Women in Public Affairs to Know: Latoya Thomas

August 7, 2019

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This interview is part of a series on “Women in Public Affairs to Know,” by the McGuireWoods Consulting Women in Public Affairs initiative. To learn more about the initiative or recommend a woman for a future interview, please visit our website.

Latoya Thomas is the Director of Policy and Government Affairs for Doctor on Demand and has focused her career on promoting the use of technologies as a tool to reduce health disparities, improve patient engagement and ensure equitable access to healthcare across the care continuum. Prior to joining Doctor on Demand, Latoya served as the Director of Policy for the American Telemedicine Association, Associate Director of Government Affairs for the National Association for Home Care and Hospice, and Research and Communications Strategist for the National Health IT Collaborative for the Underserved.  Latoya serves on the Boards of Directors for the Texas eHealth Alliance and Girls Rock!DC, and is a Howard University alumna.

The interview below was conducted by Michele Satterlund, senior vice president on McGuireWoods Consulting’s Virginia State Government Relations team.

Question: Before joining Doctor on Demand, you had a career at the American Telemedicine Association (ATA).  What prompted the transition and what has been the biggest surprise in moving from the nonprofit world into the corporate sector? 

Latoya Thomas: For the past decade, I’ve promoted the integration of digital health across the spectrum of care, and also looked at ways to leverage emerging technologies to address access gaps in healthcare. While at the ATA, I worked with a vast network of multi-stakeholders across the healthcare and tech spaces to gain greater recognition of the benefits of telehealth nationwide and ensure consumer protections and patient choice through telehealth parity laws.   We made great strides and I’m happy with the results, but I was also ready for a new challenge. 

I wanted to think more creatively and strategically about how to use new digital care delivery models to make an impact on quality, access, and costs.  I’ve been at Doctor on Demand for ten months, and have already seen several initiatives that embrace this direction.  For example, we know that indicators like diabetes and high cholesterol can lead to stroke and heart disease.  Our patients have been using our virtual practice to help manage and lower key metrics related to both chronic conditions.  We also launched a partnership with Humana that allows patients to get virtual-first access to ongoing care and follow-ups from the same virtual primary care physicians, dedicated care teams, integrated mental health, coordinated referrals to local health providers, electronically integrated lab, radiology, and pharmacy services. 

 Latoya at a House Telehealth Caucus breifing providing an overview of federal and state telehealth policy trends with industry experts from AHIP and UMMC.

Latoya at a House Telehealth Caucus breifing providing an overview of federal and state telehealth policy trends with industry experts from AHIP and UMMC.

The direction that we are heading has been serendipitous because a number of new payment models have been announced over the past year that align perfectly, including value-based payment models that encourage 24/7 access to primary care services, network advocacy models that recognize telehealth, expanded Medicaid and Medicare coverage for telehealth, and greater flexibilities to use pre-tax for chronic and preventative care.

The most pleasant surprise about my transition to Doctor on Demand has been witnessing how inclusive and culturally diverse our practice is. Our virtual care team is reflective of what is needed in the larger healthcare ecosystem. 

Twenty percent of our physicians are Black, which is four times the national average. And impressively nearly 60 percent of our physicians are women since only 30 percent of physicians are women. That is important to me because when you’re having conversations about healthcare access in telehealth and digital health, I believe it starts with your workforce and building trust and a rapport with patients and their local communities. If we are reflective of the communities that we’re serving, then I think we can better impact and redefine what virtual care means moving forward.

Q: Who, or what, has influenced you the most in terms of your career choices?

Latoya: I’ve had the great fortune of being in the digital health industry on the policy side, but I also show up wearing my patient and caregiver hats. I’ve been able to look at policies and interpret them not only for the groups I represented at the time, but to also take a personal view of how the policies could impact other patients and family caregivers.  Sometimes you have to take a step back and ask yourself who truly benefits from a policy change. I’ve made my career choices with patients in mind and how technology can provide them with solutions that allow them to make the best decisions regarding their own lives. The impact in the lives of my own family members has been very immediate, and I’ve seen how technology can be adopted to better manage care and the relationships patients have with their own healthcare providers.

I am super grateful to have such a supportive family who, because of my involvement in this space, has a better understanding of telehealth and virtual care. They have always encouraged us to think without limits. My sister, and best friend, has always been a huge supporter of my ability to face challenges and figure out a way to solve them and move forward.

 Latoya speaking at the VisionMonday Global Leadership Summit panel session entitled

Latoya speaking at the VisionMonday Global Leadership Summit panel session entitled “Tackling Disruption: The Telehealth Frontier” in New York City with tele-ocular representatives.

Of course, there are too many people for me to name in terms of professional influencers, but I have had some amazing advisors along the way. They have been forthcoming and transparent, while also encouraging me to think critically about what I encounter and encouraging me to get out of my comfort zone and think beyond government affairs. In this industry, the professionals I’ve met along the way have been a tremendous source of inspiration and support.

Q: What’s on the horizon for telemedicine and what are you personally most excited about in terms of technology and healthcare?

Latoya: I think what I’m most excited about are the expanded capabilities of telemedicine and renewed interest in achieving and maintaining quality.  There are new players and new models of care that are being executed, and I’m finding that payers, government officials, providers and consumers are ready for something that goes beyond “check the box” telehealth.  This is because healthcare is demanding more everyday – demanding that providers operate at the top of their scope, communicate effectively with their patients and members of their care team, and be available when patients need them. If the industry is asking for more recognition and reimbursement of emerging technologies, then it should not be a tall order to ensure that your product and care model that it’s built around is safe, effective, and secure. In a value-based world where health plan performance models hold payers and providers accountable for improving care quality, they will also expect the same from their virtual care partners. 

I also think there’s an opportunity to change the common perception that non-facility based telemedicine leads to fragmented care. There is definitely a shift happening in what’s known as transactional telemedicine to a more holistic virtual care approach that focuses on care continuity, coordination, and care management. It’s multi-modal and patient site neutral which allows us to truly integrate with different partners and go beyond counting telehealth visit volume.

 Latoya speaking at the ATA 2018 Annual Meeting in Chicago on the opportunities in the 2018 Bipartisan Budget Act.

Latoya speaking at the ATA 2018 Annual Meeting in Chicago on the opportunities in the 2018 Bipartisan Budget Act.

Since I’m a policy wonk I have to say how much I appreciate that telehealth is one of few issues that has bi-partisan support.  There have been notable policy reforms in red and blue states over the past decade, and at the federal level the current administration has set itself apart as a true telehealth champion.  With many of the 2020 democratic presidential candidates sponsoring their own telehealth proposals, I’m excited to see broader policy action for telehealth in future health, tech, and telecom discussions.

Q: Until I read your resume, I had no idea you had majored in psychology and minored in chemistry.  How have these degrees proven useful in terms of your government affairs career?

Latoya: I can tell you that no one is asking me about covalent bonds, thank goodness. However, I have been known to reference the DSM in everyday conversation.  In all seriousness, understanding behavioral health has been beneficial in my advocacy for telebehavioral health. I attended Howard University and when you attend college in D.C. it is difficult to find spaces that are not engaged in the cultural affairs of the day. Going to Howard exposed me to a certain diversity of thought which has definitely attributed to my having a level of emotional intelligence allowing me to build credibility and trusting relationships with regulators and state legislators. We’re both working towards solutions that can help their communities which has also been helpful for building relationships by showing we have a common focus.

Interestingly, my father is a retired chemist and we have conversations about medication interactions and over-prescribing. Some forms of telehealth have made it too convenient to prescribe and dispense certain medications without a follow-up and without necessarily thinking about the medical interactions or side effects.

Q: You sit on the Board of Girls Rock!DC.  Can you tell me what encouraged you to get involved?

Latoya: Girls Rock!DC is important to me because it’s a local organization. I’ve worked in the city on issues largely related to healthcare and it’s been great to work with an organization that hones in on the desires and passions of young women and helps them find avenues to express themselves. Girls Rock!DC has been around for a little more than a decade and we specialize in music education and provide a safe space for young girls, trans youth and non-binary youth to truly express themselves. We use low and no cost programming to give local youth the opportunity to learn about all aspects of music from writing, to production, to instrument instruction. Every year we put on a summer camp for our youth and I’m always impressed by their confidence. They learn all these different facets of music, and at the end of the week, they put on this incredible showcase at the 9:30 Club for their family and the community. They are showing them what happens when you create an inclusive space for someone who is so willing to grow. What I love most is that our youth are interested in further developing their leadership skills and becoming more involved in the organization, so we’ve created a Youth Advisory Board for them to have more valuable input in the organization’s direction. It’s great to see them build confidence, and I’m happy to be part of the group.