Alumni Spotlight — Journey from Clinician to Administrator: Advancing in Healthcare Administration
Neel Pathak, an MHA graduate, has eight years of progressive management experience in diverse settings, including major health systems, healthcare associations, accrediting organizations, and academic institutions. He is a skilled clinician, an experienced administrator, and a strong advocate of initiatives in process excellence. He also serves as a Baldrige Examiner for state and national levels. His unconventional career path, he says, was shaped by earning his MHA degree at The University of Scranton. Read on to learn how he’s impacted patient care on national and regional levels.
How did you decide on a career in the healthcare field?
I’ve had an interest in the healthcare field since high school. I’m originally from India and I spent a year and a half practicing as a clinician—a physical therapist. Though I loved being a clinician, I had an insider’s look at the management activities of the clinic. That sparked my interest to learn more about the business and delivery of healthcare. That interest motivated me to move to the United States to pursue a program in healthcare administration.
What made you choose The University of Scranton?
It was the combination of having all the right elements in one place. First, I wanted to attend a program that was strong academically and demanded an administrative residency or fellowship so I could gain more first-hand experience in the field. Second, I only looked at CAHME-accredited programs because I knew that meant the rigor, integrity, and quality of my education was ensured. I was able to have a phone interview with the program director, Dr. West, while I was still in India researching schools. He’s also a member of CAHME’s Board of Directors, so I knew I was talking to an extremely knowledgeable professor—and we really connected! I appreciated the personal and student-centric approach. It seemed like the perfect fit.
How did you find your residency/fellowship?
Scranton’s MHA program provided multiple resources early in the program that helped orient me with the residency/fellowship process. Current students in those phases spoke with us about their experiences. We were encouraged to join the American College of Healthcare Executives, which in turn offered seminars and education regarding fellowships. Faculty advisors were familiar with our goals and matched us with appropriate residency and fellowship opportunities. I knew these are very competitive and it was important to me to find the right option to better understand the healthcare delivery system in its entirety, from strategy to operations and front-line management.
Where did you complete your residency?
I was selected for the Aramark Healthcare Administrative Fellowship and placed at OhioHealth, a health system headquartered in Columbus, OH. This was a unique opportunity to get exposure to two different organizations. Aramark sponsored the healthcare fellowship and the selected fellows were paired with a client organization. Aramark’s philosophy “Everything’s Connected” gave us a unique vantage point in understanding the day-to-day operations of a hospital or healthcare system from not just a practice management standpoint, but also from a service and patient-experience standpoint.
They selected five fellows from across the nation, and I was paired with the senior vice president of support services at OhioHealth. While I was there, I worked on projects in eight different hospitals. They included strategy development and planning for a new neuroscience building, quality and process improvement initiatives, physician-practice management projects, and revenue-cycle management initiatives, among others.
Throughout my fieldwork, I was able to attend industry conferences like the American College of Healthcare Executives Leadership Congress, the American Hospital Association’s Leadership Summit, and the National Association of Health Services Executives Conference.
Because of the unique fellowship structure, Aramark was also able to leverage other healthcare clients in their network to offer us unique observation opportunities at leading healthcare organizations like the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, MD Anderson Cancer Institute, and Texas Children’s Hospital, among others.
How did you transition from an administrative fellow to a research/program specialist at the American Hospital Association?
I wanted to explore different settings in the healthcare industry and build upon my quality improvement experience. I got an opportunity with the American Hospital Association (AHA) in Chicago—they advocate for 5,000 hospitals and healthcare systems across the country.
I worked on The CUSP: STOP CAUTI project with Health Research and Educational Trust—the research arm of the AHA. The project specifically focused on reducing catheter-associated urinary tract infections across the country.
We had a national team of experts who provided leadership and guidance on content. In addition, we worked with state hospital associations to get their buy-in and assist them in their journey to reduce hospital-acquired infections. We collected, analyzed, and reported the data on a national level to identify trends and assisted individual hospitals through their state’s hospital associations by sharing best practices.
I’m proud to report that we saw a significant reduction in hospital-acquired infections throughout the project, saving millions of lives and millions of dollars.
After the AHA, you took an opportunity with CAHME. What was that experience like?
Right after my time with AHA, an opportunity with the Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education (CAHME) came along. While I was still a student, I worked with Dr. West on a small project with them. When I saw CAHME had a position open for a director of business and development, I knew it would be a great learning opportunity. And it was! CAHME taught me more about business development and I was proud that they ensure the future generations of healthcare leaders are training appropriately.
During my time at CAHME, we made our business processes more efficient by leveraging the right technologies and moving to a cloud-based environment. By using tools like Box, Salesforce, Office 365, and Constant Contact, we improved our day-to-day processes and provided better value for our programs.
This experience of improving quality on a national scale taught me a lot about teamwork and further fueled my passion for quality and process improvement. I launched a signature program—the CAHME Awards—which recognizes organizations that are going above and beyond meeting accreditation standards and are doing exceptionally well. The awards program is very successful and is sponsored by leading healthcare organizations like Modern Healthcare, Ascension, Cerner, Canon, and Baylor Scott & White Health.
The University of Scranton just won the CAHME CANON Award. Is that part of this project you worked on?
Yes! The full name of the award is Canon Solutions America Award for Sustainability in Healthcare Management Education and Practice. As its name suggests, the award serves to incorporate the ideals of sustainability in future healthcare leaders. It recognizes the significant influence of education programs in creating sustainable, inclusive, and socially responsible healthcare organizations. I’m very glad that Scranton won that award!
What do you do in your current role in Ambulatory Services Administration at the Johns Hopkins Hospital?
We have a state‐of‐the‐art outpatient center with over 60 clinics, providing 20 ancillary services, and serving about 650,000 patient visits annually. I’m a project administrator in the Ambulatory Services department. My role is to serve as an internal change-management consultant by planning, directing, and implementing projects to improve quality, operations, efficiency, access, delivery, and experience of care for ambulatory patients. We use innovative technologies and business-intelligence tools with Epic and Tableau to make data-driven decisions.
After my time with CAHME, I wanted to explore the ambulatory and practice management setting further. This opportunity with Johns Hopkins, which has been ranked the number one hospital in the country for more than 20 straight years, has been a dream come true in experience and learning.
Are there any projects that stand out in your experiences in ambulatory services administration?
I serve as the Patient Experience Lead for Ambulatory Services. At Johns Hopkins, we have a really strong focus on providing the best possible care in the best possible place. It is challenging to provide that seamless experience in a complex academic medical center environment.
We created an executive council to set goals and provide leadership and mentorship for all aspects of patient experience. We also created a coordinating committee—the working arm that digs deep into the patient-experience data points: Current processes and challenges, workflows, and sharing of best practices to improve care delivery and experience. We look at our scores and compare them to national benchmarks to see what’s working and what we can do to deliver a better experience.
We discuss these results with our clinical care teams to find opportunities for improvement together. We have gained a lot of traction on this and our clinics are highly engaged in this journey. I’m very proud of that.
It sounds like a lot of data and analytics go into your role. Was that something you learned in Scranton’s MHA program? Or is it more on-the-job learning?
There was a lot of emphasis on data in the program, beyond just understanding the foundation of data and finances. We focused on evidence-based decision-making in the MHA program. That being said, I think there are always skills and nuances you have to learn on the job. I’m a graduate of the Leadership and Excellence in Analytics and Data Science (LEADS) program at Johns Hopkins, which focuses on teaching professionals how to use data in their decision-making.
Congratulations on your appointment to the Baldrige Board of Examiners! How did you become involved with the Board?
I was first introduced to the Baldrige criteria while at the AHA. I talked to a few members who completed the examiner training and studied the Baldrige approach and criteria. What I liked about their approach is that it’s not prescriptive and not built for a specific health system with exactly 200 beds. It’s for anyone looking to improve their performance: A hospital, nonprofit, city, or small business. The Baldrige criteria can adapt to these unique situations.
I was selected for the state examiner role after my training opportunity. A few years later, I applied for the national level and became the national examiner.
I review applications for the Baldrige award—a prestigious presidential award that demands a very rigorous process. Baldrige is administered by the National Institute of Standards and Technology from the U.S. Department of Commerce. The Baldrige criteria encourages applicants to think about their processes and the results from an organizational viewpoint. This, in turn, stimulates conversations about improvement strategies.
How long do you serve as examiner?
The Baldrige examiner term is for one year. You need to reapply again to serve on the Board and go through the training.
You’ve had many high-level positions. Do you think your clinical background helped you get to where you are today?
Yes, it certainly helped! My clinical background coupled with administrative experiences helps me better understand operational issues. It leads to a better vantage point in decision-making. When I was treating patients, I made one-on-one decisions regarding their care. Now the decisions I make affect patients on a larger scale. I have to be mindful of that fact and ensure each decision I make is ultimately patient-centric.
What advice would you give someone looking to move up in the healthcare field, even without that clinical background?
First, you can still succeed in this field without having a clinical background. What you must have top of mind at all times is a focus on quality patient care. With that, you can achieve your goals.
My second piece of advice to anyone looking to advance in healthcare is don’t limit yourself. Take advantage of how broad and diverse the healthcare field is to understand the levels of patient care in multiple settings. There are hospitals, outpatient settings, nursing homes, insurance companies, retail clinics—the opportunities are endless, so branch out.
You’re now involved with current students as a mentor. How did that come about?
I remember when mentors helped shape and guide my decisions as a student. I want to ensure our current students have that same opportunity, and so I serve as an external/alumni mentor for many students in the Scranton MHA program.
We also created The University of Scranton MHA Alumni Society. I serve as one of the board officers and make sure we give back to the Scranton MHA program in as many ways as we can. We meet on a monthly basis and talk through how to improve relationships with current students and re-engage past alumni to better the program.
Learn more about the MHA program here.