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Health Care Innovator Jeffrey Brenner ’90 Receives Spirit of Vassar Award

In February, the AAVC Spirit of Vassar Award was presented to Jeffrey Brenner ’90, a medical professional who designed an innovative approach to meeting the medical and social service needs of vulnerable citizens in impoverished communities. The award, which recognizes the values of service and civic responsibility that are fundamental to a Vassar education, is presented to an alumna or alumnus who has demonstrated extraordinary and distinguished leadership, contribution, and commitment to serving a community and effecting positive, transformative change.

Celebrating Dr. Brenner’s award: Sharon Chang ’84, P’19, AAVC Alumnae/i Recognition Chair; President Bradley; and AAVC President Missie Rennie Taylor ’68.

As a young physician, Brenner practiced urban family medicine in Camden, NJ, one of the poorest cities in the nation. As he revealed during a recent TEDx talk, his experiences with patients in the city led him to conclude, “We have the best healthcare system in America—until you get really, really sick, and then you get lost in that healthcare system.”

In the great Vassar tradition of “going to the source,” Dr. Brenner constructed a searchable database of information, including geographic data, about all patients discharged from Camden hospitals. He discovered that a very small number of patients consumed a disproportionate share of the overall costs of health care and social supports. Indeed, just one percent of Camden’s patients accounted for 30 percent of medical costs.

In this TEDx Talk, Brenner discusses how to make healthcare work better for patients, taxpayers, and providers.

“Hospitals in America are essentially filled with very damaged people who had horrible things happen to them in childhood,” Brenner said in his talk. “This fact is utterly unknown in the medical community, and they want to go running out of the room when I talk about it.”

Undeterred, he established the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Partners, bringing together doctors in community-based private practices, frontline hospital staff, and social workers across the city to participate in a strategy of comprehensive preventive and primary care. He also designed a system that delivers daily information about hospitalizations to the Coalition and members of care management teams. One result was a dramatic drop in hospital and emergency room visits—and a concurrent dramatic drop in hospital bills—among the very patients he had identified. The implications for public health in America were clear.

In Brenner’s honor, President Bradley held a President’s Tea, where the doctor discussed his work on “health care hotspotting” with students, faculty, and alumnae/i.

For his leadership in the public health arena, Brenner was honored with the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2013 and has been elected to the National Academy of Medicine. He currently serves as Senior Vice President of Integrated Health and Human Services at UnitedHealthcare, leading a unit that will pilot and scale new models of care that bring traditional health care services and social services such as housing and transportation to millions of Medicaid patients nationwide.

Accepting the award, Brenner credited Vassar’s emphasis on thought and discourse with helping him learn to assimilate lots of information and to analyze critical issues. “It’s important for the next generation of young people—not [just] a single generation—to work to make healthcare better,” he reminded the audience. There is much hope in today’s students.