Though David A. Tam, MD, FACHE, learned countless lessons during his 24-year career in the U.S. Navy, when asked what his breakthrough healthcare leadership moments have been, he cites two from his service in the civilian sector. The first came while he was high above the ground.
When It All Hit
In 2012, on the eve of Palomar Medical Center’s opening, Tam, who had been the executive-in-charge of construction, walked the hallways to give the facility a final inspection. He reflected on how grateful he was to be able to try new things while overseeing the 11-story, nearly $1 billion project; to be innovative; to hear the voices of his fellow clinicians about their dreams for what a new facility could be.
Tam had one last thing he wanted to check: the roof. He climbed to the helicopter pad, and as he stood on the roof looking out, high above Escondido, Calif., the magnitude of the situation hit him—he realized that though he took on this construction project with little experience as a traditional healthcare leader, his hard work and perseverance paid off. It would become one of his breakthrough leadership moments.
“I was standing there on a Saturday night all by myself, thinking, ‘This is great,’” Tam says. “This is what I want to do—to make healthcare possible so that patients, doctors and other clinicians can actually have what they need to get and give the right care experience. Because I understood all the rules and regulations that usually hold those same clinicians and patients back.”
Tam credits his mentor, Michael H. Covert, FACHE, former CEO of Palomar Health, for giving him the opportunity to lead the construction project. It was early in his civilian career, and though Tam was experienced in healthcare from the clinical side, he was hungry to learn as much about hospital operations as he could. He came to work at Palomar Health, a large healthcare district in San Diego County, as a chief administrative officer in 2008. While there, Covert pitched Tam the idea of taking on the large Palomar Medical Center construction project as a way to build even more operations skills. Tam jumped at the chance.
He knew it wouldn’t be easy. Following California’s Northridge earthquake in 1994, construction legislation and regulations had become much more complicated. In addition, the real estate and financial crises were in full swing in the United States in 2008. And, because Palomar Health is a public medical district, the project was funded largely by public bonds, creating its own unique challenges.
When Covert asked the former Navy captain to take on the leadership of the medical center construction, Tam, who hadn’t had a lot of construction experience, was confident that his military background would be a boon.
“I understood the ethical issues and the government issues involved with public hospitals because I had worked in the federal government,” Tam says.
Looking back, Tam says Covert giving him a good deal of leeway to be creative boosted his confidence and contributed to the project’s overall success.
“I got an opportunity to do a lot of risk and gain sharing and to try some innovative approaches to construction management, including working with a lot of different people,” Tam says. In the end, the project finished on schedule and on budget, coming in at $956 million. Opened in August 2012, the 288-bed acute care facility was dubbed the “Hospital of the Future” for its technological advancements and environmentally friendly design features. As Tam had hoped, the medical center gave patients and clinicians everything they needed to receive and deliver the best care possible.
Revelation in the Rain
Fast forward to another Saturday, this one during the current pandemic, when Tam’s second breakthrough leadership moment occurred. In March 2020, he was named president and CEO of Lewes, Del.-based Beebe Healthcare, a 210-bed, not-for-profit, independent community health system. Shortly after he arrived, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state of Delaware named the nearby community of Georgetown, Del., a COVID-19 hotspot. Beebe Healthcare set up a mobile testing site to help manage the surge of patients needing testing. On a rainy Saturday morning in April 2020, a team, including Tam, came to assist with testing the predominantly Hispanic population.
“It was raining, and I remember standing there seeing the staff wearing PPE,” Tam recalls. “Everybody was so engaged on a Saturday—nobody was complaining. And the people were so appreciative of the fact that we were out there providing culturally sensitive care. That was another breakthrough moment where I said to myself, ‘This is exactly what I want to do: to lead this great organization in providing community-level care.’”
Rooted in Core Values
Tam points to a common thread between his two breakthrough moments that sustains him: The adherence to his core values as a leader; values his mentor, Covert, encouraged him to develop.
“I can almost hear him [Covert] now: ‘You’re in the Navy, and you have the Navy core values. Now you’re going to have to create your own personal core values,’” Tam recalls. “I came up with the core values of courage, innovation, compassion and integrity.”
Tam applies these values every day as a leader, and he leaned on them during the construction project at Palomar. “It was about the courage to try new things; innovation in the approach to working with the different trades; compassion for making sure services were available for the community on time and on budget; and integrity in making sure we did it all by the book and didn’t cut any corners,” Tam says.
During the pandemic, those values were at play again: courage to do what it takes during a once-in-a-lifetime health crisis, including promoting care equity; innovation, in that Beebe was one of the first small health systems in the country to have its own in-house testing equipment, according to Tam; compassion for all patients in the community, especially the underserved and underrepresented; and integrity in the health system’s work with local government agencies to do what is best for patients.
Tam credits the invaluable mentors he has had, the encouragement and sacrifice of his family, and support from organizations such as ACHE for helping to boost his leadership career and steer him in the right direction. And it’s those core leadership values that carry him forward in serving the communities he is called to help.
“I am just living the dream,” Tam says. “Being a leader of a small, independent, local community health system is just absolutely a great opportunity to be not just a health cheerleader but a community leader. And for that, I am very grateful.”
David A. Tam, MD, FACHE, became president and CEO of Beebe Healthcare on March 17, 2020.
He is a distinguished and accomplished healthcare executive and a retired officer in the United States Navy.
Tam has experience in large public health systems. Prior to his current role, he served as COO of Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., part of Providence St. Joseph Health. He served in several administrative roles at Palomar Health, Escondido, Calif., from 2008 to 2015. Tam completed his pediatrics residency at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Oakland, Calif., and a pediatric neurology fellowship at the Medical College of Virginia.
He is a past board member of the American Hospital Association’s Institute for Diversity and Health Equity, among other board appointments. Tam currently serves on the Council of Regents, ACHE’s legislative body, as the Regent for Delaware.