Incoming DHA Research and Development director brings new perspective
A 35-year career as a Naval medical officer has led Rear Adm. Colin Chinn to his newest position as the director of Research, Development & Acquisition (RDA), for the Defense Health Agency (DHA) in Falls Church, Virginia. This new job has him overseeing the agency’s efforts to develop innovations to help save warfighters’ lives and new ways to provide better health care for retirees and family members.
Q: What should people understand about you and your background coming into this job?
Chinn: One of the first things they should know is I have done some clinical research in my career, and I do understand the process and importance of it, but that’s only part of the experience I bring to the job. My perspective is to make sure the focus stays on what we are doing to support the warfighter. We need to make sure we are getting the tools they need into their hands, as well as making sure our research efforts help the families back home. For example, we need to find better ways to use mobile apps so our providers can have follow-up with our patients without requiring them to come into our hospitals and clinics, maximizing our use of telehealth and telemedicine to save everyone time and money.
I’ve also been a command surgeon in a combatant command. That gives me background in a very important area where we at the DHA need to be proficient: working in a joint environment. My assignments, from a surgeon with a Marine Corps reconnaissance battalion to command surgeon for U.S. forces in the entire Indo-Asia-Pacific region, taught me how to work in a joint operational environment. That’s helped me understand the value of joint operations ultimately to support combatant commands and the warfighter, and I plan to apply that same approach to managing the joint environment of the MHS (Military Health System) research community.
Finally, I hope my perspective as a doctor, and not just a researcher, will help us better identify how to deliver the best products for health care providers.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge now facing RDA?
Chinn: We live in a world of limited financial resources. That means we have to show return on investment for the research we do. In this fiscal era, we can’t do research just for research’s sake. That may concern some researchers out there who will rightly argue we don’t always know the value up front. I fully understand that. We don’t want to stifle innovation; we want to encourage it. Our ability to rapidly innovate has been one of the hallmarks of our technological superiority over the years. We want to consider every research proposal—but we need to see a clear tie-in to how it will benefit the warfighter. It’s a very delicate dance to balance encouraging innovative thought while also prioritizing that tangible benefit to warfighters.
Q: How will you achieve that balance?
Chinn: We need to make sure our research investments are focused on developing the tools our front-line corpsmen and medics actually need, and how the knowledge gained through our research impacts our clinical practice guidelines. There’s more scrutiny than ever before on how efficiently and effectively the department is spending its money. One of the DHA’s challenges is to find savings. That can be particularly difficult in the realm of medical research, because as I said before, you don’t want to stunt innovation. The simple answer is just to cut funding. That’s not the option—we have to be smarter than that and find a way to achieve the same results while saving money.
Q: You talked about your background working in a joint environment. How will you apply that to working in DHA?
Chinn: One of DHA Director Navy Vice Adm. Raquel Bono’s priorities is supporting the services, working with them to achieve the things we need to do as a Military Health System. I want to increase the transparency in how we’re making decisions, how we’re distributing the dollars and funding projects. The way I’m increasing that transparency is by being inclusive. The senior medical research leadership from all of the services, the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, and the Joint Staff Surgeon, Health Affairs and other components of the Military Health System will all be part of the process in making these decisions. It won’t be the director of RDA unilaterally making these programmatic decisions. All of the members of the MHS research community will help shape the process and how we’re going to prioritize. That’s what I’ve done my entire career. I’ve always been inclusive. I’ve always been collaborative. When I have to make a difficult decision, I will make it, but I’ll do it with input from all of our stakeholders.
In addition to working with those outside of the DHA, we need to work better within our agency. We can’t be stove piped and only look at what each of our directorates does. For example, I learned from our new director of DHA’s Education and Training Directorate, Air Force Brig. Gen. James Dienst that his group is in charge of modeling and simulation. And RDA is also doing modeling and simulation research. So I’m getting together with him and asking, “What are your priorities and what do you need in terms of modeling and simulation and how can we help you achieve your goals?” The Army’s Medical Research and Materiel Command at Ft. Detrick, Maryland, is working on the health apps I mentioned earlier. It’s being done for the Army, but I see joint applications.
Q: What else should people understand about the leadership philosophy you bring to the DHA?
Chinn: I take a servant-leadership approach. Traditionally, we think of leaders at the top of a triangle and everyone underneath supports and works for the leader. With servant-leadership that triangle is flipped, and now the leader works for those he or she leads. In health care this means we all work for our patients. If I apply that to military medical research and to my role as RDA director, it means that I work to empower all researchers throughout the Military Health System to excel in their mission to deliver cutting-edge medical products and practices for that individual warfighter on the field of combat.