J.D. Polk, D.O., FACOEP, has taken care of people ranging from astronauts 250 nautical miles above the Earth to Chilean miners trapped nearly half a mile below its surface. Now the assistant secretary (acting) for health affairs and chief medical officer of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), he’ll take the reins this August as dean of DMU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine (COM).
Through his roles in emergency medicine, life flight, the Air Force, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and DHS, Polk says he’s enjoyed the “distinct honor of leading great teams.”
“They had some very talented people and a noble mission, and they rallied around visionary leadership,” he says. “Believing in your folks, enabling them and pushing them beyond what they thought they were capable of has allowed me to have some of the most successful teams ever built in those organizations. I have observed DMU over the years while serving on the Commission for Osteopathic College Accreditation [COCA], and I believe DMU has that same substrate.”
Polk also brings experience in teaching medical students and residents, with academic appointments at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, George Mason University’s School of Public Policy and the University of Texas medical branch.
“Watching students develop into outstanding physicians is immensely satisfying,” he says.
In his current DHS role since November 2011, Polk previously was the department’s principal deputy assistant secretary for health affairs and deputy chief medical officer. Prior to his work at DHS, he was the deputy chief medical officer and chief of space medicine for NASA’s Johnson Space Center. There he managed a $45 million budget and provided care for its 17,000 employees as well as for the astronauts.
DMU “can be visionary and build something grand, while at the same time maintaining our osteopathic distinctiveness and our historical roots.”
In 2010, Polk joined a four-person NASA team that helped engineer the rescue of the 33 men who were trapped in a Chilean gold and copper mine for 68 days. The team provided expertise in contingency planning for emergencies on the International Space Station and shuttle missions.
“This example for the Chilean mine shows very quickly how the space program can benefit people on the ground and is immediately applicable to things on the ground,” he said in an article in MedPage Today in November 2010.
Looking ahead to his role as COM dean, Polk says he believes DMU “can be visionary and build something grand, while at the same time maintaining our osteopathic distinctiveness and our historical roots.” Embracing leadership opportunities will be critical for both osteopathic medicine and the University.
“As osteopathic physicians, we have long been advocates of the primary care profession and the medical home concept, and it seems like the rest of the health care world has finally caught up to us,” he says. “But this isn’t the time for us to rest easy. The changes in health care will drive a demand for two products that Des Moines University is uniquely suited to produce – primary care physicians and health care leaders.”
Past medical director of emergency medical services for the state of Ohio, Polk has been active in local, state and federal emergency services and preparedness planning throughout his career.
“I have yet to have a job that I did not absolutely love,” he says. “What most people see as a challenge, I see as an opportunity.”
Polk earned his medical degree from the A.T. Still University in Kirksville, MO; a master of science degree in space studies with a concentration in human factors from the American Military University; and a master’s degree in medical management from the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. A fellow of the American College of Osteopathic Emergency Physicians and board-certified in emergency medicine and medical management, he has published extensively in those areas as well as in austere medicine, disaster response, air transport and aerospace medicine.
Polk has received numerous awards, including citations from the FBI, White House Medical Unit, Association of Air Medical Services and U.S. Air Force. His NASA honors include medals for exceptional service, exceptional achievement and international affairs.