Lucian Leape, patient safety champion, honored at retirement symposium

Lucian Leape
Lucian Leape

September 15, 2015 — Colleagues, friends, and family gathered to celebrate the career and legacy of Lucian Leape, adjunct professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management (HPM) at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, at a retirement symposium held September 8, 2015 in Kresge Cafeteria. Leape, who began his career as a pediatric surgeon, is renowned for his groundbreaking research on reducing medical errors, and dedicated advocacy for improving health systems. He is credited with inspiring a patient safety movement in health care that has contributed to reductions in often deadly but preventable problems such as central line infections and medication errors.

Opening the symposium, Katherine Baicker, C. Boyden Gray Professor of Health Economics and acting chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management, praised Leape not only for his research accomplishments but for acting as an “inspiring and dedicated mentor to generations of students.” She read a statement from Donald Berwick, a former Harvard Chan School colleague of Leape’s and former head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who called Leape a “giant, hands-down,” with a “calm but relentless voice” in advocating for patient safety.

Professor Robert Blendon, senior associate dean for policy translation and leadership development, with Lucian Leape

Professors Ashish Jha and Atul Gawande both recalled reading Leape’s groundbreaking 1994 JAMA paper Error in Medicine early in their careers. As young doctors, they found the way Leape looked at improving health care from a systems perspective profoundly influential. Jha, K.T. Li Professor of International Health and director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, described coming to the realization that his obligation to his patients doesn’t end with a one-on-one encounter, but with trying to improve the system in which he works.

Following the publication of Error in Medicine, Leape served as a member of the Institute of Medicine’s Quality of Care in America Committee, which published the influential reports “To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System” in 1999 and “Crossing the Quality Chasm” in 2001. In 2007, The National Patient Safety Foundation selected Leape to lead its new think tank, naming it the Lucian Leape Institute to honor his efforts.

Leape continued to “rattle the cage” for patient safety, Gawande said, noting that Leape butted heads with the surgical establishment in his calls for shorter shifts and an end to the culture of bullying in the medical workplace. Gawande, professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management and executive director of Ariadne Labs, praised Leape’s humble and generous spirit. “Even when he was standing alone out there, he was always making room for others.”

True to form, Leape began his closing remarks by thanking others, from HPM staff to the colleagues and former deans who welcomed him into the health policy fold back when he was a “middle-aged surgeon.”

Leape said that working with students will be the hardest thing to give up in retirement. Being able to pass on his passion for patient safety to the next generation has been “one of the rare privileges in life,” he said.

Read more: Shining a Light on Medical Errors (Harvard Public Health)

Amy Roeder 

Photos: Craig LaPlante