Peter Ubel, MD, a 1988 alumnus from the University of Minnesota Medical School, has been inducted into the 2019 National Academy of Medicine (NAM) for his research on the psychology of healthcare decision-making, which has revealed the unconscious and irrational forces that influence choices made by patients and physicians. The election into NAM is considered one of the highest honors in the field of health and medicine and recognizes individuals who have demonstrated exceptional professional achievement and commitment to service.

His time at the Medical School began thanks to his piano teacher. At the time, Al Sullivan, who was a surgeon and dean of the Medical School, had lunch with a friend, who also happened to be Dr. Ubel’s piano teacher. They talked about Dr. Ubel during that lunch, inspiring Dr. Sullivan to contact Dr. Ubel and make him an offer—come to our Medical School and your piano teacher will take you back as a student, too. 

“Back then, we didn’t have phones in our pockets, so I was told I had a message to be ready for a phone call from Sullivan at an office on campus,” Dr. Ubel said. “I was wondering why he was calling me, so it was really fantastic to have the dean call me up from college to pitch me that idea.”

Entering medical school as a philosophy major, Dr. Ubel was very interested in ethics and thought Minnesota had a strong medical-ethical group and an exceptional position toward leaders, clinicians and thinkers in ethics. This is when he met three extremely influential mentors, Ron Cranford, MD, Steve Miles, MD, and Nicole Lurie, MD, who helped shape his professional career. These mentors were great examples that showed him how it’s possible to have an academic career as a physician and also solve some of the world’s toughest problems. 

“I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to help think through some of the bigger challenges to medical practice and healthcare policy,” Dr. Ubel said. “Therefore, knowing this was a possible career path was super intriguing.”

Dr. Ubel didn’t leave medical school knowing exactly what he wanted to do, although found how relevant behavioral science is in ethical decision-making and merged those two ideologies together. Throughout his career in practicing medicine, Dr. Ubel also published several books and conducted research on healthcare decision-making. 

“My career has always revolved around taking really challenging questions in healthcare and rethinking the fundamentals of what we should and shouldn’t do,” he said.

Today, Dr. Ubel is a business professor at Duke University. After 20 years, he stopped practicing medicine to pursue a career in academics. 

“A lot of healthcare business is about understanding policies and how people pay for healthcare,” Dr. Ubel said. “When I teach business students, I remind them that the goals of healthcare should be to help patients get better and to improve their lives.”

This is a lot of what the NAM attributes their work to. For example, the organization asks Congress many different ethical questions through a committee and comes up with possible answers. Dr. Ubel has been a part of several of these committees, in which one of the recent ones posed the question on how to be ethical in doing transplant research when you can’t always consent people in time to do the research. 

“The NAM really looks at some of the most difficult societal questions about health and healthcare with rigorous science and comes up with fair arguments, and I am really proud to be able to help contribute,” Dr. Ubel said. “This is a really important organization, and I hope to contribute more upon admission.”