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Paul Farmer to run a Harvard program, but Obama may call

A MAN IN DEMAND Dr. Paul Farmer, a pioneer in improving health services in the Third World, is reportedly in discussions for a State Dept. position. A MAN IN DEMAND
Dr. Paul Farmer, a pioneer in improving health services in the Third World, is reportedly in discussions for a State Dept. position.
By James F. Smith
Globe Staff / May 28, 2009
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Dr. Paul Farmer, a pioneer in improving health services in the Third World, has been named chairman of Harvard Medical School's Department of Global Health and Social Medicine but remains in the running for a senior role in the Obama administration, the leader of the medical school said yesterday.

Dr. Jeffrey S. Flier, the medical school's dean, told a meeting of global health specialists from Boston-area institutions that Farmer would succeed Dr. Jim Kim as chairman of the department as of July 1. Kim has been named president of Dartmouth College.

Andrew Marx, director of communications at Partners in Health, the Boston-based global health nonprofit that Farmer founded with Kim in 1983, said Flier told the Harvard meeting that Farmer was still in discussions with Obama administration officials about an unspecified position.

Marx quoted Flier as saying that if Farmer did get a Washington position, he would take a leave of absence from the medical school and that Flier hoped he would later return to the chairmanship.

The Globe reported on May 15 that Farmer told faculty members at the medical school that he is in discussions with the State Department about a position overseeing all foreign health aid. Farmer has declined to comment, and the State Department said it does not comment on personnel negotiations.

Jack Lew, the deputy secretary of state overseeing health matters, said Tuesday that the government is considering ways to dramatically improve coordination of various agencies involved in global health assistance. He said the review would be completed soon. He would not discuss timing, possible structures, or who might lead a revamped global health initiative.

"We're actively open to creative ideas about how to bring appropriate resources to bear," he said. "When we look at public-private partnerships and recruiting, we're looking at how to cast the broadest net to bring in the right talent and commitment to address the challenge."

Foreign Policy magazine's website on Tuesday quoted an unidentified health specialist as saying Farmer might be named to the vacant top position of administrator of the US Agency for International Development, on an interim basis, and then move to a broader policy role when the strategic overhaul of the foreign assistance process was sorted out.

The associate dean for communications at the medical school, Gina Vild, said Flier had confirmed Marx's account of Flier's remarks to the meeting.

Peter Brown, spokesman for Brigham and Women's Hospital, said Farmer also had been named to succeed Kim as head of the Division of Global Equity at the hospital, a Harvard teaching facility.

In a statement e-mailed to medical school faculty yesterday and obtained by the Globe, Flier wrote:

"Paul is uniquely suited to lead this department. There are few who have done more to improve health in developing countries than Paul. His scholarship and international work have made him one of the most respected experts in the world on issues of global health."

James F. Smith can be reached at jsmith@globe.com.