12/02/2011 Magazine Staff

David Ansell M.D., M.P.H., '74



If you think there are problems with today’s healthcare, David Ansell ’74 would agree with you. But he would also tell you that the issues are longstanding.

That, in part, is why he wrote County: Life, Death and Politics at Chicago’s Public Hospital. It offers a dramatic account of his 17 years at Cook County Hospital, Chicago’s public medical facility. It chronicles the indignities, delays and inferior care endured by many of the city’s uninsured.

A biology major, Ansell had long planned to become a physician. But while pursuing his medical degree at SUNY Upstate Medical University, he became aware of a shortcoming in medical training. Underlying social conditions, which exacerbate many diseases, were often overlooked.

In response, he took his career to Cook County. Built in 1914, the facility was dilapidated, overcrowded and poorly administered. Ansell’s SUNY professors warned him that working there would be “career suicide.”

But Ansell went anyway. He discovered that inequality of care was systemic to America’s healthcare. One problem then was “patient dumping,” in which private hospitals shipped uninsured patients to public facilities. Ansell and his colleagues wrote a paper on the phenomenon for the New England Journal of Medicine. Their work led to the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act of 1987, which requires that all hospitals admit emergency patients.

After 17 years at Cook County and 10 years at Mount Sinai Hospital in Chicago, Ansell is now chief medical officer at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center. He and his wife, Paula M. Grabler, M.D., ’74, a radiologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, have two children.

Ansell couldn’t speak more highly of his F&M experience. “A liberal arts education was the greatest preparation I could have had,” he says. “Medicine is a science, but it’s a social science as much as a biological science. Exploring history and literature and the arts is how we come to understand the human condition.”

Rebuilt in 2002, Cook County today is a modern medical center, where Ansell sits on the board. Even though inequalities still exist in healthcare, Ansell remains hopeful. “We still have 51 million uninsured,” he says. “Our healthcare is still twice as expensive as the next most expensive system, while we have worse outcomes. But I have optimism. Single-Payer Healthcare, Medicare for All. We won’t get there right away, but change is coming.”

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