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Brigham names its next president

NIH cardiologist brings research experience to job

Elizabeth Nabel trained at the Brigham in the 1980s. Elizabeth Nabel trained at the Brigham in the 1980s.
By Robert Weisman
Globe Staff / October 23, 2009

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Elizabeth G. Nabel, director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and one of the public faces of its parent, the National Institutes of Health, will be the next president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Faulkner Hospital in Boston.

Nabel, 57, is a cardiologist and clinical researcher who graduated from Cornell University Medical College and trained at Brigham and Women’s in the 1980s. She was elected as its president in a unanimous vote Wednesday night by the board of trustees that oversees the hospital and its affiliate, Faulkner Hospital. The hospitals’ employees were told of her appointment yesterday.

She will begin her new job Jan. 1 when the hospitals’ president, Gary Gottlieb, becomes president and chief executive of Partners HealthCare, the parent organization of Brigham and Women’s, Faulkner, Massachusetts General Hospital, and other health care providers. Gottlieb replaces Partners chief James Mongan, who will retire at the end of this year, in a move disclosed last February.

Nabel, a native of St. Paul, Minn., who has spoken nationally on health issues and disease prevention, will be returning to the Brigham, a nonprofit teaching hospital affiliated with Harvard Medical School, where she completed her internship and residency in internal medicine and a clinical and research fellowship in cardiovascular medicine.

“I’m thrilled to be offered this position,’’ Nabel said in an interview yesterday, stressing that she wanted to be involved in translating the kind of biomedical research done at the National Institutes of Health into patient care. “This was an opportunity for me to come home. It was an opportunity to work with the best in class, the best and the brightest.’’

She recalled it was at Brigham and Women’s that she met her husband, Gary J. Nabel, who is director of vaccines research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. “He was my intern, I was his resident,’’ she said. “Our first date was over a bet on a patient diagnosis.’’

After leaving Boston, Nabel joined the faculty at the University of Michigan, where she became known for her research in vascular biology and molecular cardiology. In 1999, she went to work at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. In her current position, she oversees a $3 billion budget and research portfolio.

Nabel will run a 777-bed hospital that has consistently been one of the nation’s largest recipients of National Institutes of Health research grants in recent years - it drew $250 million in the 2008 fiscal year. Among US hospitals, that was second only to Mass General’s $300 million. But like other hospitals across the country, Brigham and Women’s is facing pressure to contain rising medical costs.

“It’s a difficult time for our society and for all parts of the economy, particularly health care,’’ Gottlieb said. “We’re going to need to be increasingly accountable and to redefine efficiency.’’

Gottlieb said the Brigham and Women’s search committee found qualified candidates inside and outside the Partners health system, but settled on Nabel because “she shares the values of the institution and its mission, she has the experience [of] running a very complex institution, and she has an exceptional record as a mentor.’’

The decision to tap an outsider is not unprecedented - Gottlieb was recruited from the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center and Friends Hospital in Philadelphia to join the Partners system - but is nonetheless striking in an organization with such a depth of talent, said health care consultant Marc A. Bard, managing director of Navigant Consulting in Needham.

“There’s a cadre of capable people inside Partners who would be ready for something like this,’’ Bard said. “But she’s run a major research organization that has the same complexity as the Brigham and the integration of the clinical and research mission.’’

At the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, one of 27 institutes making up the National Institutes of Health, Nabel focused on programs in stem cell biology, global health and chronic diseases in developing countries, health and prevention education, research by young scientists, and the genetics and genomics of heart, lung, and blood disease.

For most of her tenure as director, the National Institutes of Health budget was flat, said Victor J. Dzau, chancellor for health affairs and chief executive at Duke University Health System and a member of the advisory council for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Dzau said Nabel was creative and efficient in allocating funds.

“She was able to find ways to continue to invest in the right programs, in research programs driven by scientists and investigators, which is the fabric of discovery research,’’ Dzau said.

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.