New Franciscan CEO has open door

Since he was a child, Ketul Patel has seen the difference a caring doctor and nurse can make.

Patel, the new CEO for Tacoma’s CHI Franciscan Health, spent the first eight years of his life heading to remote parts of Kenya with his parents as they provided health care for some of the country’s poorest people. His father, a doctor, and his mother, a maternal/fetal nurse, took Patel and his older brother with them on these weekend work trips.

“We have very very vivid memories of what we saw there,” Patel said in an interview this week. “This really shaped what I wanted to do. I’ve never forgotten that.”

Patel succeeds Joe Wilczek, who retired after 17 years at the helm of the faith-based health system that had three hospitals when he started. Now, Franciscan employs almost 12,500 people and operates seven hospitals.

Before arriving in Tacoma, Patel was a senior executive with Hackensack University Health Network and its University Medical Center in New Jersey. That system employs about 11,300 people.

On Monday, Patel marked his first full week on the job. He received his first formal tour of St. Joseph Medical Center that day, where he introduced himself to employees by just his first name then asked them for their “wish list.”

Before the tour, The News Tribune sat down with Patel. This interview has been condensed and edited.

Question: What might employees and patients see after a year of your leadership?

Answer: I’m going to take the first 90 days to really listen and learn. We filmed a message to all the staff about 10 days ago, and I was clear on this. I’m hesitant to answer that question because I really want to take that time.

Clinical quality is at the forefront. The local board and (parent company Catholic Health Initiatives) always have been very clear about that. We have to continue to rise in prominence there. We have opportunities in the further integration of Highline Medical Center in Burien and Harrison Medical Center in Bremerton.

Outside of that, I’m here to shape some of that vision for the entire organization.

One of the things all of us will see is that health care continues to evolve. We have to change with the times. Access has to change. Virtual care is outstanding here.

We need to grow our primary and specialty care. We need to be in different places. The region’s growing, so you have to find new places to put middle-level providers, and that’s important to us.

Q: That sounds like capital costs.

A: That’s not necessarily true. There are a lot of physicians in the community that we have partnered with. Others are sitting out there. You can be very creative in partnerships.

Q: MultiCare Health System, who has had a new CEO for more than a year, has embarked on a $300 million cost-cutting plan over the next three years. Will Franciscan have to do anything on that scale?

A: I think every place can be more cost-effective. Has there been a plan given to me to do that? No. It will take me the 90 days to realize what we need to do. Any opportunity you can to reduce costs, you have to do that.

Q: Are you Catholic, or do you practice a Christian faith?

A: My family is Hindu. I’ve got a lot of roots in the Catholic community. I went to a Catholic grade school and high school. I’ve also worked for the Sisters of St. Francis, which is based in Indiana. The Catholic faith has imprinted on me, and it’s one that I value very much.

Q: Tell me about a time you interacted with the medical system as a patient, not as someone in charge.

A: I’ve been lucky. I’ve had very good health.

My mom has had some health issues over the past few years. She’s in chronic renal failure. She’s had some challenges with lung capacity. It wakes you up. You see things from a family member’s eyes. When you see a nurse or aide walk in the door and truly connect with a family member, those small things go a very long way. Seeing it from a son’s eyes, that has a tremendous impact.

Franciscan would not be who we are without the caregivers that we have. I’m really pleased with everything they do here.

Q: How did your family end up in Kenya?

A: Finding jobs in India in the early part of the 20th century was really difficult. Both Kenya and India were British colonies, and both sets of my grandparents moved to Kenya. My father grew up there, as did my mother. Both were educated internationally.

When I was a child, and still to some extent, East Africa has a lot of political strife. My father wanted to find a safe environment for us as well as a good education, so he brought us to the United States. He had to re-do his residency at the age of 40. To me that’s very humbling. We learned how to work hard and not take things for granted.

We moved to Johnstown, Penn. At the time there was a surplus of primary care doctors, so my father had to find a place willing to take a foreign medical graduate and allow them to come into the country. He thrived in Johnstown. After his residency, he landed a partnership in a practice in town.

Q: How will you hear from rank and file on what they need?

A: I’m in some ways very informal. I’ll be spending time here on the weekends and at night, unannounced, because that’s the best way to get to know people. We also sent a letter out to employees, soliciting feedback. There’s not a bad idea from anyone, particularly when you’re new.

You want to make sure people are open to you. But no one’s bashful here. People welcome me and then ask questions. That’s great.

Q: What do you do for fun?

A: My son is the most important person to me, and I spend time with him whenever I can. I try to exercise, but that’s hard because my schedule gets kind of tight. But we’re committed to wellness, and I think I should be a benchmark for that.

Q: So no one will catch you smoking a cigarette?

A: Absolutely not! Not me.