Chimney Rock Colorado

For Digital Health Innovator, Native Roots Instilled Love of Science

By Nancy Gast Romps

Dr. Brian Anderson

Dr. Brian Anderson

Dr. Brian Anderson carries his Native American heritage and values through his career at the intersection of information technology and medicine. As MITRE’s chief digital health physician, he leads research and development efforts across major strategic initiatives in digital health. He talked with MITRE’s Nancy Romps about how his upbringing fed his desire to help others.

Much of my childhood was spent on the Southern Ute reservation in Colorado’s beautiful Four Corners region, where I was surrounded by the sheer magnitude of 14,000-foot mountains, streams where I fly-fished with my grandfather and uncle, and the smell of sagebrush after a summer rain storm.  

Life on the reservation introduced me to the beauty of life sciences as well as the importance of helping the larger community. Today, I’m working at the intersection of information technology and medicine—discovering opportunities to employ digital tools to improve clinical care, empower patients, advance pragmatic clinical trials, and analyze linked clinical and genomic data sets.

From Private Practice to Digital Health

After my family relocated to California—following jobs in construction for my father and grandfather—I spent my summers back on the reservation and visited whenever I could. Spending time with my cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents kept me connected to reservation life, as well as all the fun we had out in nature.

Then, I headed east to Harvard for undergrad and medical school. After six years of practicing internal medicine near Boston, I realized I wanted a schedule and lifestyle more aligned with starting a family.

I was about to sign on the dotted line to open my own solo practice when a friend who’s a software engineer suggested I interview for a new company launching a cloud-based electronic health record. That’s how I fell into digital health. As a clinician in the software development space, I knew what made sense in terms of how to build those tools. A few years later, I was recruited by MITRE.

Delivering impact at a national level in digital health is the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. MITRE offers the ability to move the whole health ecosystem by pulling together a critical mass of private- and public-sector stakeholders to create opportunities in this fascinating space.

Life on the reservation introduced me to the beauty of life sciences as well as the importance of helping the larger community.

Dr. Brian Anderson

Transforming Health Data and Technology

One of these opportunities for impact has been VCI, a public-private coalition supporting the issuance of verifiable health credentials, such as digital or paper vaccination records, using open, interoperable standards. Obviously, it’s important to know this type of information in the time of a pandemic. But outside of a pandemic, it’s equally important to be able to say, “Here’s my health data. And it’s accurate because the technology behind it enables it to be trustworthy.”

As part of the VCI effort, MITRE authored the SMART Health Card FHIR Vaccination and Implementation Guide. We also led the coordination of the rollout of state-based SMART Health Cards across more than 20 U.S. states and at least 13 other countries. In addition, we represented the broader VCI coalition at G20 meetings and led the Digital Health Infrastructure effort for the World Health Organization.

We’re also doing great work in the health artificial intelligence (AI) space. It began when Dr. John Halamka—who is president of the Mayo Clinic—and I were getting calls from different organizations with the same goal: developing an open, transparent, and bias-free set of tools to set health-equity standards. Now it’s called the Coalition for Health AI—or CHAI, like the spiced tea.

For CHAI, MITRE is leading the drafting of the initial version of the implementation guide and overseeing roundtables covering important topical areas that include testability, usability, safety, bias, equity, and fairness. As with VCI, we pulled together public- and private-sector leaders for this work—including Microsoft, Google, health systems, the Food and Drug Administration, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

A Professional Journey Grounded in Lessons of Native Culture

It’s interesting that my older brother also landed in a service-oriented career. He graduated from West Point and is now the 2-star commanding general of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. We’re both incredibly dedicated to making the nation a safer, healthier place.

I have so many fond memories of reservation life—powwows when everyone came together to celebrate dance and tribal music and our culture, drum circles with Native dancers and drummers, and just spending time with lots of extended family.

My undergrad major of social anthropology gave me another opportunity to both learn about other native cultures and share a bit about mine, too. It also reinforced some of the best life lessons I’ve ever had—learning to be a good listener, how to see the world through another person’s eyes, and how to have empathy.

Today, I keep close the importance of the world’s creation and our place in it. How to respect others and honor nature and knowing where I came from—where my ancestors have lived for thousands of years.

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