Most Harvard professors can boast a seemingly endless array of academic accolades, but Donald M. Berwick ’68, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health (SPH) and Harvard Medical School (HMS), last week received an award shared by only a few Americans—an appointment as an honorary Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.
Queen Elizabeth II bestowed the honor on Berwick, a leading authority on health care quality and improvement, for his efforts to help reform Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) since the mid-1990s.
As an honorary knight, Berwick will join such Americans as Bill Gates, Class of 1977; Steven Spielberg; Alan Greenspan; Rudy Giuliani; Wesley Clark; and Norman Schwarzkopf.
And while the honorary appointment might not garner Berwick VIP treatment in the U.S., it catapults him to one of the most distinguished echelons of British society.
“It is extraordinarily rare,” said Terri Evans, a spokeswoman for the British Consulate-General in Boston. “That level of distinction is really reserved for exceptional achievement.”
Berwick is the first American from New England in at least 15 years to be made an honorary knight, according to Evans. At most, two or three Americans across the nation receive the honor each year.
Berwick played an important role in helping Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour Party develop a plan to improve the NHS—especially through its “Modernisation Plan” for the U.K.’s health care system.
“There was a great deal of overlap between their work and the work we’d done,” said Berwick, who was the only non-British member of the Modernisation Plan’s board. “They adapted a number of techniques that my colleagues and I had developed in the U.S.”
Berwick said he had also worked to help plot the future path of Britain’s health care system.
Under the Labour Party’s reforms, health care waiting times were drastically reduced, cancer treatment became more efficient, and care for heart-attack patients was improved, Berwick explained, citing independent assessments by private health care foundations.
Thomson Professor of Government James E. Alt, who studies British politics, said that the British government had “some success” in its recent health care reforms, particularly in its push to reduce hospital waiting lists. But he also acknowledged—as did the reports Berwick cited—that Britain’s health care system has several hurdles that it must still overcome.
“Compared to the severe problems the NHS faces in improving the quality of service and accountability of doctors,” Alt wrote in an e-mail, “there is still a long way to go.”
Sir Brian Jarman, a former president of the British Medical Association, echoed Alt’s observation.
“Waiting times for hospital entry are virtually unchanged since 1997, [and] we still have fewer doctors and hospital beds per head…than comparable Western countries,” Jarman wrote in an e-mail.
HMS and SPH Professor Howard H. Hiatt—who co-teaches General Education 187, “The Quality of Health Care in America,” with Berwick and has worked closely with him in other endeavors—said he could speak “only in superlatives” about his colleague.