When Alan R. Nelson, ’58 MD, graduated from Northwestern, he returned to his home state of Utah to embark on a busy career as an internist specializing in endocrinology. An idealist, though, he was not content to simply practice medicine: Nelson soon became a moving force in helping to shape national healthcare policy.
In 1971, he was chosen to head a Utah Medical Association (UMA) committee to develop a quality assurance mechanism for state medical care ‒ resulting in a grant to develop a statewide peer review program. This step became the first in a staircase of healthcare policy advising appointments. Five years later, he was elected UMA president, followed by a seat on the American Medical Association (AMA) board of trustees in 1977. A series of positions on various AMA committees culminated in Nelson serving as the organization’s president from 1989-90.
During his tenure as AMA president, he led the development of several initiatives including the Health Access America Program ‒ an initiative of the AMA to improve access to affordable, high-quality health care.
During much of his time as a mover and shaker in his profession, he retained his private practice in Salt Lake City. After his leadership position at the AMA, his medical-political career continued: from 1991-92, he was the World Medical Association President. He continued seeing patients until he became chief executive officer of the American Society of Internal Medicine (ASIM) in 1992. Following the merger of ASIM and the American College of Physicians (ACP), Nelson served as associate EVP/CEO of the merged organization until his semi-retirement in 2000, and as special advisor to the EVP/CEO of ACP until 2010.
Even in semi-retirement, Nelson barely slowed his pace. He held an appointment to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (which advises the United States Congress on Medicare policies around payment, quality and access to care) from 2000 to 2006. He has testified in hearings before Senate committees a well as the House Ways and Means and Commerce Committees. Nelson has also testified in hearings held by the FDA, Physician Payment Review Commission and the Practicing Physicians Advisory Council.
A member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences (IOM), he has served on more than 15 study committees and roundtables, including the Committee on Redesigning Health Insurance Benefits, Payment and Performance Improvement Programs, and the Subcommittee on Quality Improvement Organizations’ Evaluation from 2004-06. Nelson was chair of the IOM Committee on Ethnic and Racial Disparities in Health Care and was a co-editor of the study report, “Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care” (2003).
At the height of his policy making, Nelson had no regrets about his role being a voice for his fellow physicians. “Medicine truly is a rewarding profession,” commented Nelson in a spring 1989 Ward Rounds feature article. “And it will continue to be one into the next century ‒ if we can get past a couple of roadblocks and give the bright, idealistic young people now entering the profession what they need: the confidence to bring to bear scientific miracles and to put those miracles at our fingertips.”
In 2003, Nelson received the medical school’s Distinguished Medical Alumnus Award and in 2005, the Northwestern University Alumni Merit Award, among many other well-deserved accolades throughout his distinguished career in service to his profession.
Dr. Nelson was featured in the spring 1989 issue of Ward Rounds Magazine. Read the full article here.