Karen Pinsky, MD, chief medical officer at Chester County Hospital began her career as a pediatrician seeing patients predominately in the hospital. When she was given the opportunity to help with the development and implementation of electronic medical records in the early 2000s, she became inspired to take a deeper look at how technological applications can improve patient care, and her career trajectory took a drastic turn. Now, 24 years after starting her career in medicine, she now spends her time not only seeing patients in a clinical setting, but also working tirelessly to help create novel processes that work behind the scenes to improve care. We recently sat down with Dr. Pinsky to learn more about her career and how her love for solving problems lead her to her current role at Chester County Hospital.
Q: How long have you been practicing medicine?
A: I’ve been practicing medicine at Chester County Hospital since 1996 (24 years). I have been here a long time, and my role has really evolved!
Q: Why did you choose pediatrics as a specialty?
A: I liked the idea of working with both the parent and the patient/child. Working in pediatrics is like having two patients; you have the patient who is ill – the child –and the parents. You need to make a very different connection with each party. Children don’t interact with a provider the same way an adult would, so you have to be able to translate and communicate in different and specific ways to make sure the patient understands just as much as the parent. Regardless of a patient’s age, making connections and building trusting relationships between patients and care providers is so important, so you have to be able to communicate on both sides.
Question: How did you arrive in your current position?
A: I started my career with a narrow focus in pediatric hospital medicine. As Chester County Hospital evolved to incorporate electronic medical records (EMR), I became more involved with the informatics side and was able to be a physician champion for the project. Through that experience, I became passionate about integrating information technology for clinical practice so providers could help their patients in a more data driven way. Before EMRs, we used to handwrite orders and drug dosages. By incorporating electronic medical applications, there was a way to double check that process. Now, electronic applications are the standard of care, but when they were initially introduced, it was a revolutionary concept and it inspired me to investigate more and deeper ways in which health care informatics and computer systems intersect for the benefit of patient care.
From that initial interest, informatics blossomed into a sizable part of my professional career. I was inspired to go back to school and get a graduate degree and become board certified in informatics.
My most recent evolution has been to engage in quality for our organization. How can we take clinical medicine, information systems, and some of the basic aspects of quality and high reliability and incorporate them into the clinic to take better care of our patients? As a physician, that is what I was trained to do.
As Chief Medical Officer of Chester County Hospital I have dedicated clinical time when I see patients, and the remainder of my time is focused on areas of care delivery and quality as it relates to the care physicians and Advanced Practice Providers are providing in the hospital. This position has allowed me to influence how we handle things when they go wrong and how to replicate processes when things go well.
Q: What led you to pursue a career in medicine?
A: My parents were physicians and they initially inspired me to pursue a career in medicine. Being able to find solutions to challenging problems was also a draw for me. In medicine, we’re constantly innovating and looking for new ways to improve care. I’ve always appreciated that in medicine I’m able to learn new things and stay open to exploring new opportunities. I’ve been able to work with our hospital to incorporate the principals associated with High Reliable Organizations (HRO). This strategy is not new and is used in other industries (nuclear power and aviation, for example) but these high reliability principles are a proven formula to consistently drive better outcomes in successful organizations.
There is a sensitivity toward operations and situational awareness. By incorporating these principals, we can analyze a situation so we have a full understanding of the problem. Then we can respond in a way that is specific to the particular issue and improve it. These principals overlap into our everyday.
Q: What challenges have you faced throughout your career?
A: The challenges I’ve faced have been mostly self-imposed. I never wanted to seem weak or distracted by anything other than my job, and I’ve always taken my career and contribution to the organization very seriously. I used to really struggle with not allowing myself to be “me,” and instead trying to be something more, or what others expected me to be. I felt if I left work early or made a joke, it would reflect poorly on me. But, as I have grown in my career, I’ve learned that having confidence as a woman and being true to who you are as a professional and a person is invaluable. I’ve learned that I can be an accomplished professional, a great doctor, and a wonderful mom, and I hope my husband would agree that I’m a good wife. I believe you can be all of those things – but I also recognize that you can’t do it all in any one moment in time. It’s a bit like spinning plates; the idea that you are trying to keep all of your plates spinning at the same time. What I discovered mid-way through my career is that I’m not spinning plates, I’m juggling balls. Plates are fragile and can break easily, balls on the other hand are more resilient, they bounce. We are all human, and at some point we aren’t going to be able to juggle everything. A ball is going to drop because I’m human and humans drop balls, make mistakes, miss things. What I’ve learned is that its ok – the ball will bounce and I will catch it on the way back up. Changing the analogy from spinning plates to juggling meant changing the feeling that everything I do has dire consequences to something more resilient, and that really helped me in my approach to my career and life.
Q: Who were your role models?
A: I’ve had many role models throughout my career. However, there was a pulmonary attending physician I met during my training that had a nice balance between the way she treated patients and educated students. She was very professional in a personable type of way. I wanted to emulate that in the way I cared for my own patients. I found I learned from all the attending physicians I worked with during my training. Each had a different way of performing a task. By being exposed to the diversity of processes I was able to decide how I wanted to treat patients.
Q: What do you love about your job?
A: I love that every day is different. Some days I get to be in the clinic seeing patients, and other days I get to participate in changing how we deliver care. I am constantly working to improve the process on how, as an organization, we can become more reliable, safer, and more efficient. Every day is different. I get to explore different aspects of problem solving. I get to explore different parts of my profession and discipline.
Q: What excites you about the field of medicine?
A: There is so much to be excited about in the medical field today including the advances in genomic and personalized medicine and being able to make specific drugs for specific people. Medicine as a career offers an incredible breadth and within the field you are able to determine what you want to do (patient care, research, public health, etc). In general, the whole field has evolved. Today, we are able to discern using data about a patient’s genetic makeup or their ethnicity or gender whether they are likely to respond to certain drugs where previously it was more a general rule of thumb. We are in a place where we now realize patient care is not a one-size-fits-all. We are starting to realize social determinants of health, as well. When we meet a patient, we can ask about food insecurity, gender identification, and safety at home, all of which help us understand how the patient lives their life and allows us to gear interventions/treatment plans to who they are as a person.
Q: What advice would you give younger professionals starting out in the medical field?
A: I would encourage younger medical professionals to be open to possibilities. Medicine is such an evolving field and there have been so many amazing breakthroughs in research, patient care, and technology. Medicine will keep evolving and the next generation of professionals has a great opportunity to help shape the way things go in patient care and beyond. The only constant in medicine is change, which means there will always be opportunities to explore different areas. I would encourage students to be open to the transformation of their roles – whether it is in leadership or in an industry that is within or on the edges of medicine. Our field is rapidly changing and young professionals can really make an impact.