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A Tough Act to Follow: Carolyn Clancy Exits AHRQ

February 6, 2013
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Dr. Clancy’s exit takes place at a time of hyper-partisanship in Washington

When Carolyn Clancy, M.D., announced on Jan. 31 that she was leaving the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), which she had headed for almost exactly 10 years (she became that agency’s director on Feb. 5, 2003, after previously working at the agency as director of its Center for Outcomes and Effectiveness Research), it signaled the end of an era.

An internist and health services researcher by training, Dr. Clancy brought a shrewd, yet also compassionate, approach to the mission of AHRQ, which under her leadership vastly expanded its scope of activity, and became a major player in the policy sphere (Dr. Clancy will remain in her position until a new director is able to start).

Carolyn Clancy, M.D.

Originally named the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research, or AHCPR (boy, was that an awkward acronym!), AHRQ started out small and specialized, but, under Dr. Clancy’s leadership, grew both its mission and budget, to include funding and activity in the areas of quality improvement and patient safety, prevention and chronic care, healthcare value, and, importantly, health information technology, through its Health IT Initiative, which has been focused on the goals of improving healthcare decision-making, supporting patient-centered care, and improving the quality and safety of medication management.

What Dr. Clancy brought to the agency was a combination of idealism and canniness, which made her an ideal leader for this unusual, yet very important, agency. Those qualities were very much on display when she addressed the first HCI Executive Summit as its closing keynote speaker, back in May 2011, in San Francisco. Dr. Clancy gave an extremely informative, insightful speech, followed by an excellent question-and-answer session, during which the ever-intrepid Joe Bormel, M.D., one of our most valued bloggers, engaged her on a detailed question regarding the Medicare Group Practice Demonstration Project and variations in how physician groups are analyzing and figuring out how to work with the measures coming from what was then called the PQRI (Physician Quality Reporting Initiative) and is now known as the PQRS (Physician Quality Reporting System).

Here’s the link to the blog about that exchange that Joe Bormel posted in June of that year:

As he wrote back then of Dr. Clancy, “Her style and tone was that of a calm, collected scientist when answering my question.”

Dr. Clancy was very well-received by our Executive Summit audience, and afterwards, I had the pleasure of sharing a taxi ride with her to San Francisco International Airport. I had interviewed her numerous times during her tenure at AHRQ, during which she was inevitably gracious and thoughtful. I’m happy to say that she was exactly the same way in person, including in our shared taxi.

Carolyn Clancy has shown exceptional leadership at AHRQ, and she will be missed. I have two hopes for whoever is chosen to next fill the director role. First, I hope that the new director will have the kind of broad, incisive vision that Dr. Clancy has brought to the job. The industry needs that kind of vision, as it needs leadership from AHRQ to support new knowledge and learning in numerous areas. Second, I hope the new AHRQ director will have the political savvy that Dr. Clancy had, and that will be needed at a time of hyper-partisanship in Washington. AHRQ plays an important role in healthcare, and the new director will need to navigate the shoals of inside-the-Beltway partisanship, for the benefit not only of healthcare providers, but of patients and communities as well.

Meanwhile, my best wishes go to Carolyn Clancy as she transitions into a new phase in her life. I hope she will find ways to continue to lend her smart, compassionate voice to the ongoing grand discussion that is healthcare policy in this country.