The corner office: Raji Kumar of Dallas Medical Center on the competitiveness and complexity of healthcare

Raji Kumar, MBA, has served as CEO of Dallas Medical Center since 2010, but she has nearly 10 years of experience as a hospital CEO — and since she turned 40 in 2014, that's quite a feat. She will also soon become CEO of Dallas Regional Medical Center in Mesquite, Texas. Both hospitals are part of Ontario, Calif.-based Prime Healthcare.

Ms. Kumar bills herself as a turnaround CEO, and that holds true: When she took over the 155-bed Dallas Medical Center it was losing $2 million a month, but in a short time and under her leadership it has more than doubled its patient volumes, added service lines and tripled monthly revenue collections.

Before joining Dallas Medical Center, Ms. Kumar was CEO of Oakland Regional Hospital in Southfield, Mich.

Ms. Kumar grew up in India, but moved to the U.S. in 1995 after graduating with a degree in physical therapy. She now calls Dallas home, where she lives with her husband Vinnie and their 15-year-old son, Pranav. She earned her MBA from the University of Michigan-Flint and holds a certification in managing healthcare delivery from Harvard Business School.

Here, Ms. Kumar took the time to answer Becker's Hospital Review's seven questions.

What's one thing that really piqued your interest in healthcare?

What really piqued my interest is the complexity of healthcare. Healthcare is heavily regulated and you need to take care of who walks in your door, but payment KUMAR RAJIis not guaranteed. I don't know of any other business that's this complex. You can look at it like it's a hospitality industry, but none of the customers you have want to be here. When people walk into Nordstrom, they go there because they want to go there. In this business, they don't want to be here and they expect a five-star service and don't want to pay for it. That's what piqued my interest; it's like solving a puzzle.

What do you enjoy most about Dallas?

It's a metropolitan city that's very diverse. Prior to moving to Dallas, I lived in Michigan for about 14 years and one of my goals was to move back to India and retire there. After moving to Dallas, though, that has changed. I don't think I'll ever move back to India. You get the best of both worlds in Dallas. From my standpoint, I can be as Indian as I want to be and as American as I want to be in Dallas. There's a huge Indian population, so you get to celebrate all the festivals just like you would back home.

I just love Dallas. It's a newer city, it's big, and it's nice to see it booming [with] a lot of opportunities. It's very competitive as a city; it's kind of like the survival of the fittest. When you compete, things get better.

If you could eliminate one of the healthcare industry's problems overnight, which would it be?

I would choose care for the under- and uninsured. The most difficult thing in this business is that you're taking care of people, but need to keep in mind that it is a business. It's kind of like an oxymoron. We need to take care of people who sometimes can't afford to pay, and we still have to run the business. I'd solve the problem of people not being able to afford insurance or their deductibles and co-pays, and improve access to care. That would be the No. 1 thing.

What do you consider your greatest talent or skill outside of the C-suite?

I'd say my greatest skill is my ability to move with and connect with people and make them feel comfortable. I'm gifted with a very great memory: I can remember all 500+ of my employees' first names and I can speak at least six languages.

Beyond that, I love music. I DJ when I'm not at work — top 40 music and some Bollywood. I'm the mother of a 15-year-old, and I think it's important that we bond with our children and find something to bring us together. I never used to listen to rap music, but my son did, and now I understand his interests and I can have conversations with him about something other than schoolwork.

How do you revitalize yourself?

I try to work out every day. I tell myself it's like brushing my teeth: You can't go to work without doing it; working out has to be part of my day-to-day activities. You can buy everything in life but health.

What's one piece of advice you remember most clearly?

Early in my career as a CEO — I became a CEO at the age of 31 — one of the hospital's owners was an orthopedic hand surgeon, and he gave me a lot of good advice that I still remember and utilize every day. One was: "To be a successful CEO, make sure you listen to your doctors." Since I specialize in hospital turnarounds, there is so much history, and the core group of doctors will be able to tell you what has worked and what has not.

Another thing that sticks out in my head that he would say is: "Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan." And that's so true. When a hospital is successful and doing well, everyone wants to claim it. When it's failing, no one wants to claim it. So often when we inherit hospitals we go there and see the core group of doctors and one thing we know is these are the people who have stuck around to claim this place — these people are the core team.

What do you consider your greatest achievement at Dallas Medical Center so far?

It would be the financial turnaround of this hospital. The hospital was losing $2 million a month when I got here about five years ago. Today we are operating at a 27 percent profit margin, which is phenomenal. Some of the problems I'm facing are music to my ears, like not having enough OR time because we're full.

The financial turnaround is incredible and is a testimony to myself, as it was my first major turnaround. To walk into a hospital that was bare bones in such a competitive market, and to be able to survive in this environment and make a successful turnaround is incredible. This wouldn't have been possible without Prime Healthcare, which came to the table in 2012, and provided the resources to do the turnaround.

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