are really two benefits to screening everyone,” he said. “People identified early with HIV early are easier to treat and have a longer life. And the community benefits, because you can counsel people to change their behavior and put them on antiretroviral drugs to help reduce the chances of transmission.”

As head of CHP/PCOR, Owens says he’ll continue to “bridge the gap between the social sciences and medicine” by drawing on FSI’s multidisciplinary faculty.

“Making basic medical care accessible to children in rural Guatemala and curbing India’s growing obesity rates are problems that need to be solved by political scientists and governance experts as well as doctors,” he said.

And solving a health care problem in one country can often have a profound impact on the rest of the world. 

“Just think of the recent flu epidemic,” Owens said. “That spread through the world in a matter of weeks. You have to think of that as a global problem where government policies can make a huge difference.”

Topics: Comparative effectiveness research | Governance | Health and Medicine | Health policy | HIV/AIDS | Obesity | Guatemala | India | Russia | United States