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Dr. Charles O’Mara: Relationship-builder on, off campus

Published on Monday, February 2, 2015

By: Ruth Cummins

He can stroll on the Medical Center’s southeast side and glimpse Murrah High School and the old Bailey Junior High, where he studied as a teen growing up in Jackson.

Other memories – such as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa – by comparison seem a world away.

Dr. Charles O’Mara, with nine months under his belt as UMMC's associate vice chancellor for clinical affairs, came to the job with life experiences that help him build relationships on and off the Medical Center campus and tackle challenges that range from patient safety to doing more with less.

“I’ve heard an interesting comment: Our jobs are formulated for us, but to some extent, we formulate our own jobs as leaders by matching our skills to what needs to be done,” said O’Mara, a vascular surgeon in private practice for more than 30 years before coming to the Medical Center in 2013.

O’Mara graduated from the University of Mississippi. He earned his medical degree at Tulane University and completed a surgical residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He completed his vascular surgery fellowship at Northwestern University in Chicago, then returned to serve on the surgical faculty at Johns Hopkins.

But he came back to Mississippi in the early 1980s. His brother, a physician practicing in Carthage, had died of leukemia at age 33. “He had three very young sons, and I wanted to be part of their lives. I also had an opportunity to join an outstanding private practice surgical group,” O’Mara said.

O’Mara earned a master of business administration degree in the health-care program at the University of Texas at Dallas in 2011 and spent the last five years prior to joining the Medical Center on the medical staff at Baptist Hospital. He and his wife Susan make 40 acres in Ridgeland their home, and together have four children and nine grandchildren.

Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs and Dean of the School of Medicine James Keeton brought O’Mara on board as a special advisor in August 2013 after O’Mara had a conversation with him concerning his hopes of combining direct patient care with other health-care administrative experience.

“That led to other discussions, which led to me coming here,” O’Mara said. “It was an unusual opportunity for me to give back in a way that has real meaning.”

“We are very fortunate to have someone of his caliber in this role, particularly with his training,” Keeton said. “His knowledge base of the community is very important to us now. He brings a great deal of stability to the clinical world from the vice chancellor’s office.”

O’Mara’s days revolve around five main areas of focus: strategic planning, relationship building for external collaboration, advancing the value equation in a number of Medical Center platforms, being an internal liaison for the vice chancellor’s office, and ensuring efficiency in facilities management and operations.

In those roles, O’Mara builds many bridges, from collaborations with other area hospitals to strengthening ties with clinical department chairs and the UMMC adult and children’s hospitals.

“I get around to each of our department chairs to have one-on-one discussions on a regular basis. Many of them I see several times a week,” O’Mara said. “Externally, I collaborate with other physicians and health-care providers in the community, with the goal of us all using our limited resources in the most useful way.”

Dr. Bill Little, the Patrick Lehan Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine and chair of the Department of Medicine, said he meets frequently with O’Mara.

“Dr. O’Mara brings a wealth of experience and wisdom,” Little said. “He is an excellent listener who understands our perspectives on the issues the Medical Center faces, and ensures that they are considered and integrated into the decision-making process.

“He’s been very helpful in finding innovative solutions to the complex challenges he faces.”

So much of his job, O’Mara said, is about relationship building.

“I like to interact with people to solve difficult problems, and to know that if they can be addressed effectively, it will make a difference to people,” he said.

In vascular surgery, he said, “you connect or repair a blood vessel, and you know pretty quickly if it’s worked.” But not so in the administrative world, O’Mara said.

“It usually doesn’t work like that. It’s after a delayed process that you might see results, but I don’t find that frustrating.”

Focusing on the bigger picture, from strategic planning to UMMC’s mission statement, is part of the task at hand, O’Mara said. “It’s something we should all be able to recite,” he said of the mission statement. 

“We are going to do everything we can to accomplish the very best health for Mississippians. If you think of what is best for the health of Mississippi, and for the patient, you will usually make the right decision.”

O’Mara is charged with helping to ensure the goals of the new strategic plan are accomplished. “One of them is patient-centered care, which is doing what is right for the patient,” O’Mara said. 

That means all Medical Center employees should make patient safety and quality care a continuing priority, every day. “Even if an authority figure does something you’re not comfortable with, you are empowered to question it,” he said.

Another challenge going forward, O’Mara said, is maximizing efficiency in facilities and operational management through the best allocation of resources. “We need to have the right people doing the right thing in the right place,” he said. 

“The hardest challenge of my job is dealing with the fact that this is a complex institution, and it affects many people. Many stakeholders must be included in decisions,” O’Mara said. 

He said he’s heartened by the health-care professionals who have come to work for the Medical Center from other states, yet immediately understand and buy into the work it will take to address longstanding health disparities and ongoing battles to turn around conditions such as obesity and diabetes.

“I’m inspired by the opportunity for the state to address challenging health problems with limited resources, but in a way that we will set a standard for other states,” O’Mara said. “We are uniquely positioned for that.”