Secretary of Veterans Affairs: Who Is David J. Shulkin?

Tuesday, February 14, 2017
David Shulkin

Given President Donald Trump’s admiration for the military and disdain for the way the Department of Veterans Affairs has been run, it’s somewhat surprising that his choice to lead that department not only hasn’t been a soldier, but was the No. 2 person there under former President Barack Obama.

 

David Shulkin, who has run the Veterans Health Administration since March 2015, was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on February 13, 2017 to be Secretary of Veterans Affairs. He is the first non-veteran to run the agency.

 

Shulkin was born June 22, 1959, and is from Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, where his father Mark was a psychiatrist. David’s sister, Nedra, later became a psychologist.

 

Shulkin attended Hampshire College, graduating in 1982 with a B.A. in science. He returned to Philadelphia to attend medical school at the Medical College of Pennsylvania, earning his M.D. in 1986. Shulkin did his internship at Yale, and then his residency in internal medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, where his father had also done his residency. While at Pitt, he met the woman who would become his wife, Merle Bari, who was doing her residency in dermatology at the time. When Shulkin finished his residency a year before Bari, he remained at Pitt and studied business administration, which turned out to be excellent training for his career. In 1990-1991 he also was a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, studying the increasing cost of health care. He researched why doctors made the decisions they did and tried to use that to improve efficiency and outcomes in large healthcare organizations.

 

Shulkin remained in Philadelphia, becoming chief medical officer of the University of Pennsylvania Health System in 1990. In 1999, he started an online site, DoctorQuality.com, where patients could check their physicians’ backgrounds for quality and safety.

 

He returned to healthcare management in 2002 when he was named chief quality officer for the Drexel University College of Medicine and chief medical officer for the Medical College of Pennsylvania. He was also co-founder and president of the nonprofit Patient Safety Officer Society.

 

In March 2004 Shulkin became chief medical officer of Temple University Hospital and the following year was named president and CEO of Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, posts he held for four years.

 

Shulkin’s work has frequently involved looking at managed and accountable care, in which patients, especially the chronically ill, get the right care at the right time, while avoiding unnecessary duplication of services and preventing medical errors. In 2008, for example, he studied why patients who are admitted at night are more likely to die than patients admitted during the day. Also in 2008 he edited the book Questions Patients Need to Ask: Getting the Best Healthcare.

 

Beginning in July 2010, Shulkin was president of the Morristown (N.J.) Medical Center, which is part of Atlantic Health System. One of his innovations there was to champion 24-hour visiting hours for its healing effect on patients. He was heavily involved with Atlantic Health System, as he was president not just of Morristown Medical Center, but of Goryeb Children’s Hospital and Atlantic Rehabilitation Institute, as well as Atlantic Health System Accountable Care Organization and Atlantic Health Organization Primary Care Partners, and he was principal shareholder in Practice Associates.

 

Shulkin was nominated in March 2015 to lead the Veterans Health Administration. Given Trump’s preference to put veterans into the private healthcare system, it’s somewhat surprising Shulkin was nominated to lead Veterans Affairs. When members of a VA healthcare commission called for cutting government’s role in veterans’ care, Shulkin blasted the idea. “This would be a terrible mistake, a terrible direction for veterans and for the country, to essentially systematically implement recommendations that would lead to the end of the VA health-care system,” he said.

 

Shulkin and Bari have two children, Daniel and Jennifer. Daniel is also involved in health care administration.

-Steve Straehley

To Learn More:

David Shulkin Tapped as Trump’s VA Secretary (by Lisa Rein, Washington Post)

David Shulkin, Trump’s Pick to Head the VA, Rejects Radical Change to Fix Agency (by Hope Yen, Associated Press)

A Story of Three Generations in Health Care (by Daniel B. Shulkin, Mark W. Shulkin and David J. Shulkin, AMA Journal of Ethics)

Like Night and Day — Shedding Light on Off-Hours Care (by David J. Shulkin, New England Journal of Medicine)

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