HBS Fails a Critical Test of a Community That Cares

Weld Hall, with Boylston Hall behind left, and Smith Campus center behind right. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

[Editor’s note: On January 30, the HBS community received an email from Angela Crispi and Nitin Nohria announcing that Harvard University Health Services’ Business School Clinic, located in Cumnock, will close at the end of this semester. Harvard University Group Health Plan patients at HBS need a new primary care physician effective June 1.]

Harvard Business School’s mission is to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. Many HBS leaders have had a positive impact on our community over the years, but the most clear-cut measure of success is unquestionably saving the lives of the members around us. One would think that HBS would make an effort to celebrate the group who has worked tirelessly and successfully behind the scenes to keep students and faculty healthy. Instead, this incredible team, led by Dr. Bruce Biller, has abruptly been given termination notices and told they are no longer wanted on campus. They haven’t even been offered jobs elsewhere in the University. They appear to have been tossed out like garbage.

The HBS website claims that “HBS is the only top business school in the United States with a self-contained, residential campus that forms its own vibrant community in the heart of one of the world’s greatest cities.” There are many people who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to maintain that vibrancy, but none with the impact of Dr. Biller and his team. The lives he has saved include that of a professor who went to see Dr. Biller several years ago complaining of a leg cramp. After an examination Biller insisted he go directly to the hospital, that very minute, for tests. They revealed a pulmonary embolism that would have killed him. Dr. Biller’s quick actions enabled his recovery, and today he continues his research and teaching on campus.

Dr. Biller’s leadership and work ethic are drilled into his entire team. I went in for a routine checkup two years ago, and Dr. Lisa Barna noted that I was late for my mammogram. I promised to get one ASAP and promptly became caught up in work. I began getting phone calls from one of the staff at the front desk reminding me about the mammogram (I wish I could remember her name). Again, I blithely promised to follow through but could not make the time. I soon became practiced at avoiding her calls; when I could tell that the call was from Biller’s group, I let it go to voicemail.

As the months went by she became more insistent, and more annoying. She varied the times she called and finally caught me unaware. Once again, I faithfully promised to go. I am sure she knew I wouldn’t. She kept calling. Last spring I decided I had had enough of this woman who would not give up and made the mammogram appointment. It was irregular, and I was told to come back for a biopsy. The news was devastating: last April I was diagnosed with Stage 2B invasive ductal carcinoma in my right breast, a very aggressive cancer that had spread to my lymph nodes. I went into shock. Dr. Barna called me at home and on my cell with repeated messages of support. That support meant so much to me, and it turned out to be crucial to my recovery. Throughout the treatment, Dr. Barna made it clear that she would do whatever it took to help me, whether or not I actually felt good enough to come in and see her, which I certainly didn’t. Nevertheless, she approved PET scans, MRIs, CAT scans, echocardiograms, and a wide array of critical drugs that were immediately required to try to save my life.

Sadly, my experiences at the Smith Center during this time were quite different. Maintenance medication that I had taken for decades was periodically denied from a doctor at the Smith Center because I could not get in to see him, even though I had made it clear that I was undergoing cancer treatment and was very ill. This was incredibly stressful and resulted in my periodically going without. Turnover has also been a problem at the Smith Center. Both times I have gone to see them, the doctors left Harvard for other jobs while my ailment was being treated. In one case, the second doctor was replaced by a third, all within a year. How can this group be a caring part of the HBS community when they aren’t on campus and they cannot seem to retain their doctors? When the notice you receive that they would like to see you is in the form of a medication denial from the pharmacy? How many personal phone calls did I receive from them during the past year asking how I was doing? Zero. In my case they did not act like a caring member of the HBS community at all.

Miraculously, after months of chemotherapy, two surgeries, and radiation, the treatment appears to have eliminated all signs of cancer. I am not out of the woods, since the next year of treatment will be crucial to my recovery. But I am now officially a cancer survivor, wholly and completely because of a stubborn and annoying member of Dr. Biller’s front desk team who believed so strongly in the mission of her group that she would not give up until I had had that mammogram. In my opinion there is no stronger evidence of leadership that makes a difference than how each member of the team acts to fulfill its mission. Dr. Biller’s late nights and early mornings sent a clear message to every member of his team, and that message came through loud and clear.

Would I have been treated the same at the health care factory across the river? My previous experiences indicate not.

The idea that I am now going to be assigned a primary care practitioner from the Smith Center is quite frankly terrifying. There was no warning, no phone call, just a digital mass email notification with completely spurious justifications. The claim that we are facing “increasing space constraints” on campus (as the email said) in fact does not “highlight that the need for a clinic at HBS has diminished and a change is timely.” The idea that our medical clinic is causing a shortage of space beggars belief, particularly given the small amount of space the health team occupies. Likewise, the argument that we should close the health center because the campus is becoming more diverse as more members of the University visit us is a non sequitur. Removing primary care from a community of 2,500 people simply because we now welcome more visitors from across campus? The number of students and full-time staff on campus has increased over the decades, completely independent from the additional visitors we are hosting. Such a claim insults our collective intelligence.

I would like to remind the faceless bureaucrats who have made this destructive decision that our students will not become what we teach; they will watch and copy what we do. In punishing Dr. Biller and his team, and furthermore eliminating them entirely from the HBS community, these decision makers are removing the extraordinary care that has long supported our mission. Hopefully, other schools like the Law School will have the compassion and integrity not to follow suit. Meanwhile, the cost-cutting race to the bottom appears to be on, consequences be damned! To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, HBS may well understand the price of all things on campus, but sadly, it has no comprehension of their value.

The author, whose name has been withheld to preserve medical privacy, was a research associate at HBS for five years and an assistant news editor at the Harbus.