Chris Tomlinson

Q&A with AHRA president Chris Tomlinson

July 10, 2020
by Sean Ruck, Contributing Editor
The Association for Medical Imaging Management (AHRA) will be having its 48th annual meeting as a virtual conference with remote learning and networking opportunities. HealthCare Business News spoke with AHRA president and Jefferson Health’s enterprise vice president for imaging, lab and pathology, ED & hospital medicine, Chris Tomlinson, MBA, CRA, FAHRA, to learn more about what attendees should expect. Tomlinson spoke about his background, role as the association’s president, and the latest from the organization — including its efforts to create working solutions to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

HCB News: Who or what inspired you to follow a career in healthcare?
Chris Tomlinson: I had a non-traditional career path as an imaging leader. When I graduated from college, I pursued a career in consulting. Within the consulting practice, I started to focus on healthcare. I used to travel all over the country and a little internationally within healthcare. I did that for a number of years and developed my skills and consulting expertise and then decided to shift into the hospital provider setting. I worked for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for about 10 years, playing a number of roles in imaging, but generally in the healthcare delivery space. I got introduced to radiology both in my consulting career and as I managed a radiology department, a physician practice, a teleradiology offering and some other experiences. But having never been a technologist, which is a different experience than many of the AHRA’s past presidents, means I look at things from a different perspective.

HCB News: How long have you been a member of the AHRA?
CT: I’ve been a member 13 years.

HCB News: Why did you join the association?
CT: As I got into radiology and started to run departments, both by research and word of mouth, I understood that AHRA was the professional organization of choice for folks in imaging management. I used the AHRA to really gain specific skills around radiology – understanding the intricacies of running a department as well as developing a good industry network around best practice. AHRA also offered the ability to call peers and lean on them when you have questions or when you run into certain problems. So it was a way of connecting into that social and professional network to embrace the direction in which I was going, which was the radiology space. Having been a consultant, you learn how to run big operations, but a lot of the subject matter specific to imaging was what drew me to the AHRA.

HCB News: Can you describe your journey from AHRA member to president?
CT: When I joined, I was just getting into imaging. I had, from my consulting experience, some particular skillsets in imaging informatics that I brought with me into the imaging management sector. Through that, I became somewhat of a subject expert within that space in the AHRA and started to do a lot of talks and webinars, even training courses in our Aspiring Leaders track, which is for newer leaders learning about different components of radiology imaging management. In the children’s hospital circuit there’s the Children’s Hospital Association, and I was very active in that as well. So as I was giving a lot of talks and educating, writing some articles for the AHRA and also doing work with the CHA, I ran for a board seat in 2013. I got on the AHRA board, was elected to the executive committee, became finance director, president elect and now here I am, almost eight years later, as president. I just enjoy giving back to the association, sharing my expertise, and growing the network of folks I get to meet and help develop their careers and skill sets. There is something about being in an association — it’s rewarding to be able to give back. It’s also rewarding for the contacts, the friends, the colleagues you make and those you’re able to help along the way.

HCB News: What initiatives have you championed as president?
CT: Prior to COVID-19, there were a couple of things. One, I think my coming from a little bit of a different background than most of the presidents — most of the presidents have been technologists — I focused on some different things. I recognize that the membership consists of great people and wonderful volunteers who believe in the association, but I wanted to broaden the diversity of membership. When I say diversity, I mean that in a number of ways. Diversity in terms of generational diversity, geographic diversity, the traditional meaning of it around race and ethnicity, also urban and rural hospital members. I really believe in the richness of experience and the more diverse our experience is, the more diverse our active and engaged members are, the better the product, the better a resource we will be. So I put together a diversity task force to look at where we could become more inclusive. That diversity and inclusion task force has been up and running for nearly a year, surveying members, making recommendations, and will present a report out at our annual meeting. That report will inform our strategic planning process to help us to be aware of our blind spots, to make sure we’re encouraging diversity in all the forms.

The other thing that we looked at prior to COVID: when you think of professional associations, they’re being forced to evolve quickly. Twenty years ago, it was about going to meetings, collaborating, and social interactions in person. While that’s all still important, it’s kind of shifted to members not necessarily wanting to travel and go to a big meeting. They want to interact with content and want to interact with it on their terms. We have our online forum where questions are asked, people seek information, they post about things they need help with and have other members assist as resources. For example, we just had a COVID webinar where people were able to share experiences and best practices — cleaning mechanisms, cohorting their patients in waiting rooms — to me that’s the core of what an association is about. It’s about bringing people together and being an indispensable resource for them to help them to be the best they can be in their careers. That’s what drives us.

HCB News: How has the association work changed since the pandemic?
CT: We’re constantly measuring ourselves as an association based on our members’ interaction — how many times they’re utilizing us, how many times they’re accessing our tools. What we’ve learned — through our online presence in terms of members using our tools or using our COVID-specific resources, logging on to our Q & A webinars detailing how imaging leaders are dealing with this challenge, especially in the hot zones — is how often members access us. What I’m happy with as an association is that we’ve pivoted and we’re going to be that indispensable resource for our members. We’ve even talked about changes to books; we’ve traditionally used text books. What about doing audiobooks? What if we create YouTube how-to videos? The COVID pandemic has opened the conversation.

HCB News: How has the pandemic changed work situations for your members?
CT: In terms of leadership, they were asked to gather information very quickly, put it into practice and protect and emotionally support employees. As far as work starting to happen now, we have kind of the second wave of problems. There are some patients getting back to the hospital after delaying care and their conditions may have gotten worse during that time, you’re seeing others who may still be afraid to come back to the hospital, and you’re seeing a third group that has lost their insurance or job and now can’t afford care. So as imaging leaders, we’re very concerned about the second wave of patients. That all leads to a third challenge. As you’re trying to ramp back up safely, you’re looking at financial devastation in a lot of the health systems because of all the revenue lost over the last few months. How are you going to manage staff needs? Will people need to be furloughed? How do we handle the reason we all got into healthcare — to provide the best care for patients? And during this all, it’s important to keep in mind self-care. This is not something that will pass quickly. Leaders need to tap out when they need a break and let their teams manage the work when they need to recharge.

HCB News: This year’s conference was bumped back a few weeks. What else has changed?
CT: What we’ve heard from our members, was that many employers were asking them not to travel, at least into the fall. Some are cutting funding for things like conferences. Some members, if they were to attend, risk quarantine if they go on an airplane or attend an out-of-state gathering, which could lead to unpaid leave. We didn’t want it to be a situation where only a small number of people could attend. We wanted to open it up and embrace the idea of how the association is changing. We’ve worked hard to still give people the experience they expect. The education components, the networking and family experience, coming back with great ideas and best practices to implement in your organization without missing things because your organization wouldn’t let you attend in person.

So we moved it back a few weeks just to make sure we can provide that experience. It’s more than just making things virtual, it’s about providing as full of an experience as possible.