“Since its inception 40 years ago, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholars program has remained dedicated to its core mission—preparing physicians to address the shortcomings and limitations of American medicine.”—Desmond K. Runyan, national program director and alumnus of the Clinical Scholars program.

When RWJF opened its doors in 1972, the Clinical Scholars program was the Foundation’s first grant program and the progenitor of its sustained investments in human capital. This marked the beginning of a four-decade commitment to investing in those who would challenge the status quo and shape the future of health and health care in the United States.

The Clinical Scholars program integrates scholars’ clinical expertise with training in program development, leadership, and community-based research methods to help them solve some of the toughest challenges posed by the U.S. health care system. In recent years, Clinical Scholars have examined pressing issues affecting the lives of millions of Americans—including exploding obesity rates, children’s access to quality health care, and end-of-life care and decisions.

The original idea for the program took root during a meeting with some of the best thinkers in education, medicine, economics, and public health. These leaders came together to examine the disconnect between medical education and patient care. However, discussion among a small breakaway group of attendees—frustrated with the meeting’s progress—led to the powerful idea behind the Clinical Scholars program: the creation of a new kind of medical and academic high-achiever.

These outstanding young physicians would be change agents, who grasp the impact of societal forces on health care, recognize the necessity of social research to expose problems, rely on evidence to define solutions, and have the skill and determination to effect change.

Included in the planning group was the late Margaret E. Mahoney, a program officer for the Carnegie Foundation. She had the resources, know-how and drive to make this vision a reality. Mahoney initiated the Clinical Scholars program while serving as a program officer at the Carnegie Corporation, and brought it to RWJF in 1972, where she helped shape the program into an influential and acclaimed training program for young physicians. Mahoney was RWJF’s first vice president, and later the first woman to head a major U.S. philanthropy as president of The Commonwealth Fund. She passed away on December 22, 2011, after a long illness.

Among the first Clinical Scholars was David Satcher, who would go on to become the 16th U.S. Surgeon General. As one of 10 children in a working-poor family raised in Anniston, Ala., when Jim Crow segregation still ruled the South, Satcher struggled to overcome numerous hardships. That experience, coupled with medical and doctorate degrees from Case Western Reserve University, prepared him well for his first job in 1972 in South Central Los Angeles, an area still devastated by riots that had occurred nearly a decade earlier.

Satcher settled into his new position at Martin Luther King, Jr./Drew Medical Center. Eventually, he heard talk about a different kind of health care being delivered across town at the University of California at Los Angeles—the type of community-based, patient-focused health care that he was trying to deliver to his patients at King-Drew.

At UCLA, physicians were learning how to provide this new type of patient care through the research and leadership training provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholars program.

Satcher subsequently became a Clinical Scholar at UCLA and opened a free health care clinic in a church basement in a South Central L.A. neighborhood. “I conducted a study to assess the attitudes of [the] people, about having a physician of their own, and seeing the same physician, and having that physician coordinate their care, and how much they valued that,” Satcher said, adding that the church clinic “turned me into a social scientist.”

Today, there are more than 1,200 Clinical Scholars alumni who have been supported by RWJF and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which has been the Foundation’s partner in creating physician change agents for more than 30 years.

This network of Clinical Scholars is a powerful force changing the health care status quo of the nation. They are leaving their mark as White House Fellows; government health officials at the state and federal levels; medical school deans; leaders of private medical institutions; and always as physicians, dedicated to the highest standards of patient care.

They include individuals such as Arthur L. Kellermann, vice president and director of RAND Health and the Paul O’Neill Alcoa Chair in Policy Analysis at the RAND Corporation; Nirav R. Shah, New York State’s health commissioner; and Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary for Preparedness and Response in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Alumni of the Clinical Scholars program also include several leaders at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: President and Chief Executive Officer Risa Lavizzo-Mourey; Senior Vice President and Director of the Health Care Group James S. Marks; and Team Director of the Human Capital Portfolio and Senior Program Officer David Krol.

For more information on RWJF’s commitment to creating change agents, watch a video featuring Clinical Scholars as well as scholars and alumni from other RWJF Human Capital programs.