Dr. Bernadine Healy remembers when her father was sick with cancer.
She and her sister saw limousines pull up to drop off patients at the New York Hospital. And they were grateful they didn't have to worry about the quality of care their father was receiving.All patients are the same in a hospital gown, says Healy, a cardiologist, "whether you come in on the IRT (subway) or a limo."
Quality of life is a big issue for Healy. She was just appointed to head the government's massive health research agency, the Nation
al Institutes of Health. She thinks the agency touches the lives of every man, woman and child in this country.
Healy, in her first month on the job, already announced the country's largest health initiative ever, a research project to focus specifically on women's health. The study will cost $500 million over the next 10 years.
The announcement comes after advocates have complained that women are the forgotten gender in NIH research. Healy doesn't deny that history but adds that the elderly are another often-overlooked group by medical researchers.
Healy is in Utah at the invitation of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Her tour of the University of Utah's medical complex Wednesday is her first official trip in her new post.
Healy's agency has a $9 billion annual budget. Fifty thousand scientists receive some grant money through the NIH. All are charged with translating their work from research into practical knowledge that will make people live longer and healthier.
But medical research, just like trendy tennis shoes and Los Angeles real estate, is expensive. Funding problems lead many experts to worry about a brain drain, that this country's best young minds will go into other fields or do research in foreign laboratories.
It can cost $50,000 to $1 million to set up one scientist's lab. That's why government grants are so crucial in pushing research to biological frontiers.
Healy has created the Shannon awards, a $20 million pot she will distribute to scientists who don't win grants but are performing promising, creative research.
She hopes monetary awards made to those who slide just under the evaluators' criteria will keep research going until it's refined enough to win a grant. "It's a statement. It help the heart, not just the pocketbook."
And while she doesn't believe in a social security system for scientists, she is committed to funding promising research.
Healy took over the agency right after it was scolded by Congress for not handling its money well. She plans more long-range planning for research money.
But, she said, the commitment to research at this time is unparalleled. In no other country are grants distributed on merit, rather than considering an institution's prestige or the age and renown of the researcher. "When a person wins an NIH grant, it's like going to the Olympics. A person really is playing with the pros."