AOA Past President Thomas Ely, DO, began his term during the most turbulent year in recent memory. But he brought two decades of leadership experience—including 20 years in the military—and experience in many high-pressure situations, including two combat tours in Vietnam, to the role.
Guiding physicians through the COVID-19 crisis was at the top of Dr. Ely’s mind when he became AOA president in July 2020.
“We need to expand our leadership role in public health initiatives,” he said. “We need to help physicians determine the best way to care for patients during this pandemic. We also need to assist our patients in obtaining the care they need in a safe manner during this unique period of time in our history.”
The AOA’s 2020-2021 president spoke with The DO in July 2020 about his plans for the year and his background. Following is an edited interview.
What are your organizational goals for this year?
Engaging with more of our DOs and osteopathic medical students is one of my primary objectives. Osteopathic medicine is one of the fastest-growing health care professions in our country. As president of the AOA, when I speak, I want to truly represent our entire profession. If the members of our profession don’t belong to their state, specialty, and our national organization, then I don’t get to hear about what they want, what they need and what we can do to help them. I’m a little passionate about that.
I’m also excited to continue the important work others have started on AOA board certification and CME. One silver lining of the pandemic is that it forced us to complete certain enhancements of board certification and CME years ahead of schedule. But we’re not stopping now. We’re moving fast and taking action.
In addition to these goals, I want to develop a dedicated osteopathic public health initiative addressing COVID-19. In general, I want our profession to be at the forefront of public health initiatives in this country.
As president, it is also my responsibility to move forward the significant initiatives of our recent leadership. Previous leaders did a great job of shepherding the profession through the transition to a single graduate medical education system and improving the AOA’s support of our state and specialty affiliate societies. I’ll be working on both of those missions.
The dramatic redesign of continuing medical education and quality osteopathic board certification will be expanded over this year. On the single GME front, we are working on increasing the number of residency programs with Osteopathic Recognition.
Another exciting project in the works is the revamping of the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association (JAOA). We have a brand new Editor-In-Chief on board. We’re working on getting an Impact Factor and learning what steps we can take to improve the JAOA’s effectiveness.
And most importantly, we recognize and are acutely aware that this is an exceedingly difficult time for the osteopathic medical community and the country. Our association will be focused on helping both our community and our physicians during the COVID-19 crisis.
How can the AOA best support the osteopathic medical profession as it grapples with COVID-19?
We need to advocate for physicians to make sure they are well-positioned to provide high-quality care. Many physician practices are hurting financially, and we’re pushing for increased relief for them.
We’ve seen a lot of innovation in telehealth because of the pandemic. We are in constant contact with lawmakers to ensure that they understand that physicians need to be compensated correctly for telehealth. We must also aggressively assist our physicians with their physical and mental health through this pandemic.
What is your leadership style?
A lot of my leadership training comes from serving as an officer in the Army for 20 years.
I like to collect information before making a decision. I like to engage with others and reach an agreement on a way to move forward.
I believe in collaboration. My idea may not be the best idea. If it’s not, we don’t need to waste our time doing it.
Why did you decide to become a DO?
I’m from McAllen, Texas, a small town in South Texas. My physician role model growing up was a general practitioner in my town. He delivered me and took care of me when I was growing up. He even took my tonsils out in his office. He was like Norman Rockwell’s version of a doctor, and I wanted to be like him. When I learned about osteopathic medicine, I decided that the philosophy matched the kind of doctor I wanted to be.
I attended college at Sam Houston State University and participated in ROTC and entered the Army after graduation while the Vietnam War was going on. In the Army, I went to flight school and became an aeromedical evacuation pilot. I did two combat tours in Vietnam doing medical evacuation flights. After those tours, I worked in medical evacuation units in the U.S. for several years and eventually was assigned to the Army Surgeon General’s Consultant Division in the Pentagon.
The Surgeon General’s family medicine consultant was establishing family medicine residency programs in the Army Medical Department. I was his administrative assistant. We started a lifetime friendship, and he became a mentor to me and encouraged me to go to medical school.
When he and I were in Kansas City, we drove by what is now Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences College of Osteopathic Medicine (KCU-COM). He turned to me and said, “Tom, you should go talk to them at the osteopathic medical school.”
At the time, I was 33 years old. I went in and talked to the dean, Wilbur Cole, DO, about why I wanted to be a physician. I went home with a new vision and a new goal. I got into KCU-COM. It was an excellent education. It gave me everything I wanted.
Did you do a military residency?
Yes, I was a recipient of the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP) and that paid for medical school. When it was time to apply for residency, the Surgeon General’s family medicine consultant had been reassigned and was serving as a commander of a hospital in Virginia with a new family medicine residency—one of the first family medicine residency programs in a military hospital. And that’s where I did my residency.
After residency, I was always placed in leadership roles because I had prior service. Initially, I went to Fort Campbell, Kentucky. They’d never had family medicine there, so we put it there. Later, I was assigned as a program director in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for the largest family medicine residency in the Army. I loved every minute of that.
Starting my medical career in the military was great for me because of the leadership experience. It’s where I learned how to work with others to get things done.
When I became eligible to retire from the Army, I decided to leave the Army and go into private practice. I wanted to have the experience of working in a small-town community, and it wouldn’t have been possible if I stayed in the Army.
What advice would you give to students who are considering joining the military?
It has to feel right to you. Be aware that you will probably be deployed and stationed in more than one place, but you’ll be working as a physician and developing your skills. If you have the time and your family situation allows you to do it, you will get excellent training and practice opportunities. I did it with three sons and a wife, so know that it can be done with a family.
What was your civilian work experience like?
I went into private practice in 1988 in Clarksville, Tennessee, with a classmate from KCU-COM. Most of the physicians we brought into our practice had trained in the Army. We eventually formed a physician-led multispecialty group. There was only one hospital in Clarksville, and we worked closely with their leadership.
I began working for the hospital leadership part-time in 2000, then I joined the staff full-time as their director of medical affairs and then their chief medical officer for 13 years.