Kent R. Thielen, M.D., sees opportunity everywhere as he scans the landscape of Mayo Clinic’s campus in Jacksonville, Florida, which is why he’s especially excited about his new role.
A neuroradiologist and part of Mayo Clinic since 1990, Dr. Thielen was appointed in November 2018 as the CEO of Mayo Clinic in Florida. He started in January, and he’s charting a vision that matches the opportunity he sees with his own passion for innovation.
“It’s an exciting time,” Dr. Thielen says. “Our campus is growing, and we have a tremendous opportunity to take our patient care to even higher levels as we continue to innovate across all areas of our mission.”
The building blocks for Dr. Thielen’s vision are moving into place quickly. Construction cranes are seemingly around every corner, lifting the campus through an expansion that will nearly double its space for patient care.
The next addition will bring new resources to support his ongoing passion for innovation. Just a short walk from the Davis Building, construction crews are putting the final touches on the three-story Discovery and Innovation Building, which has a unique mix of space for research, entrepreneurship and regenerative medicine programs.
But it’s more than just bustling growth. Dr. Thielen’s own track record in improving patient care and inspiring staff members portend well for the future of Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus.
“Listening is the portal to the soul, and it is the most important trait a leader can have,” says Ron Menaker, a longtime administrator at Mayo Clinic who studies leadership and worked with Dr. Thielen for four years. “Dr. Thielen is an extraordinary listener. He is in a class by himself. He makes you feel respected, and he builds partnerships just through listening.”
An Eye for Innovation
After training for seven years as a resident and fellow at Mayo Clinic, Dr. Thielen became a member of the physician staff in Rochester in 1996. He specialized in image-guided interventional radiology procedures and techniques for the diagnosis and treatment of disorders of the brain and spine. Quickly, he distinguished himself across all areas of Mayo’s mission — practice, education and research.
Dr. Thielen developed an outstanding reputation for his expertise with procedures to treat spinal compression and other outpatient procedures to relieve back pain. And with other Mayo Clinic colleagues, he pioneered new techniques for diagnosing and treating spinal fluid leaks. In addition, he developed a continuing medical education course that has drawn physicians from around the world to learn the latest practices in the neuroradiology field.
Along the way, Dr. Thielen took on new leadership responsibilities through opportunities that came to him organically, he says. He served nine years as the chair of the Division of Neuroradiology. In 2013 he became chair of the Department of Radiology for all of Mayo Clinic’s hospitals and clinics in the Midwest. This group includes 260 physicians and 1,500 allied health staff, and Dr. Thielen set a vision for them to become the premier radiology practice in the world.
The team embraced the challenge, largely because of the way Dr. Thielen presented it, says Matthew R. Callstrom, M.D., Ph.D., a radiologist at Mayo Clinic and longtime colleague.
“Kent presented it in a way that helped people see it was achievable and it would support great patient care,” Dr. Callstrom says. “He made it a shared goal, and he empowered people to achieve it.”
It worked. In his nearly six years as the chair of Radiology, the department’s staff dramatically increased their research and became a top recipient of awards from the National Institutes of Health. They also worked with equipment manufacturers to bring new advances to patients, including the first 7-Tesla MRI in North America to receive approval for patient care from the Food and Drug Administration. Now, radiologists at Mayo Clinic are collaborating with equipment manufacturers to develop a new generation of tools to improve cancer ablation and other outpatient procedures for complex diseases.
But something called “point-of-care manufacturing” may be one of the department’s most compelling innovations under Dr. Thielen’s leadership, and it’s another example of how he empowers people. Point-of-care manufacturing combines medical imaging with three-dimensional printers to make realistic physical models of a patient’s anatomy. It was used for the first time at Mayo Clinic in 2008, to help surgeons plan a procedure to separate conjoined twins.
The successful surgery made national headlines, but for a while, point-of-care manufacturing remained a fringe resource, used for very rare and complex surgeries. Now, thanks to Dr. Thielen’s leadership, it is far more common, and Mayo Clinic is a world leader in using the technique, says Jonathan M. Morris, M.D., a radiologist and co-director of Mayo Clinic’s three-dimensional printing lab.
“Kent is really good at seeing around corners and seeing the next big thing,” Dr. Morris says. “He advocated for us, not just at Mayo, but across the country to encourage other radiologists to expand our vision. Now, point-of-care manufacturing is part of the standard of care for certain patients at Mayo Clinic. We have grown from printing about 30 models a year to more than 2,900 in 2018.”
A Dynamic Life
Longtime colleagues of Dr. Thielen respect his leadership, but they also know him as a friend, husband and father of three boys in their early 20s. “Kent and I raised our families together, and we were fortunate to spend many birthdays and weekends together,” says Christopher P. Wood, M.D. “He’s just a very compassionate person, and we’re going to miss him and his wife, Dr. Jackie Thielen, in Rochester.”
The Thielens met when they were both attending medical school at the University of Minnesota. They’ve been together ever since and both are recognized as accomplished physicians. A member of Mayo Clinic’s internal medicine staff, Jacqueline M. Thielen, M.D., is an expert in women’s health, with a focus on menopause and sexual health, and is the 2019 recipient of the Clinical Excellence Award in Internal Medicine.
Throughout their sons’ childhoods, Dr. Thielen, who himself played baseball at South Dakota State University, volunteered as a coach and director for many youth teams and leagues in baseball, basketball, football and soccer.
Dr. Thielen chose to pursue medicine as a career while attending college and after shadowing a local physician in his hometown of Shakopee, Minnesota. Through that experience, he saw the many ways that a physician can improve life in a community, and he wants to do the same in Jacksonville. One of his priorities is to continue building bridges between Mayo Clinic and the Jacksonville community. This includes collaborating with the other health care systems in the city. Already, he’s met with his counterparts at these organizations to discuss ways to further enhance collaboration.
If there is one bittersweet aspect to Dr. Thielen’s new role, it’s that his schedule means he’ll have less time to personally care for patients and experience the joy that comes with helping a person overcome a serious condition. But he’s hoping to still have those experiences, and he is listed as a member of the Radiology staff, as well as CEO, in Florida.
To accomplish that dream, he may have to find a 25th hour in the day. Convincing the sun and moon to trade 30 minutes each day sounds like a tall order. But then again, Dr. Thielen isn’t one to think about limitations.
“Kent is always encouraging people and always asking them to be aware of self-limiting beliefs,” Dr. Callstrom says. “Don’t accept those beliefs and the limits that you think may be there. And I think that’s one of the big reasons he’s been able to get teams together and accomplish big things. Kent sees opportunity everywhere.”■