Decades of leadership experience prove vital in the state’s fight against COVID-19

Andrew Thomas, MD

Image above: Dr. Andrew Thomas serves as chief clinical officer and interim co-leader of The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

This is a story about Andy Thomas, which is to say it's a story about a lot of people who have influenced and helped to shape the kind of leader Dr. Andy Thomas is today.

It’s about his parents and grandparents who taught him the value of dedication and who inspired him to pursue unique opportunities for personal growth. It’s about the high school teachers who put him on track to developing strong leadership skills. It’s about the numerous mentors and collaborators who've shaped and amplified his three-decade career at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

And, most of all, it’s about the patients whose lives have been improved by the care that Thomas directly provides as a primary care physician or facilitates in his role as interim co-leader and chief clinical officer at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, and as a leader of the state of Ohio’s and the medical center’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Andy Thomas serving food at a volunteer event

Image above: Dr. Andy Thomas (center), alongside Dr. Bill Farrar (left), CEO of the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute, and Elizabeth Seely (right), chief administrative officer for the hospital division, and the rest of the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, serve lunch to the volunteers who made possible the mass COVID-19 vaccination site at the Schottenstein Center. The lunch was organized as a thank you to those volunteers on the site’s last day in operation.

A leader in the making

A native of the northeastern Ohio town of Louisville, Thomas first spent time in hospitals attending visits with his grandparents, who spoke glowingly of their physicians. Around age 7, he decided he wanted to be a doctor himself. As a former middle school teacher, his mother taught him a love of learning and the importance of going above and beyond what the assignments were at school. As a local city councilman for over a decade, his father taught him the importance of commitment to one’s community, even when it meant a lot of evening meetings and phone calls after hours from upset constituents.

It wasn’t long before he was assuming leadership roles. “People have been preparing me to do this job since I was about 15 years old,” he quips. He served as editor of his high school newspaper and helped lead the theater organization, roles he took on at the urging of several of his teachers.

“People made me think I could be a leader by putting me in positions I could lead in,” Thomas says. “I’ve been double-booked since I was a sophomore in high school.”

His achievements led him to Harvard University, where he studied in the History and Science program. He came back home for medical school, receiving his medical degree from The Ohio State University College of Medicine in 1995. He added a Master of Business Administration from Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business five years later.

The relationships he began developing as soon as he arrived at Ohio State have been crucial throughout his career, but never more so than when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in January 2020. The day after the first case of the coronavirus was discovered in the United States, Thomas was leading a meeting of nearly 80 people from across the Wexner Medical Center and Ohio State – including even Student Life, International Affairs and Athletics – planning a coordinated response.

It was an approach the team had previously used during major public health events, notably Ebola in 2015 and zika in 2016. But the scale of the coronavirus mobilization far exceeded that of the previous diseases. This wasn’t a tabletop simulation or a planning exercise – this time, the worst case scenario was happening in real time.

“The thing that has changed for us as an organization is the nimbleness with which we have been able to make decisions, the speed to implementation,” Thomas says. “Our nimbleness starting in February and March of 2020 to today is just unprecedented in my 30 years here.”

In March of that year, Gov. Mike DeWine divided the state into three hospital zones and selected Thomas to lead the response in Zone 2, which covers 36 counties and over 40 hospitals and health systems in central and southeastern Ohio.

In the time since, Thomas’ collaborative approach has paid direct dividends for patients. A recent example: As the omicron variant fueled a surge in new cases in December 2021, a glaring need arose for more testing capacity. On Dec. 22, Thomas met with officials at CAS, adjacent to Ohio State’s campus and medical center, to discuss using their parking garage as an expanded testing location, and within two weeks more than 1,000 patients a day were being swabbed there.

Andy Thomas showing the governor the vaccine clinic

Image above: Dr. Andy Thomas joins Crystal Tubbs (left), PharmD, associate director in the Department of Pharmacy at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, and The Ohio State University President Kristina M. Johnson, PhD (right), on a tour of Ohio State’s mass COVID-19 vaccination site at the Schottenstein Center for Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and First Lady Fran DeWine (center).

‘A great role model, mentor and friend’

Much like the inspiration he received from his family early on, Thomas credits his wife, children, extended family and a handful of close friends for providing him a level of love, caring and patience through the pandemic that has been integral to sustaining his work.

“My wife Lisa has been managing the COVID-19 response for her business as well, so we have a 14-year-old son at home who probably knows a lot more about this pandemic than some health care providers,” Dr. Thomas chuckles. “The support from loved ones in my ‘bubble’ has made all the difference.”

Those who’ve worked with Thomas closely attest to his ability to bring colleagues together.

“During his tenure, Andy has become a foundational leader who has given us stability, calm and reason even during the most difficult of times,” says Ernest Mazzaferri Jr., MD, an interventional cardiologist at the Richard M. Ross Heart Hospital. “He is one of the rare individuals who was blessed with very high levels of both intellectual and emotional intelligence, and he is able to parlay that into excellent leadership. Above all, he has been a great role model, mentor and friend to so many of us at the Wexner Medical Center, and it is a privilege to work with him.”

Dr. Katherine Brownlowe, an assistant professor in the departments of Psychiatry and Neurology at The Ohio State College of Medicine, credits Thomas with being able to handle the additional obligations of the pandemic while continuing to stay connected with his patients and peers.

“Despite his important role, particularly over the past two years, Andy has personally supported my own growth as a physician leader in my department and in the medical center,” she says. “He also continues to make time for direct patient care and remains in touch with the most practical aspects of the practice of medicine at Ohio State.”

Thomas, characteristically, attributes his ability to guide disparate teams to the influence of his mentors. Prominent among them is Hagop Mekhjian, MD, the longtime chief medical officer who retired in 2013, when Thomas moved into the role.

“My silo is the whole organization,” he says. “I’ve been raised in this job to be an honest broker when we have two different groups arguing about a resource or a process or a structure.”

“My No. 1 job is to facilitate other people doing their job. If I start to think that the work of our organization is what happens around my conference room table, I’m lost. It’s what goes on at the bedside, in the operating room, in clinics all across central Ohio – that’s the work of our organization, and my job is to facilitate those people’s jobs.”

That approach has been central to Thomas’ philosophy in dealing with the ongoing pandemic.

“COVID-19 is a perfect example. This model of management works,” he says. “If I walk into every meeting assuming that I know better, that doesn’t work. I can sit in a meeting with people on the front line, midlevel managers and other executives, throw a tough issue on the table, and my job at that point isn’t to come up with all the ideas. It’s to cultivate, synthesize and prioritize their ideas. That way, the next time around, not only do I know more and think smarter about a problem, but the whole team learns.”

This profile is being featured as part of an Ohio Hospital Association physician spotlight series.