Editor’s note: Dr. Jay Schnitzer was named Healthcare Industry Executive of the Year on Nov. 12.
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 is Healthcare Industry Executive of the Year Dr. Jay Schnitzer, who’s chief medical and technology officer at MITRE. Here, he talks professional risks, achievements, career advice and more.
What key achievements did you have in 2019/2020?
In 2019, I was focused on managing our world-class research program at MITRE. It is our responsibility and mission to focus on critical national challenges, working with our sponsors in the federal government, as well as experts from academia, industry and other organizations. For example, in our health research program, we are addressing inequities in health care for vulnerable populations, veterans’ suicide, and using data analytics to support clinical decisions.
One of our most ambitious projects is to develop a common digital data standard and language for oncology, which would allow stakeholders to explore the data from millions of patients to improve cancer treatment and research. This work is a true partnership with many other leaders in oncology who also care deeply about better outcomes for cancer patients.
In 2020, we have continued to drive our research portfolio, but the year has been dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of my background in health care and past pandemics, it seemed natural to jump into this giant problem. And all my experience tells me to form the best team possible when the challenge is that big.
My friend Dr. John Halamka at the Mayo Clinic and I founded the COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition as a framework to bring together diverse private sector organizations that had the energy and resources to seek solutions. I hoped tens of organizations to join us, but it turned out to be hundreds (now more than 1,000).
The range of skills and knowledge they brought to the coalition was incredible. And no one blinked an eye at the criteria to join — no money changes hands, we all contribute our own resources and we share learnings freely — no competition.
We have been able to rapidly look for solutions, gather and share data and advise leaders in industry, health care and government.
In parallel to working with the coalition, MITRE was asked by our government sponsors to take on some specific COVID-19-related activities. When COVID-19 first hit the U.S., there was a disproportionate number of cases and deaths in nursing homes. To look at what could be done to protect this vulnerable population, I was asked to help form and lead an independent Coronavirus Commission for Safety and Quality in Nursing Homes.
In record time, a group of experts from around the country came out with a list of recommendations to control the virus in these congregate settings, which we delivered to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and made available to the public.
What are you most proud of having been a part of in your current organization?
Our research program aligns with MITRE’s mission to solve problems for a safer world. It’s hard not to be proud of that. We explore new technologies and approaches that could help federal agencies better meet their objectives — discovering new ways to support the public good.
I’m also extremely proud of how MITRE has operated during the pandemic. As MITRE’s chief medical officer, it’s my role to synthesize all the current information available about COVID-19 and help our president and CEO make decisions about adapting operations.
We are supporting our employees in every way possible as they juggle the demands of work and family during this time. And our employees are doing everything possible to get their work done in trying circumstances and meet the needs of our sponsors. Everyone has risen to the occasion in a true team effort.
What’s the biggest professional risk you’ve ever taken?
I’m one of those people who embraces (and creates) change and risk. I’m always looking for the next challenge. For example, I combined engineering and medicine in grad school. I went from engineering to medicine to surgery to clinical practice to research, in multiple organizations over the years. Each move was risky. I was successful in one area, but never knew if I would be successful in my next move. I often had to get up to speed quickly in a new role or organization.
I’ve also taken risks in the projects I take on, particularly technical risks, whether I’m overseeing them or doing the hands-on work. I look for big, hard problems to solve — whether at Mass General, Boston Scientific, DARPA or MITRE. Some of these projects succeeded just as I envisioned, while some did not reach the level of success I’d hoped for. Some are my projects are still playing out!
Looking back at your career, what are you most proud of?
From the beginning, I’ve had a sustained commitment to change the world for the better. And when someone calls me and asks if I can help with a really hard problem, I always say yes. And then I figure out who can help tackle the problem and how to do it quickly.
Whatever the challenge, my first act is to call up a diverse set of very smart, competent individuals and create a diverse team that will work together. The team is the real power behind the solution.
Some examples of these projects include convening a group of experts from around the world to determine how to better control the Ebola pandemic in Africa. And the more recent COVID-19 coalition. Other examples include writing and editing the Independent Assessment of the Health Care Delivery Systems and Management Processes of the Department of Veterans Affairs, performed in response to Section 201 of the Veterans Choice Act, and organizing and facilitating the Blue Ribbon Panel.
I also led a MITRE special external expert panel for the Department of Commerce that wrote a report on the effects of a changing climate as a scientific integrity issue with potential impacts to the country and the world.
What’s your best career advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps?
Life is short; follow your passion, work to make a difference, and focus on things that matter.
Don’t be afraid to pick up the baton and run with it—just make sure you have a team to support you. And don’t forget to thank your team members and recognize everyone’s contributions. Check your ego at the door.