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Some governments may shun his straight talk, but Chris Murray’s prescriptions for global health could help all of us live better and longer.

Chris Murray
Chris Murray. Photo by Mary Levin.
Chris Murray says things people don’t always want to hear.

When UNICEF announced early in the fall that child mortality rates were at an all-time low, Murray pointed out that they weren’t low enough.

“Considering all the tools we have for child survival, we are not doing better at reducing child mortality now than we were three decades ago,” Murray, a world-renowned health economist, told the Associated Press. Murray noted that even though child mortality has fallen, it’s not falling fast enough to meet the United Nations’ target of a 67 percent decline by 2015.

In 2000, when Murray was at the World Health Organization, he and a team of researchers rattled the health establishment by ranking the world’s health-care systems. The team compared each population’s health to how effectively its government spent money on health and how well the public health systems prevented illness. Japan, which spends $1,759 per person a year on health care, ranked No. 10, while the United States, which spends $3,724 per person, was rated 37th in the world (see chart).

It’s Murray’s radical way of examining health care, his courage to ask tough questions and the guts to deliver objective—and sometimes unpopular—findings that have made him a leader in global health and founder of the new UW Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

“Chris’ assessment of the performance of the public health sector—that was a good way to win no friends. But it had to be done," says Harvard Medicine Professor Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health and the subject of Tracy Kidder’s best-seller Mountains Beyond Mountains.

“Chris is a leading innovator of ways of measuring health,” adds Julio Frenk, the former health minister of MexicoFrenk, now with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Throughout his career, he has never been daunted by taking on enormous tasks. The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation itself is a huge undertaking, and it requires someone who had previous successes in projects of this scope and this scale, which Chris clearly does.”

The University of Washington hired Murray away from Harvard University this past summer to found and lead the new institute, funded in part by a $105 million gift from the Gates Foundation. Under his direction, the institute’s researchers will monitor global health conditions and health systems, as well as evaluate interventions, initiatives and reforms. The findings may be used by governments to set health-care priorities and policy (see Providing the Missing Pieces to the Global Health Puzzle”). Murray was elected to the prestigious Institute of Medicine in October.
“He’s a great catch for the UW because he is very good technically, and he’s connected to everyone who’s anyone in global health,” says Jim Yong Kim, Harvard professor of medicine, co-founder (with Farmer) of Partners in Health and a good friend of Murray’s.

“Whenever I need a ‘read’ on what’s going on in the global health community, I call Chris.”