John Brooks, Pharmacy Practice and Science

Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

When it rains, it pours.

At least that’s true for John Brooks, a professor in the UI College of Pharmacy who since Aug. 1 has been awarded three federal grants totaling $3.4 million to support his cutting-edge research in comparative effectiveness.

“It’s extraordinary,” Brooks says. “It’s something we’ve been trying to put together for 12 years now. We were trying to put together these ideas, and it was just kind of kismet. What we were trying to do was exactly what the policy makers were trying to think of. So, we were kind of in the right place at the right time.”

The obvious question is: What in the name of Herky the Hawk is comparative effectiveness?

“We’re basically trying to understand how health care treatments work in the real world,” Brooks says.

“You expect clinical trials would probably give you the upper bound of how a treatment would work. But as you move further and further away from patients like those in the clinical trial…you’d expect that the treatment would potentially be less and less effective. So, it’s an open-ended question as to how far a treatment should be spread into the world.

“Our research is trying to ask the question not so much whether a treatment should be available or not, but how extensively it should be used.”

Brooks is well traveled, having received a BA from Michigan State (he remains an ardent Spartan supporter), an MA from UNC-Greensboro, and a PhD from the University of Michigan—all in economics. He came to the UI in 1996 after a three-year term as a service fellow for the Agency for Healthcare Policy & Research, which, 15 years later, has supplied two of his grants. The other came from the National Institute of Aging and the National Institutes of Health.

Brooks recently spoke with fyi about his research, his background, his family, and more.

Why did you come to The University of Iowa?

There was a good opportunity to come here and make of it what I wanted. I was given freedom by the administration to go after certain ideas. Not everyone understood what I was doing, but they provided the freedom to do that. We also had two children, and then another that was born here, and this is a great place to raise a family.

What’s the best thing about your job?

I love to come to work each day, and I love to go home at night. It’s a great set of colleagues to work with, a great environment to bounce ideas off people.

Have you always wanted to do this sort of work?

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a middle linebacker, but that didn’t work out. Somehow, I just wanted to contribute. I believe in this country, and I believe in freedom. I believe that people, if given their druthers, can make the right choices. And I believe that applies even in health care. A lot of the research I’m doing searches for a way to demonstrate that the choices people make in the real world are the right ones.

A few of my favorite things…

Hot and sour soup at Mekong


The book Road to Serfdom

Bluegrass music

The Razor’s Edge with Bill Murray

South Park

The Michigan State Spartans, and any web site devoted to MSU athletics

What was your first job?

A paperboy. I started when I was 11 delivering the Detroit News. I saved up enough money to buy a 1972 Ford Pinto when I was 16. That rusted out in about six months.

On your days off, where would we most likely find you?

Chasing my three teenage children around in their activities. Shuttling them around, enjoying what they’re doing.

Finish this sentence: The best trip or vacation I ever took was…

We went out to southern Utah last summer for five days. My nephew is a travel guide out there, and he took us around. My kids just loved it. It was a really good spot for a family vacation.

If you were to take up a new hobby, what would it be?

I’ve always wanted to relearn a foreign language, learn to swim better, or play tennis.

What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken, and did it pay off?

In my parents’ eye, it was going back to school to get my PhD. I had a master’s degree, and I was working as a consultant in Washington—to my family, it looked like I was doing OK. But I felt like a jack-of-all-trades, a master of none. I became dissatisfied with that. I decided to go back to school. People thought I was crazy.