40 Years of RWJF + 10 Force Multipliers = Young Leaders Transforming the Future

Nov 19, 2012, 9:45 AM, Posted by Christine Nieves

Christine Nieves / RWJF Christine E. Nieves Rodriguez

This December marks my first year with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and with the Pioneer Portfolio. Throughout the year, I’ve been amazed by the team’s connection to health and health care innovation, and have been humbled to be part of RWJF as it celebrates its 40th anniversary.

As part of its anniversary celebration, RWJF announced its inaugural Young Leader Awards. I was excited that RWJF chose to honor 10 leaders, 40 and under, who offer promise for leading the way to improved health and health care. The Foundation recently announced the 10 winners who represent great diversity in the future of health care innovation.

I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with the award winners, and found in our discussions that my notion of innovation was both challenged and inspired. (If you read my last blog post, I assumed that innovation happens because “there are few inhibitions, restrictions, and obligations.” Guess what? Almost all winners had families and young children!) I left impressed with their enormous sense of compassion toward the individuals they touch, and their courage to strive for progressive change.

Take Rebecca Onie as an example. Rebecca had a simple yet transformative idea: Empower doctors to prescribe not just medicines and therapy, but remedies for non-medical problems such as joblessness, lack of child care, and too little food. The organization she founded, Health Leads, operates in 23 cities and has trained 7,000 volunteers to connect patients and their families with basic resources. Patients take their “prescriptions” to volunteers, who help “fill” them by connecting patients to community services.

Another winner, Dr. Ruben Amarasingham, president and CEO of Parkland Center for Clinical Innovation, co-invented the PIECES™ clinical decision support software system to help physicians identify patients at high risk for returning to the hospital. Using this system, Parkland Hospital in Dallas cut its 30-day readmission rate among Medicare patients with heart failure by 40 percent.

And Dr. Carmen Peralta, an assistant professor in residence at the University of California San Francisco, convinced that there must be a way to identify kidney disease before renal failure sets in, developed a blood test that is now part of international diagnostic guidelines. Her research has been especially important for African-American patients because it corrected past assumptions about genetic differences that frequently led to misdiagnoses.

I was struck by the winners’ passion for their work, desire to present a new vision of health care, and emphasis on the support they’ve received from colleagues and family along the way. And I also left with optimism. As Carmen Peralta told me, “when I was your age I was in med school, and I had no idea what I wanted to do. I just knew I wanted to make a difference.” So for us on the younger side of the “under 40” spectrum, we can still embrace ambiguity, while not forsaking commitment to innovation. Please join me in congratulating them and cheers to another 40 years of RWJF!

Learn more about each winner.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.