After More Than Two Decades, Mary Durham Bids Farewell to the Center for Health Research

After More Than Two Decades, Mary Durham Bids Farewell to the Center for Health Research

Caption: Mary Durham wraps up 21 years as director of the Center for Health Research.

Retiring director plans to run more marathons, play the piano, and become fluent in Italian.

When Mary L. Durham, PhD, arrived at the Center for Health Research in 1995, it was a relatively small player on the national research scene, with a budget of about $13 million. Since then the budget has grown to nearly $50 million, and the organization is now home to more than 40 research investigators and nearly 300 employees in the Northwest and Hawaii regions of Kaiser Permanente.

In its 52-year history, CHR has had only two directors: Mary Durham and Mitch Greenlick. Now an Oregon state lawmaker, Greenlick became the Center’s first director in 1964 when it was located in a small basement office of the Bess Kaiser Permanente hospital in north Portland. In 1991, the Center moved into a new building on Kaiser Permanente’s North Interstate campus, where it is still housed today.

Under Durham’s leadership, CHR developed a world-renowned data coordination center, collaborating with many other Kaiser Permanente regions, integrated health organizations, and government agencies on multi-site trials. CHR researchers have become well-known for their discoveries in the areas of weight management, cancer screening, diabetes, mental health, genetics, women’s health, and health disparities.

Dr. Durham retired from CHR on November 30, 2016. In this interview, she discusses her tenure as CHR’s director, her own research, and her plans for retirement.

How has the Center changed over the last 20 years?

When I moved from the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle, there was only one other woman researcher here at the Center for Health Research. Now we have more women researchers than men. When I arrived, most of the grants were written and the decisions made by a handful of people. I really wanted to give researchers more autonomy so I could focus on growing the Center. I had a goal of doubling the budget in 10 years. We did that, and now our budget is about four times what it was when I started. We compete against institutions like Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and Harvard every day, and to compete at that level you have to have top scientists.

Another thing that’s changed is our ability to conduct studies involving racially and culturally diverse populations. I saw early on that we lacked this diversity in the Pacific Northwest, so in 1999 I worked with KP colleagues in Hawaii to create a new branch of the Center for Health Research. In addition to being very diverse, Hawaii has some of the highest and lowest rates of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, so it provides a very interesting study population. Our partnership has provided an excellent opportunity for research to improve the health of Asians and Pacific Islanders.

What is your most important role as research director?

In addition to overseeing our research, which involves hundreds of studies and the publication of about 200 scientific papers each year, one of my most important roles is telling the world about our research. I sit on the leadership team of Kaiser Permanente Northwest, so I get to share our work with local KP leaders. I also give presentations to health care policy experts, academic institutions, and employer groups. I’ve been lucky to be a part of Kaiser Permanente International, a program that educates governments, health plans, and health care providers around the world about Kaiser Permanente. I’ve traveled to places such as Brazil and Sweden, teaching people about our integrated care model and how our research improves patients’ lives.  

Can you share some examples of how KP research improves people’s lives?  

One of my favorite examples is the work we’ve done to help providers predict which patients with kidney disease will go on to end-stage renal failure. This is only a small proportion of patients, but renal failure can be devastating. Dialysis is also costly for the health care system. Because of our work, Kaiser Permanente is now intervening early with these high-risk patients to help them reduce their chances of kidney failure.

We’ve also done a lot to help women manage their weight gain during pregnancy and to reduce their chances of developing gestational diabetes. Extra weight during pregnancy can lead to birthing complications and to babies being overweight or obese later in life. It also increases the mother’s risk for gestational diabetes. Through our research we’ve developed better screening and treatment programs for gestational diabetes, and we’re teaching women how to eat and exercise during pregnancy so they gain the right amount of weight. We’re also teaching providers how to track pregnancy weight gain at each prenatal visit.

Our research has also helped to improve colon cancer screening, not just for our own patients but for underserved patients in the community. There are many patients who won’t go in for a colonoscopy because it’s invasive, expensive, and time-consuming. Our research shows that an alternative at-home fecal test is an effective screening tool. We are making this test available to underserved patients who might otherwise forgo screening, and we are finding cancers that can be treated at an early stage.

Have you conducted your own research while at the Center?

I’ve been less focused on my own research since joining the Center, but I’ve still been involved in some exciting projects. I’m a sociologist by training and one of my favorite research areas is studying how to improve the workplace so people can balance work and family. I helped to set up an infrastructure for the Work, Family & Health Network which has found that when employees have supportive managers and more control over when and where they work they have higher job satisfaction, better interactions with their family, and improved sleep, and they are less likely to smoke.

Another project that I’m involved in is the PORTAL network, which brings together four health care delivery systems including Kaiser Permanente to conduct research on colon cancer, obesity, diabetes, and congenital heart disease. With over 12 million members in this network, we can do real-world research that will help to prevent and treat these conditions.

What do you see as the future of research?

In the 10- to 15-year range, I think that the information from genetic studies will be absolutely transformative. Today we are treating it as special information, but in the future, information on genetics and how it’s related to your health status or any particular decision in health care is going to be just as common as your height and weight. In the future we will be merging genetic, behavioral, and health information to predict people’s future illnesses and treatment.

What are your plans in retirement?

I am intense in my professional and personal life, so I’ll have plenty of things to do in retirement. One of my passions is running. I’ve run a dozen marathons, and when I retire I plan to run more. I love the quote from writer Allan Ripp: “Running gives my life a sense of rhythm.” That’s true for me, too. I solve problems when I’m running. It frees my mind and gives me more perspective about what’s important and what’s not.

My husband and I are going to live in Italy three months each year. This will give me a chance to become more fluent in Italian. And I will practice the piano more often. I’ve never lived in a house without a piano, but I haven’t had a lot of time to practice. Now I will.

The Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research is interviewing candidates and hopes to have a new director in place by early 2017.