2003 Paul A. Volcker Career Achievement

James Bagain

Contributed enormously in his 24 years of experience as a federal public servant, including the development of an innovative patient safety program that is now in place in all 173 VA hospitals.

With more than 24 years of experience in the federal government, Dr. James Bagian has a diverse and unique resume. He has amassed an impressive list of accomplishments as a NASA physician and astronaut; a U.S. Air Force flight surgeon; and an engineer with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Navy, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

His 15-year tenure at NASA included two flights on the Space Shuttle. This alone would distinguish any career, but Bagian also led the development of a high altitude pressure suit for crew escape and other crew survival equipment to be used on future shuttle missions. He was also first to employ a treatment of space motion sickness that has become the standard of care for sick astronauts. In February 2003, he was appointed as Chief Flight Surgeon/Medical Consultant to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

Bagian’s contributions to military service include advancing new methods of military aircraft ejection seat design and serving as a colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. As the Special Consultant for Combat Search and Rescue to the Air Command Surgeon General, he was the driving force in standardizing pre-hospital combat rescue medical care across all Air Force major commands.

For the past four years, Bagian has directed the National Center for Patient Safety at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In that capacity, he developed and implemented an innovative patient safety program that has been put into practice at all 173 VA hospitals and in the programs of several European and Asian nations It is also considered to be the benchmark for patient safety in the U.S. and internationally. Bagian and his team are now training hospitals in all 50 states in how to implement the program. Because national estimates show that more people die annually from hospital-based errors than deaths annually due to AIDS, motor vehicle accidents, or cervical cancer, this accomplishment has a critical and very real impact on our public health system.

Recognizing this contribution, Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government awarded Bagian’s program its Innovations in American Government Award in 2001, making it the only federal program to be so honored that year.

A colleague described Bagian’s contributions: “[His] achievements were not accomplished through just conceiving a ‘strategic plan’ and then sending written directives to the field for implementation. They were attained through innovation and outstanding leadership where Dr. Bagian engaged individuals at all levels of the organization to instill in them a shared feeling of urgency and necessity for improvement in patient safety.”

Bagian’s dedication, leadership, and focus on achieving results through creative problem solving have truly benefited the nation he serves.