In the C-Suite: Dr. David Tam, Beebe Healthcare President & CEO
LEWES – From his earliest memories, Dr. David Tam has been drawn to the service of others.
When asked what he wanted to be growing up as a young boy in Tokyo, he responded quickly: a bus driver.
“In Japan, especially places like Tokyo that are so crowded, bus drivers are really respected. It’s an honorable tradition where they wear uniforms and white gloves. So many people rely on buses and trains to get them through the day,” he said.
As president and CEO of Beebe Healthcare, the oldest and largest healthcare provider in Sussex County, Tam has fulfilled that life of service, although he took a much more circuitous path than a bus driver likely would.
Service runs deep for the Tam family, as David’s father, as a teen orphan in Shanghai, served the famed Flying Tigers, an American air squadron that protected China from Japanese assaults in World War II. Forced to flee China amid the Communist Revolution, his father followed the Flying Tiger pilots to Hong Kong and later joined the airline industry himself.
Tam, born in Okinawa, Japan, moved to Oakland with his parents and sister when he was 9 years old. As a firstborn son of Asian immigrants, he said there were large expectations for his career path: either a doctor or an engineer.
After graduating from University of California Irvine, he applied to a number of traditional medical schools, but he would ultimately choose the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, the U.S. military’s medical school.
“I think my mom and my dad kind of scratched their heads, but it was medical school, and I was going to be a doctor,” he recalled. “I think for me, joining the service was really more about the opportunity to try different things and have a little bit of an adventure.”
Unlike most college students, USUHS students are Navy ensigns being paid for their training for four years. Upon graduation, they are required to serve seven years in the military service in return. It was a weighty assignment for a 20-something college grad, but Tam said he saw it as more an opportunity than anything else, and one that would lead him to a career as a pediatric neurologist.
Believe it or not, Tam’s military service even led him to an opportune spot in a classic ‘80s movie, “Top Gun.” In the barroom singalong to “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” Tam was an extra on the set along with stars Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards.
“Unfortunately, everything from my time on set except for my elbow in one scene got cut out,” he said with a laugh.
Tam’s time as a practicing physician would help frame what type of administrator he would become, and he specifically recalls one patient’s story. A 3-year-old boy named Benny came into his care suffering from an increasing number of daily seizures. After rounds of testing, Tam determined that Benny was suffering from a rare metabolic brain disorder that could only be treated by a bone marrow transplant, which at that time was a rare procedure.
Because Benny’s disorder was an orphan disease, or one without enough patients to have a proven treatment course, no insurance program would cover the cost of the bone marrow transplant. He and Benny’s family would unsuccessfully appeal the insurance program’s decision and lobby Congress to change the law that prevented the coverage.
“Eventually, we, along with Rotarians, Optimists and Lions Clubs, got donations to cover it. Basically the 30-years-ago version of what is now GoFundMe, and we got him to go,” Tam said, noting the treatment worked but Benny would later pass from an infection.
“That case taught me one thing: you can be a really good doctor, but if you don’t understand the rules, if you don’t understand the administrative process, if you don’t understand the insurance, if you don’t understand the business of health care, then you can’t really be an effective doctor,” he said.
It began his more than decade-long career in administration, although he never forgot about Benny. When he was serving as a chief operating officer at Tricare, the health insurance program for the U.S. military, he successfully helped lobby Congress to extend Medicare and Tricare coverage to orphan diseases. He later served in executive roles at Palomar Health and Providence Health & Services in California as well, overseeing the construction of an $856 million hospital in that time. As his responsibilities grew, so too did the scope of the operation and the bureaucracy though.
“I really didn’t have the ability to really shape the course of what was happening in the community because I was working for this very large health system. I’ve always believed that health care is best when community-focused,” he said.
He began looking for new opportunities on the East Coast – his wife is originally from Pennsylvania – and much like when he was applying to medical schools decades earlier, compiled a list of community health care systems in the region. It just so happened that Beebe fit the bill and was looking for a new CEO.
As he dug into Beebe’s market, finding a dichotomy of affluent retirees flocking to coastal cities and socio-economically challenged populations inhabiting the county’s rural center, he saw a purpose for the work.
“That disparity really appealed to me, and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to come here,” he said.
Tam arrived in Lewes right as the COVID-19 pandemic struck the United States, starting his role earlier than planned and driving cross-country by car after airlines closed passenger service. He said the last 14 months have taught us all the interconnectedness of a community’s health, a lesson that will serve us all in the future.
Tam noted how Beebe responded quickly to coronavirus outbreaks at poultry plants, coastal cities and other areas, knowing that failure to stem its tide could lead to a worsening crisis. He believes that response, and the educational campaigns in the interim, have helped build closer relationships with the patients and communities that Beebe serves.
“Yes, it’s good to be a part of a big health system because of some of the capacity that you have to move things around. But in order to be really good at what you do and to take care of the community, you have to have a focus on the community and be out in it,” he said.