March 8, 2021
In a speech prepared for delivery on the day of his untimely death, American president John F. Kennedy was to have said, “leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” It’s a sentiment that speaks to the importance of pursuing knowledge and feeding one’s intellectual curiosity as a leader—something that resonates with Professor Audrey Laporte, Director of the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation (IHPME).
“I’m a researcher at heart and I hope always to some degree to maintain a connection to research,” says Laporte, who is also President-Elect of the International Health Economics Association and Director of the Canadian Centre for Health Economics. “It’s very important that I’m active in teaching and research in the Institute because otherwise, one gets divorced from the reality of what the faculty and students are doing, and what the environment is like for them.”
Laporte never set out to be a professor. Encouraging words from mentors spurred her to consider a career in academia. Here, she talks with Alisa Kim about how she balanced work with raising a family (she has three children), the contributions she hopes to make as a leader and why she no longer sweats the small stuff.
How did you become interested in health economics?
I went to the University of Guelph [for graduate studies] to specialize in labour economics. My initial plan was to work at the Bank of Canada as I was very interested in macroeconomics and labour markets. At Guelph, which was a very applied research environment and home to a number of recognized scholars in the labour economics field, I was a research assistant on a big study in the States modelling physician labour markets in Kansas. They were trying to replan their workforce for sustainability over the long run so we got to do a lot of forecasting. Along with coursework and involvement in a number of research projects I got bitten by the health economics ‘bug’ and I ended up going in a completely different direction—I was going to be a macroeconomist in labour, and I ended up becoming a microeconomist in health.
It turned out that it was the right thing and I’ve never regretted it. Health is one of the most multidisciplinary areas of economics; it draws on insights from so many fields that it’s constantly interesting. I’ve always liked the variety and the people with expertise in a wide array of disciplines—faculty and students—that I’ve been able to work with, from political science, sociology, epidemiology, psychology and biostatistics. That’s been really enriching intellectually.
What are you studying these days?
My more recent areas of research look at the long-run effects of experiences in childhood—what are the implications for people’s future earnings as adults, educational outcomes and health status in later life having experienced illness, mental illness, poverty in childhood? What are the lifetime effects of these experiences? I think it’s important to look at health and social interventions and their potential returns in a lifetime context. When you start doing that, you start to see that the health system and other social systems like education are really critical investments that yield big returns in terms of improved economic growth, development and quality of life.
Another area I’ve been working on is also related to vulnerability—what does it mean to live an uncertain life where your income and health are uncertain, and what does that mean for people’s lifetime outcomes? When people are under stress and they don’t have security, this materially affects how they live and the kind of health outcomes they’re going to experience. It’s very important to look at that because it also speaks to the role of social programs like publicly funded health care and other social safety nets. We need to understand the programs that are put in place with this lifetime view to say, what difference does this make to people’s longer life outcomes?
Why did you want to be Director of IHPME?
The first reason was that I recognized we were at a critical juncture in terms of enormous opportunity in terms of being able to add to our faculty complement and very exciting emergent areas of research and training. I saw the Institute as uniquely well placed to take advantage of those research and training opportunities. Having been part of IHPME for a long time, and having previously served as Health Services Research Program Director, I thought that I had internalized its values and I could, along with colleagues, be part of the process of ensuring we maintain and build on the position of excellence that we’ve occupied to this point.
I also felt there was an opportunity to increase the diversity of faculty, staff and students that were engaged with and part of the Institute. This is vital to attract truly excellent people and for us to ensure that we’re relevant and remain at the top of our game. Like many of us, I grew up in a very multiracial, multiethnic community and that has been a very enriching and privileged experience for me. We live in one of the most diverse cities on earth and our Institute should reflect those values and draw on that richness to the fullest extent possible.
What is the most challenging aspect of being a leader?
Ensuring that I’m engaging as fully as possible with everyone. I’ve always believed that the most important function of a leader is to catalyze the talent of the people in the group that they are leading. We have a diverse community of people—different stakeholders, faculty, students—and maintaining ongoing engagement to ensure that I’m hearing all of the voices all of the time is something that I think is very important.
I really love to talk to people and find out what they’re doing, what matters to them and what research and training priorities they think are important. Our faculty really care about the students and the programs. The students are especially inspiring to me with their passion and ideas, and our staff are so dedicated. So, it’s ensuring all of those voices are heard and that I never lose touch with those voices in any decisions we have to make. And in the end, to provide an environment that is dynamic and inclusive and which enables all the members of IHPME to reach their full potential.
How do you balance your professional responsibilities with your personal life?
There’s no question that being an academic is not a nine-to-five job. It never has been, and probably never will be. It has given me a rich intellectual life, which I think, has made me a better person at home with my kids and my spouse. My family is the foundation of my life and that has allowed me to try new things. I’ve never seen them as in competition, although it is a challenge to manage time.
On one sabbatical, I went to UC-Berkeley. It’s a pretty demanding research environment and I had the kids there. That’s how I did things—I said, ‘I’m a mother. If you want me to work with you, these are the conditions.’ They said, ‘that’s no problem.’
You’re going to get the stuff done, but give yourself a break and say, ‘right now my child needs me for lunch or help with their school work. That’s important right now. When I have a break, I’ll deal with the other stuff.’
What advice would you give your younger self?
I wouldn’t get as stressed about things. When you get that rejection of a grant or a paper, to recognize that there are always opportunities. If you keep going, remain committed to your work and believe in what you’re doing, there will be other opportunities, and sometimes those opportunities are better than the original ones.
When you’re young, you think every single thing is so important because you don’t have the history to realize that things are cyclical. You have to be around long enough to realize there are cycles [laughs]. Don’t sweat the small stuff—and realize what the small stuff is. This grant or that paper is one step in what is a marathon or part of a much longer trajectory. There are lots and lots of other opportunities that will materialize, and they may be even better ones that you hadn’t anticipated.