One in a series of interviews with Modern Healthcare's Top 25 Minority Executives in Healthcare for 2016.
Every month or two, CEO Ketul J. Patel journeys to the convent where the Sisters of St. Francis live and spends some time with the religious women who provide the missional context of the organization Patel leads, CHI Franciscan Health in Tacoma, Wash., part of the Catholic Health Initiatives system.
“I leave energized every single time I go there because of the amount of passion they have for this organization,” he says. “I have always felt that faith-based organizations have an extra touch of focus and mission than others. I couldn’t have asked for a better set of sisters to work with.”
Patel was raised in the Hindu faith but went to Catholic grade schools and high school growing up in Johnstown, Penn., 60 miles east of Pittsburgh. In an earlier role, he also worked for several years at a Catholic hospital in Chicago run by another group called the Sisters of St. Francis, this one based in Indiana.
“The Catholic faith has made a pretty substantial imprint into not only my career, but my life,” he says. “It’s given an extra allure to this type of organization for me.”
It’s also given a sense of urgency to the strides Patel hopes to make in reshaping CHI Franciscan and the other CHI hospitals he oversees as senior vice president of divisional operations for the Pacific Northwest Region. His goal, he says, is to have a top-performing organization with a mission-based focus on quality, safety and patient experience.
“We want to have a system of the most talented providers and innovative services in the Pacific Northwest,” Patel says. “Because of that, we just went through a significant structural reorganization to focus on those areas.”
Chief among the changes is the SafetyFirst Initiative, what Patel calls “a system-wide effort aimed at eliminating all preventable safety events.”
“We’ve branded it throughout the entire CHI system, and we’re seeing declines in serious safety events at all of our hospitals that have implemented SafetyFirst. It’s something our clinical staff is very proud of.”
The sense of service that Patel believes is a necessity for healthcare leaders comes from his parents, he says. Patel was born in Kenya, as were both his parents. His father is a retired physician. His mother, who passed away last year, was a nurse.
“When my father was practicing in Kenya, he would take my mom, brother and me to some remote areas of East Africa and provide care,” Patel remembers. “A lot of it was done under the umbrella of what was then the Lions Club.
“I have some very vivid memories – people who were missing hands, people with significant diseases with no access to care. The impact of that was substantial and that’s what prompted and inspired me to get into this type of role.”
His family moved to the U.S. in 1979 when Patel was eight. His brother went into medicine – he now heads cardiac surgery at the University of Michigan – and Patel started pre-med courses to head down the same path at Johns Hopkins. He also took a job as a research assistant to Nobel laureate Christian Anfinsen and, while it was a wonderful experience, he says, he couldn’t summon the same enthusiasm for it that he had for a couple health administration classes he took. He was reluctant to tell his parents he didn’t want to be a clinician.
“I thought it was going to be one of the toughest conversations I ever had with my father,” Patel says now, chuckling. “Instead, my father said, ‘We’ve been waiting for you to say this. All these years, we didn’t think you wanted to be a doctor.’ ”
The move to the administrative side has been a good fit. Patel got his first VP role at 26 and hasn’t looked back. He came to CHI Franciscan from Hackensack University Health Network and Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, where he served as executive vice president and chief strategy and operations officer.
Patel says his leadership style has evolved in his 20 years in administration. “You have to be a born leader, to some extent, but I think your leadership style and your abilities change as you are exposed to different areas and experienced with varying challenges.”
But one absolute imperative, he says, is to be a collaborative leader.
“People support what they help to create,” he says. “If a staff member feels they’re part of a decision-making process that is helping to move the organization in a certain direction, they’re going to unite behind that.”
He says he especially loves the ideas that come from clinicians. “They’re the ones who are at the bedside.”
Besides, he says, his parents always loved to tease him about the importance of the front-line staff.
“I’d be on the phone with them and my dad would say, ‘By the way, just remember that the only reason you have a job is because doctors bring patients to your doorstep.’ Then my mom would get on the phone and say, ‘Don’t listen to your dad. The only people who know what’s going on with the patients are the nurses.’
“I give them a lot of credit for that.”