The data nerd helping power New Mexico's health information - Albuquerque Journal

The data nerd helping power New Mexico’s health information

Thomas East, CEO and CIO of SYNCRONYS. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

One of the hallmarks of the long-running COVID pandemic has been the state’s daily count of new cases, hospitalizations and virus-related deaths.

You can also break down data on the state’s Department of Health dashboard by county, age and gender to further track the pandemic’s toll.

Behind all those numbers is the state’s health information exchange, operated by local nonprofit SYNCRONYS. And behind the health exchange is company CEO and self-described nerd Thomas East.

East is CEO and chief information officer of the company, which collects data for the state health department and for the Human Services Department’s Medicaid program.

During COVID, the system gathered information from dozens of labs around the state that were set up during the virus’s onset. The system also helped those doing contract tracing to limit further spread.

“It’s been a wild ride … because the state was scrambling to contract with labs to get COVID testing done,” East says. “So we’ve brought on 20, 30 laboratories since the beginning of COVID to gather results. That was a lot of work in a short period of time, with pressures to get the data so the state can manage the epidemic.”

East’s career began when computers “were big, old monsters (that) filled a whole room.” Since then, he has led information technology at four health care systems, acquired two patents, published dozens of research articles and taught at the University of Utah.

Although his parents were opera singers and musicians, East does not sing nor does he play an instrument. He does love music, though.

East spends a lot of his free time with the New Mexico Blade Runners sled hockey team, which he helped to organize upon arriving in Albuquerque in 2014. He is a coach, player and board chairman of the team, which is working on getting nonprofit status.

The team’s members are disabled (East lost a leg when he was young) and are joining the regional sled hockey league. In April, they head for Pittsburgh and a spot in the national Disabled Hockey Festival.

“I had cancer as a child,” he says. “I can’t complain. I am thankful to be around.”

Thomas East, CEO and CIO of SYNCRONYS. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

What information does SYNCRONYS collect besides that which is COVID-related?

“We basically exchange health information and aggregate it and make it available when and where it’s needed for patient care. But we do more than just exchange information. For example, we provide analytics that let you look at populations and individuals, look at their risks for chronic diseases and for hospital admissions and things like that. We also have specific use cases for management of hepatitis C. For a patient that has hepatitis C, they can get a report that shows them their history of treatment and what diagnostic test they need and what treatment they need. We provide images, so if you happen to work at Presbyterian and you want to see an X-ray from X-Ray Associates, you can see it through our platform.”

Why do you do this work?

“What gets me up in the morning is trying to make a difference for patients and families. That’s really at the heart of it. I feel like if I’ve been able to make a contribution that helps people, then I feel fulfilled and I feel like what I do is important and valuable.”

Do you have an example?

“There have been lots of them in my career. With SYNCRONYS, I think we hear stories all the time back from folks. For instance, there was an example at the University of New Mexico in the emergency room where a woman who was in advanced pregnancy was in a bad motor vehicle accident. By the time they brought her in, they were able to access her prenatal records from the HIE (health information exchange) and were able to make important decisions about what to do for her and her baby as soon as they arrived in the emergency department. If we made a small difference in her life or in her baby’s life, that is amazing to me.”

What do you do in your free time?

“All kinds of stuff. My wife and I enjoy travel, music and movies. And family, of course. Spending time with our family and grandkids. And sled hockey. We play at the Outpost (ice arena). I spend a couple of nights a week working on that and playing.”

What makes you laugh?

“I’m a big fan of comedies, comic strips and all that stuff. Years ago, I took some training in ‘Laughter is the Best Medicine,’ (Dr.) Patch Adams. I’ve always felt it was true that humor and laughter are an important part of leadership and just life in general.”

What has made you successful?

“I think that it’s having focus and drive to make a difference. I’m the kind of person who, once I take on a challenge, I don’t give up. I work to make sure it gets done. A recent example is our Medicaid contract had 42 deliverables for a massive IT project, and we completed all the deliverables on time and on budget. If you’re around any other big IT projects, that’s like seeing a pig fly. You don’t see very many of those come in on time and on budget. It’s my approach to things, … but I think a bigger part is I’m empathetic and feel I really want to help people. That’s what keeps me focused on doing what I do.”

THE BASICS: Thomas D. East IV, 65, born in Denver; married to Gloria East; seven children and 13 grandchildren as part of a blended family; Ph.D., bioengineering, University of Utah, 1982; master’s of engineering, bioengineering University of Utah, 1981; bachelor’s in physics, John Carroll University, 1979.

POSITIONS: CEO/chief information officer, SYNCRONYS, since 2014; chief information officer, Lake Erie Regional Health System of New York, 2012-13; director, clinical and research informatics, Northshore University Health System, 2011-12; chief information officer, Alaska Native Medical Center, 2000-11; director of medical informatics, Intermountain Health Care, 1996-2000.

OTHER: New Mexico Blade Runners Sled Hockey, organizer, board chairman, player and coach.

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