The National Academy of Medicine (NAM) today announced that Robert Califf is the recipient of the 2023 Gustav O. Lienhard Award for Advancement of Health Care, for his instrumental role leading clinical trials and health outcomes research and his ability to translate research into advances in science, evidence-based medicine, and improved public health. The award, which recognizes Califf’s achievements with a medal, will be presented at the NAM’s annual meeting on Oct. 8. Califf is the commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Califf has led thousands of groundbreaking clinical cardiology research studies that have impacted health care for heart disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S. He helped create a national research network investigating the treatment of heart attacks. This work led to the implementation of the first cardiovascular “mega-trials” and demonstrated that academic research organizations could conduct cutting-edge research. For example, the nine Thrombolysis and Angioplasty in Myocardial Infarction (TAMI) trials not only helped transform acute care for heart attack patients, but also helped to create the vision for effective and nimble national research networks.

Califf’s work emphasizes the importance of analyzing patient-level data to determine the effectiveness of health care practices, and it has contributed to a re-conceptualizing of what an open-science and collaborative data approach to health care can achieve.

Califf’s focus on data integrity and sharing has ensured that the public benefits from clinical research. Spending more than 35 years of his career in leadership roles at Duke University, he shaped major initiatives aimed at improving methods and infrastructure for clinical research, including the Clinical Trials Transformation Initiative, co-founded by the FDA and Duke. He also served as the principal investigator for Duke’s Clinical and Translational Science Award, the NIH Health Care Systems Research Collaboratory coordinating center, and co-principal investigator of the National Patient-Centered Clinical Research Network. Califf helped launch and lead Duke University’s health data science center, Duke Forge, which develops tools and partnerships that translate insights into actionable programs. He also served as the founding director of the Duke Clinical Research Institute, the world’s largest academic research organization with 1,000 employees and an annual budget of $320 million.

Throughout his career, Califf has been concerned about access to better health outcomes for diverse populations, with a focus on the southern U.S. He has been a part of diverse research teams building models of integrated social, behavioral, and medical care from Mississippi to West Virginia, especially in North Carolina and South Carolina. These efforts included the recruitment and support of Duke Medical School students.

“In leading trials that improved care for heart disease patients, and in reshaping the promise of using data and evidence to guide clinical care, Califf has made an indelible mark on the landscape of American medicine,” said NAM President Victor J. Dzau. “He has not only done groundbreaking research – he’s made the research system as a whole work better for patients. His leadership positions spanning the public and private sectors and pioneering efforts to make health care more responsive to data and research findings make him most deserving of this prestigious award.”

In addition to being elected to the NAM in 2016, Califf served the NAM as a member of the Committee on Identifying and Preventing Medication Errors, the Board on Health Sciences Policy, the Forum on Drug Discovery, Development, and Translation, and the Clinical Research Roundtable, in addition to service on other NAM committees, panels, and roundtables.

Califf is the 38th recipient of the Lienhard Award. Given annually, the award recognizes outstanding national achievement in improving personal health care in the United States. Nominees are eligible for consideration without regard to education or profession, and award recipients are selected by a committee of experts convened by the National Academy of Medicine. This year’s selection committee was chaired by Clyde W. Yancy, vice dean for diversity and inclusion; Magerstadt Professor of Medicine; professor of medical social sciences and internal medicine; and chief of the Division of Cardiology, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

The Lienhard Award is funded by an endowment from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Gustav O. Lienhard was chair of the foundation’s board of trustees from the organization’s establishment in 1971 to his retirement in 1986 — a period in which the foundation moved to the forefront of American philanthropy in health care. Lienhard, who died in 1987, built his career with Johnson & Johnson, beginning as an accountant and retiring 39 years later as its president.

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