How UTMB alumnus Tom Arnold built a childhood dream of collaborative medicine into the Diagnostic Clinic of Houston
By Kate Murphy
Though retired since 1998, William Thomas “Tom” Arnold, eighty-three, has an office on the seventh floor of the Diagnostic Clinic of Houston (DCH) in the Texas Medical Center. It’s a small, unassuming space tucked between patient examining rooms and a nurse’s station. No one would guess that this modest office belongs to one of the founders of the clinic and prime mover behind the construction of its fifteen-story office tower and its adjoining three-hundred-bed hospital. A gastroenterologist by training, Arnold could also be described as a physician entrepreneur. His vision and business acumen created the multimillion-dollar enterprise that DCH is today. The clinic’s mission mirrors Arnold’s lifetime commitment to helping patients pinpoint what’s wrong.
“Without an accurate diagnosis, all the medicine and technology in the world isn’t going to help you,” says Arnold, who graduated from UTMB’s School of Medicine in 1944. He learned that axiom from his father, William Thomas Arnold Sr., a country doctor in the small Deep East Texas town of Hemphill, near the Sabine National Forest and Toledo Bend Reservoir. Arnold and his four brothers would pile into their father’s Model T and accompany him while he made house calls. It was while bumping along dirt roads with his dad that Arnold first dreamed of forming a diagnostic clinic. “I thought my father, brothers, and I could be the Mayo Clinic of East Texas,” he says. His father died when he was sixteen, but Arnold at least partially fulfilled his childhood dream by practicing at DCH with one of his brothers, the late Hugh Arnold, a cardiologist.
Arnold convinced not only his brother but also seven other prominent Houston-area physicians to join him in forming and financing a clinic in the multidisciplinary diagnostic tradition of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Massachusetts. The doctors he persuaded each had different subspecialties and were interested in a collaborative approach to medicine. “One doctor can’t know it all,” Arnold observes. His education at UTMB had convinced him of that. When he was a student, he says, the medical school was in the forefront of encouraging specialization and cooperation among doctors in providing patient care. “We had excellent clinical training,” he says.
After graduating from UTMB, he did his residency at Hermann Hospital in Houston and then served in the U.S. Army at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., followed by a stint at the Lahey Clinic. In those venues Arnold grew in confidence and developed fresh respect for the importance of what he had learned at UTMB. He encountered fellow doctors from top medical schools including Harvard’s and Johns Hopkins’. “They had book knowledge,” he recalls, “but not the clinical knowledge that we got at UTMB.” Nor did they seem to appreciate the value instilled at UTMB of working as a team.
Shortly after returning to Houston in the early 1950s, Arnold assembled his own team of seven diagnosticians, six of them UTMB graduates. It included Prostestant, Catholic, and Jewish doctors, which turned out to be not only ecumenical but a wise marketing decision. He then turned his attention to finding a site as well as securing funding to build a clinic. Says Arnold’s son William Thomas Arnold III: “My father’s love is medicine but his hobby is business.” The elder Arnold negotiated a ninety-nine-year lease on property across from Hermann Hospital at a time of explosive growth in the medical center. Methodist, St. Luke’s Episcopal, M.D. Anderson, and Texas Children’s hospitals had just been built when Arnold and his colleagues broke ground for DCH in 1958. “I still don’t know how he was able to get that prime land under such favorable terms,” says Arnold’s son, a real estate broker in Houston. The elder Arnold chalks it up to perseverance: “It was my dream, and I just didn’t give up.” He personally borrowed heavily to build the clinic and put off building the home he’d promised his wife. “He was just so confident and committed to building the clinic that I knew he’d make it happen and that the house could always come later,” says Arnold’s wife of sixty years, Kaye.
Indeed, the clinic was built and subsequently expanded in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, with the addition of several floors to the original clinic building as well as the construction of the Diagnostic Hospital and parking facilities. Hospital Corporation of America (HCA) of Nashville purchased the clinic and hospital in 1969, and Arnold served on the company’s board of governors from 1974 to 1980. Arnold also was a founder and orchestrated the building in the Texas Medical Center of the Houston International Hospital, a two-hundred-bed mental health facility with twenty-seven psychiatrists as partners, plus his brothers Hiram (UTMB Class of 1940) and Hugh (UTMB Class of 1941). “It’s rare when you find a physician who has had so much business success while still carrying on with the compassionate care of patients,” says Doug McGaughey, former senior director of gift planning services at UTMB, who worked with Arnold in organizing financial planning seminars for alumni presented under the auspices of the UTMB Heritage Council. Arnold demonstrated his business savvy as a youth when he noticed that some of his father’s patients who claimed they didn’t have money to pay their bills were driving new cars. “After I realized what was going on, I became my father’s collection agency,” says Arnold. Following his father’s death, he learned a bit about salesmanship by working at a Walgreen’s drug store peddling vitamins and bourbon. “The bourbon was more popular,” he says.
Although a shrewd businessman, Arnold has always put his patients first. “He takes time to listen and is truly interested in your welfare,” says one of Arnold’s former patients, Edelmira Holland, a lawyer in Houston. “I hated for him to retire,” she says. “He was so kind and always followed up with you—never forgot about you.” Since retiring, Arnold has served on various committees of UTMB’s Development Board and as president of the DCH Medical Foundation, which awards scholarships to nursing students. He also serves on the boards of the Houston Forum and the McGovern Museum of Health and Medical Science in Houston. Although he has won many honors—including serving as a delegate to the White House Conference on Aging in 1995 and receiving the Great Texas Honors Award from the National Foundation of Ileitis and Colitis in 1979—Arnold says he most cherishes his 1983 Ashbel Smith Distinguished Alumnus Award conferred by UTMB for outstanding service to his school, community, and profession.
Though clearly entrenched and admired in Houston’s business, philanthropic, and social circles, Arnold goes to Galveston whenever he can. He and his wife have a condominium at the Galveston Yacht Basin, where they formerly had a boat and where Arnold had a reputation as an avid fisherman. Known for wearing his lucky yellow socks whenever he went offshore, his boat captains called him “Doc” and were amazed that he never got sick, even on stormy seas. “There’d be times when the boat would be invisible between the waves and my dad would be just fine with it,” says Arnold’s son William. Perhaps that’s not surprising for someone who made a career of calmly coming up with difficult diagnoses and shrewdly negotiating multimillion-dollar hospital land and construction deals. The Methodist Hospital purchased the Diagnostic Clinic of Houston’s medical offices and hospital from HCA in 1993 and has continued the tradition that Arnold started nearly fifty years ago. All in all, Arnold says, things have worked out “mighty fine.”