As dean of the University of Minnesota’s medical school, Dr. Brooks Jackson has a central role negotiating a proposed merger between Minneapolis-based Fairview Health Services and the University of Minnesota Physicians. The agreement is designed to reduce waste, improve care and boost revenue for teaching and research at the university, but it’s not a done deal yet. Jackson brings an impressive, if surprising, résumé to the job. He earned his MBA before he went to medical school, and worked for a year at a coal company. Jackson trained as a pathologist and conducted groundbreaking work on preventing mother-to-child HIV transmission. All along, he’s been a runner — as of this past Wednesday, Jackson’s streak of consecutive days running spans 37 years.
Q: When did you start running?
A: Probably 1965.
A: It was just part of school. I consistently ran throughout probably sixth grade, junior high. Track. Cross-country. It was really the cross-country that got me into longer-distance running.
Q: You run every day?
A: Yes. The last time I missed a day was literally May 25, 1979.
Q: Is it healthy to run every day?
A: I have no idea. All I know is that I have no problems with my knees or anything like that. I think a lot of that’s just luck — how you’re aligned, your body.
I sort of compare it to — if your tires are aligned on your car, they’ll last a long time. If they’re off a little bit, they’ll wear on one spot. And that’s sort of what happens to your cartilage in your joints — if they’re not aligned. And that’s just genetic, how you’re built.
Q: When you started running every day, did you think: I’m going to run every day for the next 37 years?
A: Not at all. I do it when I wake up. At this point, it’s like brushing your teeth. … For me, it’s not work at all. It’s very pleasant. Very nice. I look forward to it. … But I’m not arguing that people should do it.
Q: In your job, is running helpful?
A: It’s like a marathon for some of these things, like this integration agreement [between Fairview and the U physicians]. There are times when you feel like you’re just about to hit the wall, but you keep going.
Q: Are you close to a final agreement?
A: We are close. We are close. But I’ll tell you, the cultures are very different. It is a complex agreement in the sense that the faculty are still dually employed in this. And so, there are certain reserve powers that the regents need to have. At the same time you want the new entity to have flexibility to really move quickly, because universities are slow. …
So, there’s a balance there. Trying to achieve that balance is difficult.
Q: I think you’ve said the merger could be helpful for research — is that right?
A: Yes. Fairview is a good system. It’s a good organization. It’s community hospitals and community clinics, it’s one of the largest. But we pretty much do clinical trials just, for the most part, here on this campus. We need to be able to expand that. A number of the industry companies in the Twin Cities would much prefer to do trials here. They often have to go to other academic health centers because we haven’t had the patient population — enough numbers of patients.
Q: What else argues for the merger?
A: It allows us to expand our training slots. We’re always struggling to get more training slots for not just the medical school, but the whole academic health center.
It’s a way to standardize practices across the system and enhance the quality. Quality is directly related to volume. If you’re doing lung transplants, the more you do, the better you are at it, so the more patients and facilities … that does improve the quality.
Q: What’s in it for doctors who practice within Fairview?
A: Seventy percent or 75 percent of the physicians practicing in this state went to this medical school. So there is a lot of allegiance still to the university. … Many of them would love to have a medical student on their service. Or they would like to be a site for a clinical trial. On the other hand, they really value their independence.
Q: Before you went to medical school, you got an MBA and worked for a coal company. How did that happen?
A: I’m from Cincinnati, so there’s a lot of coal nearby in Kentucky and West Virginia. In the 1970s, there was a lot of opportunity because with the oil embargo … the price of coal just skyrocketed.
Q: Any memories from the mine?
A: Coal mining has been around a long time in that area, and so there are a lot of old mines that had sort of been shut in and nobody paid much attention to them, because it just wasn’t worth mining anymore. But when the price of coal tripled and quadrupled, then all of a sudden they said: ‘Well, we should go look at some of this old mines.” So you’re crawling in these old mines. …There were a couple of times we just barely got out of there before the thing collapsed.
Q: So, studying pathology looked good?
A: Believe me.