Jack Wennberg

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John E. "Jack" Wennberg (born June 2, 1934) is the pioneer and leading researcher of unwarranted variation in the healthcare industry. In four decades of work, Wennberg has documented the geographic variation in the healthcare that patients receive in the United States. In 1988, he founded the Center for Evaluative Clinical Services at Dartmouth Medical School to work directly with Health Dialog to address that unwarranted variation in healthcare.

He currently holds the Peggy Y. Thomson Chair for the Evaluative Clinical Sciences at Dartmouth and has been Professor in the Department of Community and Family Medicine since 1980 and in the Department of Medicine since 1989. Wennberg is the founding editor of the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care, a series of reports on how health care is used and distributed in the United States.

In June 2007, Wennberg stepped down as director of the CECS, now known as The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice (TDI).[1]


Wennberg is a graduate of Stanford University and the McGill University Faculty of Medicine. His postgraduate training was in internal medicine and nephrology at Johns Hopkins University, but he became interested in the application of epidemiological principles to the health care system while pursuing his master's degree in Public Health at Johns Hopkins.

Wennberg is a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and of the Johns Hopkins University Society of Scholars.


He cofounded the Informed Medical Decisions Foundation in Boston, Massachusetts, a nonprofit organization to provide objective scientific information to patients about their treatment choices by using interactive media.

Wennberg is Principal Investigator and Series Editor of The Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care, which examines the patterns of medical resource intensity and use in the United States. The Atlas project also has reported on patterns of end-of-life care, inequities in the Medicare reimbursement system, and the underuse of preventive care.[2]

"When Jack started his work, geographic variation in health care—and the resulting variation in health care costs—was largely unknown and unremarked upon," said Health Affairs founding editor John Iglehart, who presented an award from the journal to Wennberg. "But thanks to Jack’s persistence, the idea that the care you receive is largely determined by where you live—and not necessarily by what is most appropriate for you—has become part of the common parlance of health policy."

Indeed, Wennberg’s work has shown that areas that spend more and provide more services often experience worse outcomes than lower-spending areas that provide less intensive care. In a 2002 Health Affairs article, Wennberg proposed a Medicare reform plan based on reducing unwarranted regional variations in spending by the program.

In the latest Dartmouth Atlas, Wennberg and colleagues state that "the Medicare system could reduce spending by at least 30 percent while improving the medical care of the most severely ill Americans."

Wennberg's recent work has focused on documenting outcomes and communicating outcomes information to patients. That focus is reflected in his article in the November/December 2007 issue of Health Affairs. In the first part of a two-part article, Wennberg and his coauthors urge the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to use its pay-for-performance program to ensure that patients are both informed and empowered to choose appropriate discretionary treatments.


In 1967, Wennberg worked with the Regional Medical Program created with a $350,000 grant from President Lyndon Johnson and began analyzing Medicare data to determine how well hospitals and doctors were performing. "Our results were fascinating, because they ran completely counter to what conventional wisdom said they would be. Everyone expected that we would clearly see underservice in the rural hospital service areas remote from academic medical centers. But when we looked at the data, we found tremendous variation in every aspect of healthcare delivery, even among communities served by academic medical centers. We found the same thing when we compare healthcare in the Boston and New Haven communities served by some of the finest academic medical centers in the world. The basic premise—that medicine was driven by science and by physicians capable of making clinical decisions based on well-established fact and theory—was simply incompatible with the data we saw. It was immediately apparent that suppliers were more important in driving demand than had been previously realized," stated Wennberg.[3]

"The solution for unwarranted variation in preference-sensitive services is shared decision-making—the active involvement of the patient in choosing. Numerous clinical trials have shown that the patient decision-support programs, such as those available from Health Dialog and the Informed Medical Decisions Foundation, result in better decision and often a reduction in utilization. But implementation isn't easy," he says. "We need to find a way to encourage and compensate physicians for the time they spend on educating and discussing things with patients."

Health Dialog[edit]

Albert Mulley, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, had been conducting research with Wennberg of Dartmouth by the Informed Medical Decisions Foundation. Together, they had built "substantial evidence that there's a huge variation in how doctors interpret their science through their own values and preferences." George Bennett, a serial entrepreneur "couldn't resist getting involved" in helping the process of enabling patients become a part of the decision-making process. As stated by Bennett, "It was one of life's strange twists, where they had something that was morally right, medically right, politically right and it saved money."

By teaming with Kevin Kimberlin of Spencer Trask & Co., Health Dialog received its initial funding.[4]

Lowering Medicare costs[edit]

"Americans have assumed that the fact that we spend so much more on health care than any other country stands as proof that we have the best health-care system in the world. But over the past 20 years, work done by Dartmouth's Wennberg and Elliott Fisher has forced U.S. health care leaders to acknowledge that this simply isn’t true."[5]

The potential savings under such an ideal arrangement are immense. If every Medicare provider in the country spent at the same rate as the lowest 10% of providers in the program, overall costs would be slashed by 30%. That alone is enough to pay for the elusive Medicare drug benefit. Additional savings might well accrue by implementing shared decision-making and reducing underuse of preventive services and medical errors.[3]


  • Most Influential Policy Maker of the Past 25 Years, Health Affairs, Nov. 1, 1997.
  • Distinguished Investigator Award, Association for Health Services Research
  • Foundation’s Health Services Research Prize, Baxter Foundation
  • The Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award in Clinical Medicine
  • 2007 Ernest Amory Codman Award, The Joint Commission
  • 2008 Gustav O. Lienhard Award, The Institute of Medicine, Oct. 12, 2008[6]

Selected bibliography[edit]


  1. ^ Health Affairs Press Release: Nov. 1,, 2007
  2. ^ http://www.capconcorp.com/oba05/bios/wennberg.pdf
  3. ^ a b Clamping down on variation - Managed Healthcare Executive
  4. ^ Mr. George Bennett on the founding of Health Dialog, By Hal Lancaster, Wall Street Journal, 03 August 1999
  5. ^ Dartmouth Medicine Magazine: The State of the Nation's Health
  6. ^ The Dartmouth, Wennberg Given Health Care Award, Oct. 16, 2008

External links[edit]