Inside Track: Andrew Haig specializes in building programs to rebuild patients’ lives
Mary Free Bed’s ‘dominant force’ in market is enough to capture attention of globetrotting rehab doctor
Dr. Andrew Haig’s passion for rehabilitation has taken him around the globe, where he helps build physical rehab programs in impoverished countries and mentors young doctors.
“I work a lot in Africa and Asia helping rehab doctors and health systems build programs for people with disabilities,” he said. “I just returned from Kuala Lumpur, where my South Asian group is forming a network for India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to work together.”
Haig said in many countries there is a lack of investment in training young doctors to provide rehabilitation services.
“Overseas, it’s a sense that people with disability can’t do things,” Haig said. “Prejudice runs deep over there, from families to patients to the governments. Getting governments to understand that 15 percent of their population isn’t contributing to their society as they could — it’s a tough task.”
Haig said he doesn’t treat patients on his overseas trips. Instead, he spends his time meeting with government and health-care leaders and working with doctors as a mentor.
“I sit down with their young doctors and try to turn them into famous doctors in rehabilitation,” he said.
Haig said he’s been doing this work since taking a sabbatical year from the University of Michigan from 2001-02 and spending part of that time in Vienna, Austria.
He said while he learned a lot about the European health system, his wife, Brigit, and world events inspired him to get involved with global health policy.
“My wife spent time in Haiti as a speech pathologist and came back very upset. And we had started a war that the Europeans were angry at, and I decided I needed to do something to stay engaged internationally. So when I got back from Europe, I called a meeting of the top leaders in the United States in my field and said ‘what are we going to do?’ ”
Since then he’s continued to spearhead rehabilitation programs globally as president of The International Rehabilitation Forum.
He recently was asked to help the country of Brunei develop its national rehabilitation program through the University of Michigan, where Haig is a professor emeritus of physical medicine and rehabilitation.
“The minister of health has announced building a rehabilitation center, building a program and doing some training,” Haig said. “So that is exciting, helping them to grow something their country really needs.”
Haig became interested in medicine as a teenager. He said his mother worked as an x-ray technician. During evenings, Haig and his father would go to the hospital and help her develop x-rays.
His interest landed him other tasks in the hospital, with some of the emergency room doctors even letting him stitch up patients.
“I started doing work there and became fascinated with medicine,” he said.
After high school, Haig attended a three-year pre-med honors program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he received his undergraduate degree.
While in college, he ran out of money and took a job as a swim coach.
He said he loved coaching.
“I decided when I went to medical school that I needed to do something related to coaching, and the best field ever was rehabilitation, because of course we take care of athletes, but we also take care of people with serious medical problems that need exercise and to be inspired,” he explained.
Haig has dyslexia and said he is beginning to understand his own condition as just a differing ability.
“I realized even though I struggled to get through organic chemistry, I had other skills, such as the ability of juggling a lot of balls in the air and coordinating people,” he said. “Those [skills] are inherent in people with dyslexia, not coincidence.”
Haig received his medical degree from the Medical College of Wisconsin, then completed his specialty training at Northwestern University’s Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
He moved with his wife to Vermont after finishing his training and became part of a team that was doing world-class research.
“We went to Vermont because my wife was going to grad school there, and I tripped into the world’s top spine-and-back-pain research team at the University of Vermont,” he said.
He followed his time in Vermont with a move to the small town of Neenah, Wisconsin, where he spent seven years as medical director of the rehabilitation center he designed.
“It was an innovative farm town, which was leading the United States in the lean manufacturing process in health care,” he said. “I was surrounded by brilliant leaders and innovators.”
The research experience from Vermont coupled with the program-building experience in Wisconsin brought the University of Michigan to Haig’s door.
Haig said the university recruited him to build its spine program, which he said became known as one of the best in the country while he was running it.
Since his son, an elite Nordic skier, attends high school at the Stratton Mountain School in Vermont, Haig relocated to support his ski career.
He said he had no intention of returning to Michigan but agreed to visit Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids this past year.
“I was blown away from the vision they have,” he said. “They are on the verge of being the best in the country, and I want to be a part of that.”
In February, Haig accepted the position of vice president of accountable care and medical informatics at Mary Free Bed.
He said under CEO Kent Riddle’s leadership, Mary Free Bed has expanded from a well-respected local hospital to a “dominant force” in the state due to partnerships with other health systems.
“The job I have is to look at the services Mary Free Bed provides and discover how we can help our partner hospitals to do better in those areas, get the data together to figure out how we can cut costs and improve quality, and then interact with the insurers in the state to find ways we can work with them creatively.”
Haig remains involved with several other projects, including an effort with the secretary of Veterans Affairs to change the culture and quality of care in VA systems across the country and a cancer rehabilitation research project between Mary Free Bed and U-M.
His U-M research team was recognized in May with what is widely regarded as the top spine research award in the world, from the International Society for the Study of the Lumbar Spine. In October, he’ll receive the Distinguished Researcher Award from the American Association for Neuromuscular and Electrodiagnostic Medicine.
Haig swears he has down time, which he often spends on 100-mile bike rides with his son or writing short stories about his latest journey to share with his staff.