Q&A with Ken Pittman, MHA ’86

Ken Pittman

Meet Ken Pittman, MHA ’86 and a member of the Health Care Alumni Advisory Board. Realizing that moving the MHA program to Fuqua was the right move, he is now trying to bring MHA alumni into the Fuqua family.

Describe your role in student health services at UNC-Chapel Hill.

I am Chief Operating Officer of UNC Campus Health Services which is an 80,000 visit, JCAHO-accredited multi-specialty group practice serving 30,000 students and post-doctoral fellows. I lead the operations and financial management of the organization which includes Primary Care, Urgent Care, Women’s Health (inclusive of Obstetrics), Sports Medicine (inclusive of Physical Therapy and Athletic Training), Counseling and Psychological, Student Wellness, Orthopedic, 50,000 Prescription Pharmacy, Radiology and Laboratory Services. Our Center has approximately 50 providers and around 200 full-time and part-time staff members. I also manage three University-provided health insurance plans for students, post-doctoral fellows and research/teaching assistants.

Share how your career has progressed from Duke until now.

Since I didn’t have any relevant work experience before graduate school, I decided to do a one-year residency in Charlotte for SunHealth, which was a shared services organization and consultancy for a network of 250 hospitals located in 15 Southern states. I then stayed on following my initial obligation and served as a hospital management consultant for another 4 years.

In 1991, I moved to Kinston, in the eastern part of North Carolina, to serve as VP, Administrative and Ambulatory Services and later as Senior VP/Chief Operating Officer for 300-bed, Lenoir Memorial Hospital. I expected to be in Kinston for 3-5 years, get some direct hospital management experience and move on. But I fell in love with both the people of Kinston and Lenoir County and really saw the impact a community hospital and its physicians have on the health and welfare of the local area. We kept specialty care closer to home, improved mortality rates through better emergency and trauma services, and served as an economic engine for Lenoir County. I worked in this role for 13 years and am very proud of what our leadership team was able to accomplish.

In keeping with my belief that community hospitals are vital to an area’s quality of life, in 2004, I joined a fellow Duke MHA at her Atlanta-based hospital turnaround company and for the next seven years served as the CEO for financially and operationally distressed small hospitals in Texas, Georgia and Alabama. I was challenged to determine the best scope of service and mission for each hospital while making them financially viable and able to meet the needs of the local residents. We turned around and successfully positioned 2 of the 3 hospitals I led which is a high batting average in the small hospital market.

Unfortunately, I had a very hectic travel schedule without much work/life balance. I was on a plane every Sunday night and back at RDU on Friday so I could spend time spend time with my family. In 2011, I decided to work where I lived—a novel idea—and have the luxury of sleeping in my own bed most nights. So I got into the large physician group practice sector and the UNC Campus Health Services organization seemed to be a good match for my experience and accomplishments to date. Besides always seeing the lighter side of blue, I’ve increased provider recruitment and retention, helped manage the financial management of payer contracts, and created value so students choose our practice over others.

How did Duke prepare you to work in the health care sector?

When I was looking at graduate school, Duke’s MHA program was the oldest and finest health administration program in the country. The alumni network was certainly one of the largest, including many movers and shakers in the industry, particularly in the provider sector. And since I was most interested in the provider sector, it was the best fit for me.

My Duke education gave me with the skills, knowledge and contacts to be successful. I was able to build up my leadership skills and more easily navigate group dynamics—I learned when to take control and how to leverage individual and group strengths for a quality product. Besides a rigorous curriculum, we were challenged through internships and residencies to apply what we learned in a real-world setting.

What is your focus as you sit on the Health Care Alumni Advisory Board – can you share your goals in reconnecting the MHA community?

Well first of all, I love all things Duke and so my service on the HCAAB is simply an extension of this love. I am a member of the Duke Chapel Congregation, an Iron Duke and Blue Devils supporter, and a member of the James B Duke Society with a desire to do what I can to share my financial resources.

Duke has always been ahead of the curve and, early on, recognized the industry challenges were more aligned with the business school. Therefore, moving to Fuqua was the right move to keep the school on an upward trajectory. Unfortunately, it created, I think, a natural disconnect for many MHA alums. So to alleviate this, over the past few years, we’ve provided opportunities for MHAs to reconnect with Duke and Fuqua by helping them learn more about the HSM program—its students and faculty—and reconnect with their MHA class during Reunion Weekend, serve as a mentors to current HSM students, create an internship or serve as a guest lecturer if appropriate.

Many MHAs have reached a point in their careers where they are looking to give back to the next generation and we want to provide a full range of opportunities to do just that. In addition, I want to make sure that current HSM students, who are interested in the provider sector, have access to the MHA community since many alumni are now accomplished senior leaders in this sector.

Who/what was the most influential prof/class at Duke?

We had several great professors̶ and classes—especially in Health Law and Financial Management given the realities of healthcare reimbursement in the 1980s. But really, the best part of my Duke MHA experience was our group of 40 individuals who came together in class—daily. We forged relationships which have lasted to this day and many of us get together a couple of times a year and have remained important parts of each other’s professional and personal lives. The ability to call upon these friends has been, by far, the best part of my Duke experience.