The finalists for WashingtonExec’s Pinnacle Awards were announced Oct. 8, and we’ll be highlighting some of them until the event takes place virtually Nov. 12.
Next up is Dr. Thomas Osborne, who’s a Healthcare Government Executive of the Year finalist. He serves as director of the National Center for Collaborative Healthcare Innovation at the Department of Veterans Affairs and chief medical informatics officer at the VA Palo Alto Healthcare System. Here, he talks success, future focus areas and career advice.
What has made you successful in your current role?
My success has been the product of the amazing people around me. A crucial underlining component is exceptional collaboration, for which my style of servant leadership is particularly well suited to foster. In broad strokes, it involves creating an environment for others to succeed. More specifically, it involves the culmination of multiple subtle and profound efforts for individuals, the team and to one’s self.
As effective leaders, it is essential to cultivate our team members skills, align interests and break down barriers when required. Importantly, I have found that greatest long-term success is achieved when we create a culture of safety, trust and empowerment through consistent daily actions that show our staff they are our most valuable resource.
I strive to convey an inspirational vision that is bigger than any of us. Our team knows that we create far reaching positive impact with synergetic collaborations that leverage our complementary talents. Together, we facilitate an environment for personal success that is also directly aligned with team success. The resultant community of cooperation has unified us to higher levels of achievement and the secondary effect is that it reinforces a positive atmosphere where people love their job.
Notably, this type of leadership is not a rank; it is a dedication to others. It involves sacrifice and taking risks so that others may be elevated. This commitment also means leading by example, to care deeply for others and the daily reflection of how to constantly improve.
What are you most proud of having been a part of in your current organization?
The next wave of impactful advancements will emerge at the intersection of different perspectives, talents and capabilities. Therefore, I am most proud of spearheading and leading NCCHI through the VHA Innovation Ecosystem. This new center has been specifically designed as a bridge that catalyzes otherwise isolated institutions and resources to deliver the most advanced health care possible to our veterans.
In the last year, NCCHI has been tremendously productive and we have established multiple groundbreaking partnerships with industry, nonprofits, other government agencies and throughout the VA. Our largest industry partnership leverages the unique strengths of Verizon, Microsoft and MediVis.
Through extensive collaborative efforts and professional expertise, this partnership has enabled our institution to be one of the first 5G hospitals in the world. It has also brought a multitude of cutting-edge wireless health care solutions including augmented reality for clinical training, presurgical planning and operative guidance, all of which have the potential to dramatically improve patient safety, clinical outcomes and operational efficiency.
Our comprehensive VA staff survey assessment, after a large AR demonstration, has revealed that these solutions also have dramatic unintended positive impact on staff morale including improving employees’ opinions about VA and their intent to continue working at VA.
Our NCCHI partnership with the XPRIZE Foundation is bringing leading VA innovators and health care providers next to their private sector and academic counterparts from around the world to develop new ways of combatting COVID-19. As part of this effort, NCCHI has also joined the AI for Good Pandemic Alliance, which I have been asked to chair, and is organized in partnership with over 35 sister United Nations agencies.
We have also been partnering on a variety of health care solutions with other government agencies. Our collaboration with the U.S. Department of Defense includes projects that utilize augmented reality, artificial intelligence and sensors technology for advanced diagnostic tools and early warning systems for COVID-19.
We have also partnered with the U.S Department of Energy and are leveraging their supercomputers to better understand and inform treatments for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and prostate cancer.
In addition, we have also partnered with various VA departments across the country to develop and validate a variety of clinical advancements. For example, this year, we have already published exciting results about the work we have done on an automated COVID-19 predictive tool, an automated preoperative risk assessment score, and value-driven collaborations to decrease diagnostic testing waste.
On the operational side, we have fully deployed an advanced cloud-based enterprise environmental monitoring system that is being used to monitor over one thousand assets throughout our large health care system. This cloud system eliminates manual employee monitoring and reduces loss of costly and critically valuable resources such as medications, pathology samples and medical equipment.
Because of the exceptional success of NCCHI, we are proud to share that four other innovation centers are being cultivated to follow the path we have blazed.
What are your primary focuses areas going forward, and why are those so important to the future of the nation?
Health care is facing a titanic confluence of three enormous challenges; we have skyrocketing health care costs that exceed 20% of our GDP, a growing older population with multiple comorbidities, and not enough health care providers to care for them even if we could afford it.
As a result, increasing numbers of patients and families will be forced to make difficult decisions about how to manage these challenges for their loved ones. The scope of the economic and ethical dilemmas alone may have broad unintended destabilizing consequences for our country. Therefore, we need a paradigm shift in how we approach these health care challenges and there is no time to waste.
Because our VA population is statistically more likely to face economic and age-related challenges, we have had a lead in addressing these issues before the rest of the country. In addition, as the largest integrated health care system in the U.S., we have been attuned to patients diverse geographic and demographic differences. Therefore, the solutions that we have designed and built for VA are well positioned to address growing needs for the rest of our country.
While these health care challenges are mounting, technological advancements are also accelerating rapidly. As a result, new cutting-edge tools have the potential to be a vital part of scalable solutions. However, these technologies can only be successful in medicine if they are thoughtfully designed, developed and implemented in close collaboration with clinicians, administrations and policymakers in health care. NCCHI has taken bold steps to lead this important strategy.
This confluence of challenges and opportunities also brings great responsibility. As a result, my primary focus has been creating a productive environment where pioneering solutions can be successfully developed at the catalytic intersection of diverse expertise and resources. Our 1-year-old VA NCCHI has rapidly established a large number of groundbreaking partnerships and solutions to address these challenges.
It is our goal that in building the health care system of the future, we will not only deliver the best and most advanced health care for our veterans but that our work will also have far-reaching positive impact for the rest of the U.S. and the world.
Looking back at your career, what are you most proud of?
Looking back on my career, I am most proud of my ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles on the academic journey to become a physician.
I was born when my family was living and working on a 100-year-old farm, where the only water came from a shallow sulfur-infused well. The nearest hospital was two hours away from our farm and when medical emergencies required it, we took the long journey in our old pickup truck.
My first formal exposure to health care occurred in high school when I joined the local volunteer ambulance corps and became an EMT. I never dared to imagine anything more for myself in health care until the day when I was able to save a friend’s life with the emergency training I received. From that point on, my viewpoint began to shift, and against the odds, I went to college.
Athletics likely created opportunities for me to go to college that may not have been possible otherwise. Nonetheless, even though no one expected me to, I began to quietly consider the idea of taking science courses. I knew in my heart there was more I wanted to do with my life, I was excited that science was a path and was confident that no one would work harder than me.
Unfortunately, I miscalculated my academic disadvantage, and in the first day of chemistry 101, I was completely lost. At the end of that first day, I protested the obscurity of the material to a classmate, and when she told me with a smile it was simply review, I knew I was in trouble. After a brief existential crisis, I pivoted and dropped that class while I developed an alternative plan.
Not one to give up, I continued to strategize about how to overcome my academic handicap. Eventually, I was able to obtain a high school chemistry textbook from a good friend. During the following summer, in the evenings after working construction jobs, I quietly taught myself chemistry one page at a time.
The following semester, I worked as hard as I knew how, and as a result was able to redeem myself with excellent grades. I then repeated the process for all my other classes while dividing my time between work, school and sports. In the end, I was accepted into an incredible medical school, and I feel very proud to be part of this noble field working in the service of others.
What’s your best career advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps?
I am fortunate to be a mentor to some amazing people. In our discussions, it is nearly universal that a version of this question eventually comes up. My first recommendation centers on guiding others to recognize and cultivate their individual core passions before designing their future roadmap.
In these discussions, I also emphasize that correctly identifying their personal deep driving motivation can be challenging because of strong external expectations from family, friends and society. Although accurately uncovering one’s own drivers takes effort, it is worth the energy because with this clarity, it is easier to recognize aligned opportunities and to avoid wasting time on those things that are not.
Therefore, with this personal knowledge, the likelihood of appropriately positioning one’s career is optimized and the path is naturally illuminated. Another exciting side effect is that when we do what resonates with us deeply, we have a greater love for our work, enjoy heightened personal success, and this positive effect extends to those around us.
When these conversations come back to my specific career footsteps, I typically emphasize that what makes sense for some people may not be the best for others. However, I am also happy to share that a core resonating force that excites me every day is the drive to have far-reaching positive impact on the lives of others. Because exceptional leadership is a critical element to successfully achieving this goal, it has become an important focus that I continually work to cultivate.