Making Health the Easy Choice

Dr. Jay Bhatt, president of AHA’s Health Research and Educational Trust, works to improve health equity and eliminate barriers to care

Growing up the son of two South Asian immigrants on Chicago’s South Side, Dr. Jay Bhatt developed a sense of community at a young age. His mother was a factory worker, and his dad ran a local pharmacy. The neighborhood’s residents often had to make tough choices between paying for health care and paying for other necessities like food or housing, and health care usually got the short end of the stick. Many times, Bhatt’s father would deliver medicines to neighbors who couldn’t afford them.

“I saw how economics affected health care,” Bhatt said. “Community health became a guiding force in my career.”

Bhatt has never forgotten the lessons from his youth. Today, as senior vice president/chief medical officer of the American Hospital Association (AHA) and president of AHA’s Health Research and Educational Trust (HRET), he oversees the association’s clinical leadership and health improvement activities.

“For vulnerable populations, health tends to be the last choice. We’ve got to make it the easy choice,” Bhatt said. “We’ve got to take away barriers and obstacles to care.”

BEYOND THE HOSPITAL WALLS

While a sophomore studying economics at the University of Chicago, Bhatt was inspired by the founding of Project Brotherhood, a community-based outreach and prevention program for African American men on the South Side of Chicago. He realized his true calling: to become a doctor serving underserved communities and a vehicle for social change. After completing his bachelor’s degree and earning a master’s degree in health policy and management at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Bhatt went on to earn his Doctor in Osteopathic Medicine from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.

As an intern, Bhatt encountered a patient who had been admitted overnight for chest pain and difficulty urinating but experienced a number of complications during her stay at the hospital, extending her recovery by weeks. Determined that something should be done to prevent such experiences, Bhatt developed a quality improvement project that resulted in fewer adverse events and reduced costs.

“I really became interested in the intersection of public health and health delivery during my training in underserved communities,” he said. “There are things that happen beyond the hospital walls.”

THE ROLE OF LEADERSHIP

A practicing internal medicine physician, Bhatt served as managing deputy commissioner/chief strategy and innovation officer at the Chicago Public Health Department and chief health officer for the Illinois Health and Hospital Association before joining AHA. These roles taught him the importance of leadership in improving health care delivery.

“Leadership requires courage. Leadership is a dangerous game,” Bhatt said. “There is a potential for failure or being uncomfortable. But the hope is that you transform people’s lives, you transform organizations, and you transform the way we deliver care.”

Bhatt, who also has a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University, stated that hospitals have to prioritize quality and patient safety.

“It’s challenging to have quality/safety lead the agenda given the operational, personnel, policy and financial pressures organizations are under,” he said. “If we lead with a culture of safety and excellence, we can make progress in improving outcomes at lower cost and help make care more affordable.”

PATIENTS AND PARTNERS 

Key to improving patient safety is patient and family engagement, Bhatt noted.

“We have to have conversations with and learn from our patients outside of the hospital. We have to include patients and their chosen family members as team members and partners in their care,” he said. “We have to address the social determinants of health. Their partnership provides critical information. When you consider that 60 percent of health comes from social factors, it’s really remarkable.”

Bhatt noted that partnerships are crucial. The ability to build strong partnerships and make an impact at scale is part of what drew him to his current position with AHA/HRET. HRET has developed partnerships with a number of organizations, including the Indiana Hospital Association’s Indiana Patient Safety Center, which awarded HRET with its 2017 Patient Safety Partner Award.

“Joining the American Hospital Association was a tremendous opportunity to support our hospitals and advance health care across the nation,” Bhatt said. “State and allied associations are such critical partners in this work. I’m excited about the opportunities for collaboration and coordination to advance health in America.”