Reach for the Stars

How Philips’s Chris Whaley went from a young sci-fi fan to a healthcare innovator

In many respects, Chris Whaley has Star Wars to thank for his career in healthcare.

Long before becoming vice president and head of human resources for monitoring and analytics and therapeutic care at Philips, Whaley was a young child with an ardent love of science fiction. And seeing the original Star Wars in 1977—perhaps the most iconic science fiction movie ever produced—was a turning point for him. “From an early age, I was very interested in what the future would hold,” Whaley recalls.

With stars in his eyes and a dream of working for NASA, Whaley worked in several different sectors before eventually joining Philips, a leading health technology company. Now, as a major voice in Philips’s healthcare initiatives, Whaley’s science fiction visions of the future are becoming a reality.

Chris Whaley, Philips

But Whaley’s journey from prospective NASA engineer to an HR role in healthcare for Philips is a long and storied one. He earned his bachelor degree in aerospace engineering just in time for the market to consolidate. Later, he achieved his master’s degree in industrial engineering. After some time at trucking firms and furniture manufacturers, Whaley was drawn to a role as a crime analyst at the Knoxville Police Department, using analytical and mapping software to examine crime trends for prevention.

“This was when I started to realize how I could take skills from one field to apply to really different areas,” he says.

Eventually, Whaley found himself at Philips, working as a knowledge engineer, which he felt was an opportunity to rekindle his sense of childlike wonder and desire to help others. “I saw this could be a place where I could grow and work in different industries, functions, and even locations over time,” he says.

With his wide array of experience rooted in engineering, Whaley finds many different applications of that work history at Philips. For example, his engineering training helped him acquire his Project Management Professional certification and become a Six Sigma Black Belt. Following some changes in Philips’s business model in his sector, Whaley moved from business transformation into HR, where he found his current home.

“Some of the skills I had were not typically found in HR at the time, which was a benefit for the company,” Whaley says.

In keeping with his science fiction idealism, Whaley is constantly drawn to Philips’s mission of making life better—particularly in healthcare. With aging populations and the rise of chronic conditions and cost of care, Whaley says, individuals are becoming more active in monitoring their health. “That contributes to a desire for connected care, anywhere, at any time,” he says. Additionally, the rise in data from multiple sources–in addition to advances in analytics, artificial intelligence, and predictive modeling—provides Whaley and his team with greater chances to improve healthcare access and outcomes.

One initiative that Whaley and his team are currently working on is the IntelliVue Guardian, a patient monitoring analysis system which, when paired with their new wearable medical grade biosensors, facilitates the continuous monitoring of heart rate, respiration rate, and posture in low-acuity patients. According to Whaley, the system “allows the detection of deterioration of a patient as much as twelve hours before an adverse event takes place.” It then notifies the care team before any problems occur. A pilot program of the Guardian system at Augusta University Medical Center reported an 88 percent reduction in predictable codes and an overall improved ability to prevent instances of cardiac arrest. Whaley views this initiative as an exciting example of the healthcare innovations that Philips specializes in.

The IntelliVue Guardian system works with a wearable sensor that automatically monitors a patient’s vitals such as pulse, temperature, and respiratory signs to help nurses detect health issues sooner. According to Philips, 40 percent of unanticipated hospital deaths happen on the general ward.

While much of Whaley’s job entails supporting these types of initiatives, he also strives to revitalize the leadership and technical capabilities of the related teams at Philips. During its annual strategy review process, the company looks at its existing business operations and see where it plans to grow. Through strategic workforce planning, technology road maps, and more, Whaley and his colleagues look at the capabilities and competencies of their people, processes, and systems to see where they can improve. They then create detailed action plans to address any gaps in these capabilities, including hiring specific talent, updating IT systems, or utilizing training to foster professional development in their staff. The goal, says Whaley, is to help ensure Philips has the workforce to fit the future.

In order to accomplish that goal, Whaley and the team place a premium on employee engagement. According to Whaley, one major breakthrough for Philips was realizing the disparity between increased employee pride and retention and actual performance. “It’s not enough for people to feel engaged, but they also have to act engaged,” he explains.

Philips’s management is taking this expanded view to heart in finding ways to simplify processes and remain competitive in the market. These include lean techniques such as daily management, as well as other traditional engagement activities. For many, the intrinsic value of their contributions to public health is a key driver. “We also see our employees excited to be part of shaping the future of health and well-being and the billions of people we touch,” Whaley says.

Whaley may not have become an astronaut, but he feels his work at Philips helps fulfill his boyhood dreams of ushering in a better future for humanity. “The most satisfying part of my job now is that I am working in healthcare and am part of a company whose goal is to improve the lives of three billion people a year by 2025,” Whaley says. “We are making the science fiction visions of the future a reality. The kid inside me has come full circle.” 

Photo by Gonzalo Condes de Bethencourt/Philips