The National Academy of Medicine today announced Kenneth Wells is the recipient of the 2018 Rhoda and Bernard Sarnat International Prize in Mental Health, for his work developing quality and outcomes approaches to psychiatry and mental health, fostering a generation of clinical investigators and mental health system leaders, and championing partnered, participatory research to advance equity for under-resourced populations. The award, which recognizes Wells’ achievements with a medal and $20,000, will be presented at the National Academy of Medicine’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 15.
Kenneth Wells’ work helped establish the field of quality of care and outcomes assessment within psychiatry and mental health. For example, his work on RAND’s Health Insurance Experiment described the impact of variations in insurance coverage on mental health service use costs and mental health quality of life outcomes. His work on the Medical Outcomes Study, which focused on depression as a tracer condition for assessing quality of care and outcomes, showed that depression is as strong a contributor to impairment in functioning and quality of life as most chronic conditions with important gaps in quality of care in primary care settings – a finding that informed practice guidelines. Wells also developed Partners in Care, a multi-site, clinic-level study which demonstrated that encouraging primary care practices to implement quality improvement for depression led to improved quality of care across ethnic groups, improved depression outcomes and employment status, and reductions in racial/ethnic disparities in mental health outcomes, while being cost-effective relative to commonly used medical treatments.
Wells helped lead a community-partnered participatory research initiative, Community Partners in Care, which evaluated an expanded model of depression collaborative care training for providers in health care and alternative community-based programs in under-resourced communities. This won several national and international awards and was identified in a Cochrane Collaborative review as one of the first studies to demonstrate the effectiveness of coalitions relative to an alternative model to affect the health of minority communities, across all areas of health. Extensions of this model were used to address mental health recovery in New Orleans post-Katrina and other post-disaster areas. In addition, Wells made a significant contribution to capacity for mental health services research through mentoring more than 200 fellows and junior investigators, who went on to become leaders in their fields. Wells is David Weil Endowed Chair and Professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine, Fielding School of Public Health and Semel Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, affiliated adjunct staff at the RAND Corporation, and staff psychiatrist at the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center.
“Through his pioneering, innovative work, Dr. Wells helped establish mental health services research on equal footing with physical health research, helping overcome the stigma of mental illness within policy and practice,” said National Academy of Medicine President Victor J. Dzau. “He gave us knowledge and commitment to make a difference in the lives of people with mental health conditions, especially those with historical disparities in access to mental health services. He is most deserving of this important recognition.”
Since 1992 the Sarnat Prize has been presented to individuals, groups, or organizations that have demonstrated outstanding achievement in improving mental health. The prize recognizes — without regard for professional discipline or nationality — achievements in basic science, clinical application, and public policy that lead to progress in the understanding, etiology, prevention, treatment, or cure of mental disorders, or to the promotion of mental health. As defined by the nominating criteria, the field of mental health encompasses neuroscience, psychology, social work, nursing, psychiatry, and advocacy.
The award is supported by an endowment created by Rhoda and Bernard Sarnat of Los Angeles. Rhoda Sarnat was a licensed clinical social worker, and Bernard Sarnat was a plastic and reconstructive surgeon and researcher. The Sarnats’ concern about the destructive effects of mental illness inspired them to establish the award. Nominations for potential recipients are solicited from Academy members, deans of medical schools, and mental health professionals. This year’s selection committee was chaired by Margarita Alegria, professor of psychology, departments of medicine and psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, and chief, Disparities Research Unit, Massachusetts General Hospital.
The National Academy of Medicine, established in 1970 as the Institute of Medicine, is an independent organization of eminent professionals from diverse fields including health and medicine; the natural, social, and behavioral sciences; and beyond. It serves alongside the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering as an adviser to the nation and the international community. Through its domestic and global initiatives, the NAM works to address critical issues in health, medicine, and related policy and inspire positive action across sectors. The NAM collaborates closely with its peer academies and other divisions within the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
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