Leadership through a physician's lens with Prime Healthcare CMO of strategy, Dr. Kavitha Bhatia

Kavitha Bhatia, MD, is the first chief medical officer of strategy for Ontario, Calif.-based Prime Healthcare, a role she was appointed to in 2019.

In addition to her CMO role, Dr. Bhatia serves as president and chair of the Prime Healthcare Foundation, a nonprofit public charity that owns 15 of Prime's 46 hospitals.

She told Becker's Hospital Review she finds her experience as a physician is fundamental to her work. She shared her experiences as a physician leader, discussed the challenges facing female leaders and revealed how she stays inspired on hard days. 

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: Who had the biggest influence on your decision to go into healthcare?  

Dr. Kavitha Bhatia: My parents are both physicians, and through them and their work I was able to see the incredible impact their work made in the lives of others. My dad is a cardiologist, and my mother is an internist. They both immigrated to this country, coming with nothing besides their education and hopes and dreams for a better life. As they arrived for their work, they made the lives of others better. That was incredibly powerful and inspiring. I grew up in a small town where patients would come up to me often and share their gratitude for the work of my parents. Those are the moments that left an incredible and indelible impression and inspired me that anything is possible, and that medicine is an opportunity to profoundly impact and improve the lives of others in ways that are the most touching and meaningful. 

Q: How has being a physician affected your career trajectory?

KB: Being a physician is fundamental to everything I do because in all the work I do, I think the guiding principle is about how are we improving the lives of others. I look through the lens of a physician in whatever work I'm leading, whether it's supply chain or our legal team. I think all of it still fundamentally comes back to the work of our health system, which is helping patients, improving their lives, contributing to their well-being, making a difference.

I think I carry that with me whether I'm clinically practicing or whether I'm leading a health system. I think that's what helps to make meaningful and fulfilling skills, because I stay connected to that in terms of purpose. I think as a physician leader you are constantly looking through that lens of a physician and the physician-patient relationship. You're able to lead a health system differently because you understand it from the level of clinical practice, which is fundamental to all of the work we do. So when I talk to some of our vice presidents in different areas, I always find it valuable to tie the work they're doing to the impact they're making in patients' lives. 

For example, a community vaccine clinic we held recently at one of our newer acquisitions in an incredibly disproportionately impacted community in south Los Angeles. We had a vaccine clinic for over 2,000, at which point bringing together the supply chain leaders, the pharmacy leader, the facilities, EVS, all of those people together to be able to see those patients receiving the vaccine and tears of gratitude in terms of how life-changing and lifesaving that moment is. I think making those connections is so meaningful, and finding those connections.

As a physician, I think we naturally keep patients at the center of all we do, and we carry that with us. I found that to be, personally, how I continue to find purpose and fulfillment. The same desire to make a difference in the lives of others through medicine is now being fulfilled through my role in leadership.

Q: What is the greatest challenge you face as a female leader?

KB: As a woman leader, I think there are so many challenges that are shared as leaders in general. Then there are also challenges that are unique to women in leadership roles. Personally, I think the greatest challenge is that often as women, and me personally, you want to give so much to everyone, and you want to give all of yourself to everything you're doing, whether it's your work, your charitable giving, your children, your family. I think the greatest challenge is being able to give in the way you want to all the things that matter to you. Realizing it's difficult to give completely of yourself to everything, so rather finding the things that truly matter in all those areas and giving the most to those things. 

Q: How do you stay inspired on hard days?  

KB: So many leaders and all of those who were part of the pandemic response are owed a huge debt of gratitude. It has been quite a year and quite a challenge. In terms of inspiration, it's really focusing on the great privilege it is to do the work we do and the impact that it makes the lives of so many. I think it's continually focusing on what our work is about — the patients, the families and the communities we serve and what we can do for their lives. I think that's what inspires me and fulfills me.

Q: What is your daily mantra?

KB: Something I continually reflect to is the Mahatma Gandhi quote: "Be the change that you wish to see in the world." I reflect on it in terms of the work we do as a health system as far as being the change we hope to see in serving others, in serving the communities, in moving toward wellness, in touching the lives of others. I also think about that personally in terms of the way I hope to lead and serve. 

Q: If you could pass along a piece of advice to other hospital leaders, what would it be?

KB: Where leadership has moved in healthcare is about this focus on continuous improvement and evolution. We all have been in healthcare at a time when there have been transformative changes, and there continue to be transformative changes. I think it requires us — to succeed and survive — to focus on that continuous evolution. 

The second part is about the movement toward value. How do you continually redefine and deliver that value always centered around patient care? That's a process that's continuously evolving and defining itself. 

The two principles I often reflect on in terms of needs for ongoing success would be a continuous dedication to improvement and evolution, and a real focus on value. Value being defined as outcomes that matter to patients and families over the cost of the care we're providing. Those are two principles that will be critical to health systems' ongoing and future success.  

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