The Medical Alley Podcast, presented by MentorMate

A Career in Pediatrics: A Conversation with Thomas Harris, Chief Operating Officer, Gillette Children's

Episode Summary

When Thomas Harris was beginning his career in healthcare, he felt that "the greatest way to give back to the world was to either help bring life into the world or improve the quality of life for our youngest human beings." Fast forward to today, and Thomas has spent his career in pediatrics and is now the Executive Vice President of Operations for Gillette Children's. Join us for a conversation with Thomas and our Frank Jaskulke as Thomas shares more about his passion for pediatric care, the significance of Gillette Children's 125th anniversary, some insider tips from the Louisiana native on the best food in New Orleans, and more.

Episode Transcription

Intro 00:00
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Frank Jaskulke 01:23
Good morning, good afternoon, good evening to everyone out there in Medical Alley. Thank you for joining us on another episode of the Medical Alley Podcast. I'm so pleased today to be joined by Thomas Harris, who is the Chief Operating Officer at Gillette Children's. We're going to have a bit of a conversation about him about the pediatric health community and about what's going on in the health care. And so Thomas, thank you so much for joining us today. Maybe you can start with letting our audience know a bit about you and a bit about Gillette's.

Thomas Harris 01:54
Sure. Well, first, Frank, thank you for having me. So as you stated, my name is Thomas Harris and I am currently the Chief Operating Officer at Gillette Children's. I've been a part of the Gillette family for a little over a year. And prior to joining Gillette, I was the vice president of pediatrics at Ochsner Health System in New Orleans, Louisiana. So, I'm originally from Louisiana, and still classify myself as being a southerner and a country boy, which is where I spent most of my life. But then I did live for 15 years in California.

Frank Jaskulke 02:28
Oh, very nice. Very nice. Super glad to have you here today. And I think I'd be remiss if I didn't mention, it is Gillette Children's 125th anniversary, isn't it?

02:38
Yes, it is. And we are super excited about what this year will hold for us. And you know, as we celebrate our 125th year anniversary, we are reflecting on our past and our history. And the foundation that was started with the institution back in 1897. And we, you know, we're the first hospital in the United States to treat children with disabilities. And so since then, we have continued to hold true to our mission by specializing in treating complex brain, bone and movement conditions that begin in childhood. So we provide very comprehensive services by highly trained specialists with the focus on an integrated team approach as well as family centered care. So for those of you that don't know a whole lot about Gillette, our main campus is located in downtown St. Paul. But we have clinics throughout the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota. And so as an organization, we are truly united by a vision of a world in which every child is able to create their own story. And this vision drives all that we do here for every child in our families who find their way to Gillette.

Frank Jaskulke 03:47
Oh, that is awesome. I'm always impressed by the people and by the organizations that commit themselves to pediatric health to children's health. And you've you've worked most of your career, if not, maybe almost your entire career in pediatric health. Was there something that drew you to that or why that focus that commitment?

04:07
Much like providers settle on a specialty, I felt that pediatrics and children's health what it was the best fit for me. I originally decided on healthcare as a career because I wanted to become a physician. And so at that time, when I was deciding on what specialty I wanted to go into, I was teetering between OBGYN and neonatology because I felt that the greatest way to give back to the world was to either help bring life into the world or improve the quality of life for our youngest human beings. But then, I decided that I was not going to go to medical school but instead was going to embark upon a career in healthcare administration. And through various positions that I held throughout my career, I've been on the adult care side, I've been on the health plan operation side, and then once I got into peds, peds just pulled at my heartstrings. You know, it just felt comfortable to me. I love the ability to be in an environment where our daily purpose is to create a fun, colorful and best in class system for children and young adults to get high quality of care and be them their best selves. And for me that just, it is what fuels me and wakes me up every morning and helps me to get out of bed to come in and do what I do. And so that's why I've chosen peds as, you know, my kind of healthcare specialty. And hopefully, I will culminate in in my career in the future.

Frank Jaskulke 05:38
Right on, thank you for sharing that. That's the kind of stuff that motivates me, and it's people like you who keep me so excited about this community in this work, that there are people who commit themselves dedicate their work, bring their gifts into making other people's lives better. And something you said in there is a small thing, but I've always found so powerful about children's health care, the bright, the colorful, the happy. When I visited Gillette, it's a happy place. It's a bright place. It's a, it doesn't feel like a clinical setting. And I'd be curious, are there things that maybe the broader healthcare community could learn from the way pediatric healthcare is delivered or organized or that the world you're in that maybe the other parts of healthcare could learn and adapt?

06:29
Definitely. Pediatrics is a very family centered environment. So family members are highly involved in their child's care. And it is very important to make sure that as family members or adults or caregivers, that we are educating them and incorporating them into the care plan for their child or loved one. And so you know, where a lot of adult systems duly noted, because, as adults, we can, most of us that are, you know, able bodied, can go to the provider and get health care ourselves, we can communicate directly with the providers. But for kids and adolescents, you need someone with them in order to, you know, and especially in our world where we have kids that have mobility issues, or some cognitive issues, you have to make sure that their guardian, their caregiver is they're involved in the care so that they can be educated. And so I think from a broader perspective that the broader healthcare system can learn from that. Because at some point, as an adult, you may be taking care of an aging parent, or another loved one, where you have to be involved in the care as well. And so that's why I think that the model that we have here are focusing not only on the patient, but on the family is a good thing for the broader healthcare system to do. I think another lesson, if I may say also, and I kind of alluded to this, that they can take from the pediatric specialty space is learning how to appropriately care for patients with disabilities and complex medical needs. We've heard anecdotally, from providers and from patients, that when they receive care outside of spaces like Gillette, their providers are not as adequately equipped to meet their needs as a place that specialized like we are. So I would implore all of our providers to have a basic understanding of how to care for people that are living with disabilities, because we are a pediatric institution. And so at some point, our kids are going to become adults, and then they're going to age out of our system. And so we want to have the ability to transition those kids to providers that are equipped and adapt to take care of their needs.

Frank Jaskulke 08:56
And well said. When I think about the demographics of our world where we're needing an older population, more of us have elder parents or elder family members to care for that family care is so much more important. And then the the ability of our health systems to accommodate the differences that people have, particularly if they have some sort of disability. I appreciate you saying that, because I haven't considered the transition point, that if I if I had been receiving care from Gillette for all my life maybe, and then now at a certain age, I'm transitioning into a different environment that can have a deleterious effect on my care if that's not handled well if care providers aren't prepared for it. So yeah, well said. Thank you for sharing that.

09:46
You're welcome. You know, it's something that we focus on. We have a committee here at our organization that is centered around transition of care, and they do a lot of planning for us. And it's something that we here at Gillette take very seriously. We start the conversations with our kids and their families as young as 12 years old, so that by the time they turn 18, they are well prepared to transition. So there are moments and times when our families are in our patients are prepared for that transition. But sometimes the receiving providers are not. And so that's where we try to work with the community providers to educate them on how to care for our kids or adults.

Frank Jaskulke 10:36
Yeah, right. Maybe projecting forward a bit, so healthcare has been facing a litany of issues through the pandemic, some that had been, you know, bubbling under the surface, in many cases, for decades, some that emerged as a result of the pandemic. What are some of the areas that you see as emerging challenges for healthcare that maybe we are addressing, and maybe we aren't addressing as well? And I think of transitions of care as being one of those that you just described.

11:05
So one of the biggest things for me right now is just the cost of healthcare. It's right now an expensive model. From a provider standpoint, it is expensive for us to provide health care, because of the litany of things that we have to do to even prepare for a visit, as well as execute on that visit. But then also for the person who is receiving the healthcare, just the ability to pay for some of the charges. You know, it's a very costly model, I would say. And so we have to look at a way that we could pull cost and expense out of the health care system, as well as work on higher levels of reimbursement, especially for those individuals who have state funding. In the pediatric world, a large percentage of our patients are Medicaid patients. And unfortunately, Medicaid is not the best payer. But of course, you know, from the standpoint that it does provide a way for healthcare to be funded for many Americans that otherwise could not afford health care. So from that standpoint, we have to make sure that the cost of healthcare equals the reimbursement that has been received. And you will find that, especially in many rural areas where you have less providers, and many of your patients are on receive government assistance. That's where you really get into a situation where healthcare entities can't sustain off of the reimbursement that they're receiving. And so we've seen over the last several years, many rural health care entities shuttering their doors and closing down, which then puts the onus on, you know, other health care systems to fill in the gap. And so that's where I do see virtual care continuing to proliferate and increase one because the pandemic helped to usher in virtual care, and set it on a pedestal as a way of receiving high quality care without having to go to the four walls of an institution. And then to add gives healthcare systems the ability to have a farther reach. You don't necessarily have to put a bricks and mortar building in a certain location. But then you can kind of remote in virtually to a patient wherever they are, and provide them with the needy health care. Outside of virtual care, I do also see digital care as blazing a path, especially in the area of chronic disease management. So healthcare organizations now have the ability to monitor patients remotely and check their vitals again, without these patients having to come into the bricks and mortar. We can meet them where they are, and provide them with the needed care that they deserve. And then the last thing is the the impact that artificial intelligence has already had and will continue to have on healthcare system is going to be huge. So from data analytics, to predictive medicine, to even helping providers with their documentation, we will continue to see the proliferation and use of AI as we move forward.

Frank Jaskulke 14:32
Indeed, the idea both very scared and very excited about the world we face in healthcare, because you said, cost and revenues aren't lining up all across healthcare. And that is a political problem, a business problem, a social problem. It is a mathematical problem. But there are so many amazing innovations, innovators, and not always like fancy, big things, like you said documentation, things that improve the experience or the back office can have a big impact. And thank you for calling out the rural health piece. Because it's easy sometimes as I sit here in Minneapolis to forget about or not be as cognizant or as aware of what's happening in so many parts of the US and in so many parts of Minnesota. So yeah, thank you. Those three areas, I agree with you, huge potential impact. And it's on all of us as a healthcare community to make sure they reach their full potential. Maybe shifting gears for just a little bit, a little bit more on you. Something that I get asked a lot about by people, and they've asked us to start asking people on the podcast about this is individuals' leadership journeys. And the one that always comes up is this idea of going from being an individual contributor to a manager to a leader. Any words of wisdom you'd share or any story on your journey that you might share with our audience about your progression and how you think about leadership today?

16:13
Yeah, it's a great question. I think as far as a leader is concerned, a leader to me is someone who has taken on the responsibility of guiding people and driving initiatives for the improvement of either a project an organization or group. And so great leaders should be able to craft a compelling vision, engage others and get them to buy into the vision and then drive action to fulfill that vision. So leaders to me are people who inspire others and motivate others to action. Versus when you're an individual contributor, you have a more narrow scope, and you usually don't have oversight for people are accountability to drive anyone else's performance other than your own. And so yes, when I first started in my career, as an administrative fellow at Kaiser Permanente, I would say it was more of an individual contributor, because I was assigned a project, you know, either from my boss or from others. And so it was very transactional. And I was responsible for driving that project, not people, but the project in the process and driving my own performance. But then as I began to progress in my career, and became a mid level manager, and now and then to a senior leader, and now to an executive leader, more and more, I have become a leader and a leader of people. And so I'm not always down in the weeds. I'm not always developing the process. But I'm inspiring and motivating my team members, and people who report up through my hierarchy, to develop the processes to implement and execute, and then drive toward results.

Frank Jaskulke 18:03
Indeed, you mentioned inspiration a couple of times. Where do you draw inspiration from?

18:09
I draw inspiration from my faith. I am believer, I am a believer in God and a higher power. And so through my faith, I draw that motivation and that inspiration. And then I also draw inspiration from my family, from my parents, from my sister, who is also in healthcare. She and I talk a lot, because she is in health care administration herself. And so we commiserate a lot. And then I also draw inspiration from my immediate family, like my wife and my daughter, who hold me up and support me on a daily basis.

Frank Jaskulke 18:48
Right on. Thank you. Switching as we come into the end of this now, just a couple of quick hit questions, get a little bit of perspective from you. I'm always, this is truly me personally, is I'm always looking for recommendations. What are you reading lately? Any good books you might suggest?

19:06
Yeah, I've just started reading in which I know I'm a little bit late. But I've just started reading the "1619 Project" by Nikole Hannah-Jones, which is starting out to be a great read and history and facts that I just did not know. So I'm starting to read that. I recently finished "Can't Hurt Me" by David Goggins, which was a great read. That book really taught me that your mind is capable of more than what you think, and that there's always a deeper level that you can dig into, to produce results. And so it was very inspirational. Great read. So if you haven't read it, I think it's a great read, as well as watching some of his videos. He's very inspirational. So if you're struggling with anything with self confidence or with determination or with commitment to things, that book and his videos are very inspirational and will teach you how to dig a little bit deeper in order to find that inspiration to push yourself to greater heights.

Frank Jaskulke 20:25
Right? Yeah to great recommendations. 1619 Project, it's fantastic. David Goggins keeps popping up. I haven't had a chance to read that yet. That's one more check of I gotta get the book and read it. Next one, also a little bit selfish on my part, I will freely admit, but if I were to go to New Orleans, where is like the place I've got to make sure I eat?

20:47
So I will say Frank, that that's probably the hardest question that you've asked me. Because there are so many great, there are so many great restaurants in New Orleans that you just can't choose one. Hard. That's hard. So I will say, you know, one of my favorites is Commander's Palace, and Commander's is a staple in New Orleans. And the reason why I say that is because when you couple the food with the excellent customer service there, it is a culinary experience that you will never forget. And so you know, I remember the first time that I went to Commander's Palace, I was hooked, and it just became one of my favorites. And so if I was having a lunch meeting, or if I just wanted to go out to dinner, I would always check at Commander's Palace to see if I can get in. So not only great food, excellent customer service, but you cannot beat the 25 cent martinis. Yeah, where can you go and get a good martini for 25 cents? You can't. So I would say that would be one place. And then there's another place in the Bywater area in New Orleans called Cafe Du Bois. And it's a small restaurant, but they have great food. And if you ever go there, you have to try the ravioli stuffed with crawfish. It's a must.

Frank Jaskulke 22:17
Thank you. I appreciate that. And I love crawfish, love pasta. That works. Last question. Biggest surprise as you went from LA and New Orleans to Minnesota as far as the health care communities, like comparing and contrasting the different health care ecosystems you were working in in each of those places. Yeah, I put all the hard ones right at the end, right.

22:43
Yeah, you did. I would say here in Minnesota, you have a lot more than in Louisiana, and I probably say more than in Southern California because in Southern California as well as Louisiana, you have some health systems that really dominate the market. You know, I'm going to go out on a limb here in California, I would say that Kaiser Permanente dominates the market there. In Louisiana, Ochsner Health System, which is the health system I used to work for, dominates the market is the largest nonprofit health system in Louisiana, and growing in the Gulf style. Here in Minnesota, you have many health systems that are, you know, big, major players in the market. Of course, there are some that's, you know, because of name recognition that stand out amongst the others. But the healthcare landscape, I guess, where I'm going is very rich here and you have a lot of options for healthcare and great healthcare entities as that. And so that was the surprising thing that, you know, you don't have like the Ochsner health system or the Kaiser Permanente dominating Minnesota, you will find good health care through various means here in the state. And the health care options as far as systems go, I think are a lot more plentiful here.

Frank Jaskulke 24:19
Interesting. No, that's a great perspective. And it's a helpful one, because I think we often think about how consolidating the healthcare community is here compared to what it was 20 years ago, but relative to other parts of the country, it's not that consolidated. So that's an excellent perspective. Thank you. Right on. Well Thomas Harris, thank you so much for taking the time today, sharing a bit of your perspective, a bit of your story. We appreciate you being a part of the Medical Alley community and spending some time with us today.

24:55
Well, it's my pleasure to participate in this podcast and happy that you asked me to be a part of it.

Frank Jaskulke 25:02
Indeed. And folks, that's another episode of the Medical Alley podcast. If you're not already a subscriber, make sure to check out medicalalleypodcast.org, or you can find us on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcast fix. Until next time, have a great day.