Johanna Vidal-Phelan, MD, became the chief medical officer, Quality Department, UPMC Insurance Services Division, in February 2022. In this role, she is responsible for clinical strategy and related operations for the Quality Department. She also develops and evaluates strategies and interventions for the division’s diversity and equity initiatives. Dr. Vidal-Phelan is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (FAAP) and a certified Six Sigma Green Belt.
You grew up in Puerto Rico. How did your family and your experiences growing up there impact you?
I grew up on the northeast coast in the city of Carolina, not far from the San Juan airport. My parents and most of my family still live in Puerto Rico, but I have family and friends all over the United States since many of us have left the island for jobs and education.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, we didn’t have the ease of access to books or the most current information, but I loved learning. I treasured any book I could get my hands on, even if I couldn’t understand everything in it. I started building my own little library at a young age.
I took my first biology class in seventh grade. The teacher was a recent college graduate, and her mindset was to prepare us all for college. She especially opened doors for the four girls who sat at the front of her classroom, as we were always asking questions. She taught us to love science and empowered us. We went on to become doctors, engineers, and scientists.
You’ve acknowledged the important role that mentors have had on your life throughout your medical career journey.
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It all started with my family pediatrician, Dr. Humberto Vazquez. There were few people who could calm my mom when my younger sister and I were sick, but he always could. I watched how he interacted with my parents and how my mom would pay attention to his advice. Early on, he told my parents, “Your daughters are very smart. I want them to take science classes and math classes. I want you to invest in their education. These girls should go to college.”
That was transformative for me. Dr. Vazquez had the emotional intelligence needed to interact with adults — but he also built a trusted relationship with my sister and me. I knew Dr. Vazquez was someone who cared about me and who was there for us as a family.
You left Puerto Rico at age 17 to attend Wellesley College, a prestigious all-women’s college in Massachusetts. How did that college experience affect you?
I applied to a number of colleges in both Puerto Rico and the mainland United States and, fortunately, was accepted by all of them. As part of one particular family trip, I had the opportunity to visit Wellesley College. I thought that its intimate, smaller college experience could be a good stepping-stone for me.
My transition to life and learning at Wellesley was challenging. It’s a very tough and competitive environment. Puerto Rican culture is much more community-based and team-oriented. We don’t do things in isolation.
When I started college, I could read English proficiently, but I wasn’t fluent when speaking or writing the language. So, I learned to plan. If an assignment was due in two weeks, I started working on it immediately. As an English as a second language (ESL) student, I had access — if I tapped into them — to tutors who could help me with proofreading and English grammar support. I took full advantage of those resources from day one.
I was one of two Puerto Ricans in the entire college and one from a small group of students from a Latino heritage. But Boston is a big place! I started building relationships with the larger Latino community at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which had a cross-registration program with Wellesley. My dream was to do research, so I decided to do research at MIT.
As a junior and senior, I traveled between Wellesley and MIT. I worked in a lab at MIT with others who shared my passion for research. They saw me as a colleague, and I felt welcome. That is the kind of invaluable support that has allowed me to become who I am today.
You attended Rutgers’ Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. How did it impact you?
For my clinical rotations during my third and fourth year, I was sent to Camden — one of New Jersey’s poorest neighborhoods — and loved it. At Cooper Hospital, I was able to use my cultural background and my fluency in Spanish to both connect with and really help people. That was powerful for me. It solidified my desire to be a primary care provider. I realized my passion was working with communities of color, and the people I worked with in Camden showed that they valued what I could offer.
What led you to specialize in pediatrics?
While in medical school, there was a period when I had to choose between a career in family medicine or pediatrics. My family medicine rotation was with Dr. Jeffrey Brenner, a family doctor in Camden. He was a pioneer in the field we now know as population health concepts. He was the first to layer data from both hospital emergency departments and police departments to identify and understand hospital “super-utilizers” — those patients who keep coming back to a hospital for care.
Dr. Brenner figured out these super-utilizers lived in the same neighborhoods with the highest crime and with the least access to primary care services — what we now call “social determinants of health.” He also recognized that the conditions that brought these patients to the hospital for emergency care largely could be prevented through relatively inexpensive early interventions and primary care. He started bringing together providers, hospitals, and community partners throughout Camden, asking: “What can we do together? How can we make an impact?”
Through our many conversations, Dr. Brenner got me thinking about the combined impact of poverty, lack of transportation, language access, and health disparities on patient care. During my fourth year of medical school, I traveled cross-country to Seattle Children’s Hospital, the same city where Dr. Brenner had trained, for my final internship. I fell in love with the University of Washington’s pediatric program and decided to do my pediatric residency there at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
You also earned a Master of Business Administration with a focus on health care. Why was an MBA important to you?
For several years I worked as a general pediatrician for a large pediatric hospital system in Philadelphia. I kept feeling, though, that I could contribute beyond my clinical role to bigger discussions of health care and leadership. I was thirsty for leadership development. So, while I was working as a physician, I pursued my MBA at George Washington University.
What brought you to UPMC and your transition to the Insurance Services Division? How is this platform allowing you to have a greater impact?
Moving into health care administration was a tough decision, but I knew I had to make a change if I was going to make a difference in underrepresented and at-risk communities. My husband and I moved our family from the South Jersey/Philly area, where we lived for over a decade, to central Pennsylvania. My new job in health care administration exposed me to critical areas like quality, health care management, and vendor management. It married my business and clinical knowledge with the insight that comes from working in a payer environment, which is driven by data analysis and operations.
For me, the question became: How can we develop and implement new strategies driven by these very different perspectives — and monitor their success? That’s where the improvement process happens in health care, and that’s what I really want to be part of.
What do you do today as chief medical officer, Quality Department, for the UPMC Insurance Division?
I love being in a space where I understand the financial strains and limitations but also fully recognize the clinical needs. As CMO, Quality Department, I am highly engaged with our organization-wide quality programs that improve clinical outcomes, health equity, and customer/employee experience and engagement. In the pediatric front, I am involved with our comprehensive pediatric population health strategy. I also still maintain a small pediatric panel where I see patients. Being a practicing pediatrician continues to define who I am. My mentor, Dr. Vazquez in Puerto Rico, showed me that pediatricians don’t only care for the child — they care for the entire family. That holistic view of medical care, which emphasizes preventive and wellness care, has been the foundation of my clinical upbringing, and has now become the lens through which I see my dual roles of CMO, Quality Department and Pediatrician.
I believe health care must be proactive and of the highest quality for all patients and UPMC Health Plan members , long before they’re faced with diseases like hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. Of course, as chronic medical conditions develop, we must intervene, and we do. But why wait? Let’s do things better and sooner. I’m a huge proponent of investing early in both children and the members of their families.
What are some of the barriers to quality health care for Latinos and other underrepresented communities in our state and beyond?
I was seeing patients in central Pennsylvania when the pandemic began. Two weeks after the declaration of emergency and the kids were sent home from school, my Spanish-speaking patients were coming to our clinic — not because they were sick, but because they did not know what was going on. Mothers were asking, “Why are the schools closed? What is this pandemic, what is this virus? Do we wear masks or not? What is going on?”
Then it hit me: None of the information regarding the pandemic is going out in Spanish! I mentioned that to a colleague who had a contact with the local TV station. The station expressed interest in having a Spanish-speaking doctor talk about COVID-19 on a regular basis to inform the Latino community about what’s happening. I’m so grateful that UPMC said yes to my participation. What began as a brief engagement turned into a year and a half of almost weekly interviews.
Despite some vocal pushback from a small number of viewers, we continued to get messages out, thanks to the support of the station and UPMC. In doing so, we built awareness of how important it was to deliver accurate information about COVID-19 — in real time, and in Spanish — to the Latino community.*
We’re now trying similar initiatives in Pittsburgh and other areas, using media, social media, and education. We’re forging new partnerships through activities like all-online webinars and town halls to get information to those communities where people lack access to quality health care.
As the pandemic becomes an afterthought for some, we cannot forget these lessons. We can’t forget that to give appropriate care, we need to partner with the community and listen to the voices of individuals without a platform to speak or be heard. That’s the only way we’ll be able to ensure just and equitable access to quality health care for every community member — including those most vulnerable.
* Editor’s note: Dr. Vidal-Phelan’s contributions led to her selection by media outlet AL DÍA as one of its 2021 “Top 20 Doctors in Medicine”. The award recognizes medical professionals who enrich diversity in top health organizations in the Mid-Atlantic region and their daily contributions to the quality of health care in the United States.
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Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 800 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. We are dedicated to providing Life Changing Medicine to our communities.