The Voice: Fall 2002

The Voice

Teresa Meyer Waters’ faith shapes her work in health care policy

Waters, who has over thirty publications to her credit, is as thankful for her writing courses as her mathematics courses.  "[Writing] is the single most important skill needed," she says.  "Writing grants, getting published, and communicating effectively with students all depend on it." Teresa Meyer Waters (’87) says she is “absolutely never bored” in her job. Her work as an economist is challenging and sometimes tiring, but never boring.

Waters, the associate director for research at the Center for Health Services Research and an associate professor in the department of preventive medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (Memphis), has found that the Lord often “takes what you’re doing and turns it round and round” so that you are surprised at the turns your life takes. The life and work and family she enjoys so much today are not what she imagined when she left Dordt College in 1987.

Waters was an accounting major in college, not because she was so set on accounting, but because she wasn’t so set on anything, and it seemed like accounting would be a practical major. She enjoyed her first economics class and loved the calculus courses—which she says were a critical foundation for learning how to think through problems and issues. But she would likely have taken the job offer from a Big Eight accounting firm if it hadn’t been for the encouragement—relentless encouragement, she adds—from Dr. Jasper Lesage and also Dr. Calvin Jongsma to apply to graduate school.

When Vanderbilt University flew her down to visit and offered her a fellowship and living stipend, she decided to try graduate school since it wouldn’t put her further into debt. She figured she could teach economics at the college or university level.

“I thought that’s all you did with a Ph.D.,” she says, adding, “but anyone who attends a top research university soon finds out that the emphasis is on research—and excellence.”

That comment, however, is meant to encourage, not discourage current students.

“I don’t think most students realize how competitive their Dordt education is, what a solid foundation they have,” she says. She thinks that more students should be strongly encouraged to go on to graduate school.

“Like many Dordt students, I knew and my parents knew from kindergarten on that I would go to college—Dordt College even, but neither they nor I thought beyond that.” Teresa says she couldn’t imagine spending more than four more years in school when she began college.

“I found that many of my fellow students at Vanderbilt had more encouragement to go to graduate school, but less background for doing so,” she says. “I received a fabulous education—incredible one-on-one attention, a very solid mathematical background, and just enough economics not to distort my idea of what economics is in graduate school—very mathematical.” She’s convinced it was
better to have a broad education, because she saw too many college economics majors “get blown away” in grad school.

Today Waters works in health economics, a relatively new field when she began her doctoral program fifteen years ago, but a growing one today. Early in her program, she was told that Vanderbilt had a well-known and respected health economist on faculty that she might try to work with. Waters says she was fortunate to become his research assistant. That propelled her into the field she’s in today.

“In the grand scheme of economists, I’m very applied,” she says. “I don’t do anything that doesn’t have practical implications.” Basically, she spends her days trying to improve health policy so that people’s health needs can be better served.

The health field presents an interesting market to study, she says. A great deal of economic theory assumes “perfect” markets. This one is very “imperfect.” Perfect markets have large numbers of buyers and sellers; this one has few sellers (hospitals and physician groups) and few buyers (insurance companies). Perfect markets have price sensitivities; this one doesn’t—almost everyone has insurance. And perfect markets have informed customers; patients often aren’t. She’s done studies that look at how “safety net” hospitals react to changing market conditions and payment policies and how physicians respond to required reporting of medical malpractice payments.

Despite its practical outcomes, her work is usually based on theoretical modeling using complex mathematical formulas to develop hypotheses and test models using large data sets. So, although she describes her work as applied, she spends most of her time doing rigorous academic work.

“Almost everything I do is very long-term. Rewards and pay-offs take time,” she says. “That’s difficult at times,” she admits and says she has to set short-term, intermediate, and long-term goals to feel like she’s making progress. A typical study can take up to three years of research and then another two years to write up and get published.

But through the mathematical rigor, Waters says basically she keeps trying to improve health policy. It’s not always easy. Health care needs are challenging, particularly in Memphis, which is located in the Mississippi Delta, a very poor area of the country with some bad racial issues, she says. She wants to be part of the solution and not part of the problem, which sometimes makes choices difficult when you have a family to protect.

She, her husband, Chris, and her daughters Katie and Samantha, belong to a “wonderful church” that helps give context and support to their living as Christians in all areas of their life. Waters says a Sunday school class she attends reminds her of discussions in GEN 300, “Calling, Task and Culture.”

“My faith is what motivates me. It directs how I live, how I treat people, and how I select topics to research,” she says.

“God calls us to be loving and caring people. There’s no place where that’s more needed than in health care policy.” The most powerful way she can reflect God’s love is by how she relates to people around her, she believes.

In her research she tries to focus on ways to provide a health care safety net for people who have the greatest difficulty getting the health care they need. She addresses issues that she hopes will help providers better meet the needs of all people.

“In higher education most people perceive religion as a crutch, something for those less educated,” she says. “In that context you can be a Bible banger or give quiet testimony.”

“Over the years I’ve seen how a more quiet Christianity has an impact,” she says. “I’ve had friends and colleagues say ‘I see something’ and want to come to church with me.” Some of these have become Christians. At present someone from her husband’s lab has been coming to church with the family.

“So many people in higher education think they don’t need God,” she says. She and her family try to demonstrate that they do.

“I can’t preach to them. God knows what I do well, and it’s not preaching. He’s given me other gifts.”

She strongly encourages Dordt students to explore whether they may be called to policy-setting academic work—and professors to encourage them relentlessly if needed.

“When you let go and let God take control of your life, you can find he has a wonderful plan for you.” She’s found her life challenging and exciting. But not without its dark days. When both she and her husband were faculty at Northwestern University and Chris didn’t get tenure in the bio-medical engineering department, it was a difficult time. Now they both have positions at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and feel they live a more balanced family life than they could have in Chicago. Her brother Peter’s death earlier this year from cancer still clouds her days, but she knows God cares for his children. She is grateful for that confidence.

Waters, who has over thirty publications to her credit, is as thankful for her writing courses as her mathematics courses. “[Writing] is the single most important skill needed,” she says. “Writing grants, getting published, and communicating effectively with students all depend on it.”