7 reasons Cleveland Clinic's Toby Cosgrove is the right person to lead the VA system

If the White House administration taps Cleveland Clinic President and CEO Delos "Toby" Cosgrove, M.D., as the new secretary of the Veterans Administration, the VA medical system--and its patients--will be in good hands.

Cosgrove is more than qualified to take over the embattled department and resolve systematic problems that led to ridiculously long wait times for veterans to receive care at VA medical facilities and secret waitlists to hide the delays.

Cosgrove hasn't yet publicly commented about whether he is interested in the job. But two weeks ago, in a U.S. News and World Report column about the VA scandal, Michael  F. Roizen, M.D., chair of  the Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic, tossed Cosgrove's name out as the person who could fix the mess.

However, Roizen added that he--and everyone else at the Cleveland Clinic--hopes Cosgrove doesn't accept the job.

So why is Cosgrove the right person to fix the deep-rooted problems at the VA? Here are just a few reasons.

1. He's a physician and a veteran. Most previous VA secretaries had military but not medical backgrounds. Cosgrove has both. He earned his medical degrees from the University of Virginia School of Medicine and completed his clinical training at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston's Children's Hospital and Brook General Hospital in London. He also served in Da Nang, Vietnam, as a surgeon and the chief of U.S. Air Force Casualty Staging Flight. He received the Bronze Star and the Republic of Vietnam Commendation Medal.

2. He helped Cleveland Clinic become one of the most prestigious medical institutions in the country. Cosgrove joined the organization in 1975 and became chairman of the department of thoracic and cardiovascular surgery in 1989. Under his leadership, Cleveland Clinic's heart program was ranked number one in the country for 10 years in a row by U.S. News & World Reports.

3. In his world, patients come first. When he took over the helm of the Cleveland Clinic in 2004, Cosgrove passed out 40,000 buttons that said just that: "Patients first." That mantra has been the organization's "North star," he said in an interview with C-Span last year

The $6.2 billion healthcare system also has a same-day appointment policy. Patients who call before noon are offered a same-day appointment. Those who call after noon can schedule an appointment for the next day. That's a far cry from the 115 days that most veterans at the Phoenix VA facility must wait to see a primary care doctor.

4. He believes in transparency. Cleveland Clinic posts its 990 tax form and other financial information on its Web site. Visitors can also find information about the organization's performance reports and treatment outcomes.

5. He's not afraid to ruffle feathers. Cosgrove hasn't been shy about his thoughts on the Affordable Care Act, which could create some tension with his new boss if he decides to take the job. Two years ago he told the Wall Street Journal that healthcare reform would likely lead employers to stop providing health insurance. And in March, he told Fox News that healthcare reform actually raised insurance costs for three-quarters of policy holders. 

6. He understands the importance of physician engagement. This month Cosgrove coauthored a column in the Harvard Business Review that provides a guide for healthcare leaders on how to engage physicians in organization-wide efforts to improve care delivery.

7. He has empathy for patients. Cosgrove is a champion for patient experience and its ability to improve care quality. "There is a danger of forgetting that each patient is an individual, with a unique story and particular fears," Cosgrove wrote last year on LinkedIn. "We need to keep that from happening. We need to exercise empathy the way we exercise our bodies. We need to study emotional intelligence the way we study for recertification. We need to listen to that patient who is sitting across from us in the examination room and connect with her or him as if we were the only two people in the world."

Of all the reasons listed, this is the one that impresses me most because, sadly, empathy is something that leaders at several VA facilities apparently lost some time ago.

Do you think Cosgrove is the right person for the job? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. -Ilene (@FierceHealth)

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