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A Healthy Dose with Walt Cooper, Ph.D.

Understanding the many facets to a career dedicated to healthcare and service

By Steve Kraus 1.25.19

Mission-driven is a word greatly associated with Walt Cooper Ph.D.’s career, having served in the military for 14 years and Veterans Affairs under Secretary McDonald from 2014 to 2016. Today he is president of Cortica, a provider of advanced neurological therapies for children with autism.

In this episode, we cover diverse topics such as:

1. The importance of interdisciplinary backgrounds in healthcare leadership

These days, it’s not just about going to med school. Entrepreneurs in healthcare are coming from all different backgrounds.

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Walt is a prime example of how intellectualism and service often go hand-in-hand in healthcare.

Walt graduated first in his class from the United States Military Academy at West Point, attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, and earned his doctorate from Harvard University.

Before becoming a healthcare leader, he served in operational and strategic roles during 14 years as a U.S. Army Green Beret. His passion for healthcare emerged while working for the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. This goes to show how healthcare and public policy are greatly intertwined, as we’ve discussed in previous podcasts.

2. Why codeswitching was the most valuable skill Walt carried from his military experience

“The range of people that I was forging relationships and connections with throughout my time in the military was kind of astonishing. On one given day, as a Green Beret officer, I might be in the field or on the range with some of the best soldiers in the world. The next day, I could be sitting over a meal of freshly slaughtered goat with some colonel from an indigenous army that I was trying to build a relationship with,” Walt tells A Healthy Dose.

Walt served in Iraq during one of the most heated periods of American military history over the last half-century. “My first deployment was to Baghdad in 2006, which was in many respects the lowest point of the war. It was incredibly dispiriting.”

At this time, he had to rumble with many personal and political questions, which led him to re-evaluate his career: “The American military is a very consequential organization and it matters who’s leading it at whatever level. At that moment I re-doubled my commitment to invest in the organization as a decision maker and instill it with the kind of ethos that I thought was needed at that time.”

3. Surprising insights into the scope and effectiveness of The VA

“The VA is the country’s largest healthcare system with approximately 153 hospitals and over 800 outpatient clinics. It’s a massive system and the second largest federal department after the DOD,” Walt tells AHD.

In 2014, veterans were having a tough time getting the care they needed in a timely manner. The organization also learned that many system leaders were lying about the access metrics. It really brought into focus a lot of the other problems that existed within The VA, and what needed to change culturally.

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“Despite its challenges, The VA is the closest thing we have in this country to nationalized healthcare.”

“Today there’s a significant movement afoot to privatize the VA and I think to a certain extent discredit its ability to provide care. However, there are plenty of studies that show that compared to private sector providers, VA quality outcomes were better.”

4. Cortica’s impact on those navigating complex health conditions, such as autism.

After his time at the VA, Walt soon became the President of Cortica, a health provider which addresses the magnitude of autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions.

“In 1985, approximately one out of every 2,500 kids had some form of autism. In 1995, it was one out of every 500. Now the numbers that the CDC put out this year is one out of every 59 kids in America is diagnosed with autism.”

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According to a recent study, the demand for autism treatment outstrips supply by a factor of 18.

Cortica is one of the few organizations and health providers that offer more holistic modalities to addressing autism for individuals and their families.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of headway made in the last couple of decades in cognitive neuroscience,” Walt tells AHD.

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