Remembering Dr. Tom Cheetham, physician and advocate

Tom Cheetham smiling in front of blue background

Adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in our state, nation, and world face disparities in health care compared with the general population. Dr. Tom Cheetham, a Family Medicine physician, dedicated his career to addressing this injustice.

Cheetham passed away on August 20. He had served as Deputy Commissioner of Health Services for the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) since 2011.

“Dr. Cheetham dedicated his life to serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and was a huge advocate for improving primary care for adults with intellectual disabilities,” said Debbie Payne, DIDD Commissioner. “His contributions to this field not only benefited people in Tennessee, but also people around the world through his work on the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Health Care Toolkit.”

In June 2017, Cheetham received the inaugural Surgeon General’s Spirit Award for Outstanding Leadership and Service of the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry.

“Tom was the perfect choice for this award that recognizes dedication to reducing health care disparities for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” said Elise McMillan, J.D., co-director of the VKC University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (VKC UCEDD). “He also was an essential partner and collaborator with the VKC UCEDD and the Vanderbilt Consortium LEND in a series of projects aimed at addressing health care disparities—namely, the creation of Health Care for Adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities: Toolkit for Primary Care Providers, then the development of online training for physicians and other health care providers, and most recently a telehealth project. How perfect that his Award recognized ‘Spirit,’ because in all that Tom did in his long career, he exemplified the spirit needed to bring about change.”

In 2015, TennCare and the VKC UCEDD collaborated on the development of video training modules for health professionals, “Appropriate Use of Psychotropic Medications for People with IDD: Healing Individuals Get the Best Behavioral Health Care.” A related training was developed for individuals with IDD, their families, and other caregivers. Cheetham was instrumental in planning content, and also appeared in the videos.

Patti Killingsworth, Tennessee’s chief of long-term services and support and assistant commissioner for the Bureau of TennCare said, “I have never met a man more passionate about or committed to the health of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The twinkle in his eye was just a spark of the passion in his heart, and it couldn’t help but spread like wildfire. None who worked with him will ever forget him, and we will continue the good fight with great honor in his memory.”

“Tom was vital in a recent VKC UCEDD telehealth project,” said Janet Shouse, program coordinator of the IDD Health Care Toolkit. “We invited community medical providers to join a live videoconference once a month for ‘grand- rounds’ style sessions with case presentations and information about the specialized health care needs of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. His decades of experience, his knowledge, and his personal stories made those sessions so meaningful for clinicians. Tom was a passionate, tireless advocate for improving medical care for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. His face would simply light up when he had the opportunity to explain the joys and the challenges of treating patients with intellectual and developmental disabilities with other physicians, nurse practitioners, and medical residents. He wanted people with disabilities to have the health care they needed in their own communities.”

Cheetham was a Board-Certified family physician with over 30 years’ experience serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He began in this field in the early 1970s, prior to medical school, when he and his wife were live-in house parents supporting ten adults with intellectual disabilities. His clinical experience included providing primary medical care in three developmental centers, being the sole physician for a tertiary 24-bed dual diagnosis (intellectual disability and a psychiatric diagnosis or significant behavioral issues) unit in a state psychiatric hospital, and as a community-based family physician for 15 years, all in Ontario, Canada.

After being granted a rare O visa by the U.S. Department of Citizenship and Immigration, Cheetham became the medical director at Orange Grove Center, in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 2009. His clinical experience also included primary care and dual diagnosis consulting for a large community agency serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities across the age spectrum, and with a multidisciplinary community-based dual diagnosis team.

Cheetham’s publications included book chapters on physical health, guidelines on primary care of adults, and the use of psychotropic medications in management of problem behaviors in adults with intellectual disabilities.

Cheetham has held academic appointments in the Department of Family Medicine and the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Western Ontario, and in the Department of Family Medicine at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Most recently, he was an adjoint assistant professor of Psychology and Human Development at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College.

In 2007, Cheetham was selected Physician of the Year by the Developmental Disabilities Nurses Association, and he was a Fellow in the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

Jan Rosemergy is VKC director of Communication and Dissemination

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