Joshua Tamayo-Sarver's Story
Joshua Howland Tamayo-Sarver grew up on a 150-acre horse farm. He spent his childhood riding and doing farm chores, from mowing grass to shoveling manure. His mother died from cancer when Josh was 16. She battled the disease for eight years, and Josh helped care for her. When she died, he took on running the farm, again stepping into adult shoes at a young age. He learned about taxes, sales, P&L statements and managing people. He worked to keep the business going and horses cared for.
“It was certainly a small business by any measure,” he recalls, “but it felt like a pretty big thing to get control of at the time.” For Josh, it felt good to do something tough at a hard time.
That instinct to lean into difficult problems, to step in and help, has shaped his life—from his personal relationships to his career in medicine and his approach to improving the care system for ever larger groups of people.
Growing up in Southern Ohio
Josh was born in 1975 in Athens, Ohio, the crossroads of coal mining and college town. His father, Gary Sarver, the son of Russian immigrants, grew up in Boston. And his mother, Ann Howland, was a descendent of the Mayflower; she grew up in Western Massachusetts.
“They were pure hippies,” he says. “They turned on, tuned in and dropped out, and they ended up in Appalachia.”
Both his parents were clinical psychologists. His father was a professor at the University of Ohio. They divorced and remarried when Josh was young. He has a half-sister from his mother’s previous marriage and another half-sister from his father’s subsequent marriage.
His father moved into town after the divorce, but Josh stayed close to the farm. He realized he could have fun and earn money training horses, and he went on to train and show several national champion Paso Fino horses. He also learned computer programming and wrote software packages for local businesses for extra income.
For fun, he played hockey and dreamed of going pro. At school, learning came easily. He went to local public schools. Thanks to a state-sanctioned partnership agreement, he took all of his classes at Ohio University his junior and senior years of high school.
Josh was interested in medicine, so his father’s friend, a family physician, arranged for him to volunteer in an emergency department. From the first adrenaline-filled shift at a rural Ohio hospital, he was hooked: “You can make a difference and you can get paid to do it,” he says.
Harvard and El Salvador
Josh went to college at Harvard and majored in biochemistry, his plans set on pre-med. He played hockey, which introduced him to a group of what would become life-long friends.
After his junior year, he took time off and traveled to El Salvador for a volunteer opportunity to work as an EMT in health education and health promotion. He ended up in Canton San Jose, a town without running water or working phones.
It was a fateful year: he met Maritza, the love of his life, then a Stanford student enrolled in the same program.
He also gained a new perspective about medicine that would shape his career: “You could bring an army of doctors or get an engineer and a shovel and bring potable water to everyone and do a lot more good.”
He returned to Harvard and applied for an MD Ph.D. program with a new focus working on a population level. He got into Case Western Reserve University, where the National Institutes of Health sponsored the doctorates in biostatistics and epidemiology.
Marriage and a new career
Maritza left sunny California and joined him. She sold her vintage 1977 Datson 280z, which would not have lasted through the first Cleveland winter. “It was sacrificed on the altar of love,” he jokes. They became engaged the next year and planned a Los Angeles wedding that merged her big Mexican family with his Jewish traditions.
Maritza pursued a law degree at Case, writing a dissertation about the legal implications of practicing transnational telemedicine—but in 2002, it was a couple of decades ahead of its time. Josh wrote his dissertation on how physicians make real-world clinical decisions and how that leads to racial and ethnic disparities in treatment decisions. The couple returned to Los Angeles for Josh’s residency at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. That’s where he met Rick Newell, who recruited him to Vituity by telling him: “If you find a better way to do things, we will change the lives of 8 million patients a year.”
Josh started at Vituity in 2008 and built up the IT and informatics infrastructure and, with a world-class team, has introduced countless tech innovations. He continues to see patients in the ED six shifts a month, so his perspective remains grounded in the practice of medicine and the real-world problems of patients and physicians.
He says he is most proud of being able to introduce tech solutions that have allowed people to receive better care while being largely invisible: a data analytics software that helps hospitals operate more efficiently, for example, or a call back app that lets doctors easily check on their patients.
“A lot of what I do during the day as a clinician is... entering orders, figuring out insurance, a lot of information tasks,“ he says. “My major goal is to take out a lot of the unnecessary friction so we can return to the human connection.”
Josh and Maritza have four children, Veronica, twins Samuel and Isaac, and Daniel. They range in age from 22 to 11. They are a close, active family. They enjoy mountain biking, traveling, sitting around the fire pit together, or fixing up their house. They live on a 13-acre tree farm 20 minutes from downtown San Jose.
As an adult, Josh says his biggest challenges have come from balancing work and home life and leaving the intensity of the emergency room at work. He is most proud to have an “honest, vulnerable and authentic marriage” where they can work through hard things.
After being raised Jewish, Josh converted to Catholicism as a young adult, after being exposed to Catholic social doctrine in El Salvador. He finds it a meaningful guide for living a purposeful life. But that doesn’t mean the family doesn’t put their own twist to it: at least over the past year, they’ve participated in mass virtually, from their hot tub.
He has other outlets for spirituality, too. Motorcycle riding is a favorite pastime that puts him in a “mindful, meditative state.” And a couple of years ago, he inherited his father’s pipe collection, including a rare pipe that had been a gift from his mother to his father in 1973.
He calls pipe smoking a ‘geeky’ hobby that combines art, science, and meditation. Or, like most of the important things in life, it’s about achieving the right balance: the right tobacco, how it burns, how you pack it and smoke it. “It takes a lot of attention and perseverating…and occasionally, you have a combination that’s sublime.”