WHEN HE WAS IN COLLEGE in his native Chicago, Jay Bhatt MPA 2012 had a lifechanging haircut. “I went to a barbershop and emerged with a sense of the challenges Black men and underserved populations face,” he says.
He had visited the barbershop—one that was popular with people in his dorm at the University of Chicago—just as several local Black physicians were setting up a clinic in the back of the shop to bring medical care to hard-to-reach people. Bhatt, who is of Asian heritage, spoke to the men there that day about the many obstacles they faced, from lack of economic opportunity to bad transportation to poor health. He went on to work with some of those men, connecting them with support services and tutoring their children throughout his time as an undergraduate.
Growing up, he saw his father, a pharmacist, serve vulnerable people in the largely Black and Latinx populations on Chicago’s South Side. “I’m the son of two Asian immigrants, and they instilled in me the values of empathy and inclusion,” Bhatt says. “I spent a lot of time with my dad in his clinic, and we often visited patients’ homes, which gave me a front-row seat to the challenges people face in poor and struggling communities.”
These two experiences—the haircut and his childhood visits with his dad—influenced his career trajectory. Today, he is a geriatrician and doctor of osteopathic medicine, a field that specializes in preventive health and treating the whole person, not just symptoms.
“My current work has three buckets,” Bhatt says. “The first is taking care of patients in vulnerable communities as a primary care doctor and geriatrician. Second, I’m the chief clinical product officer of an Accountable Care Organization and Medicare Advantage health plan [ACOs are groups of clinicians who share financial responsibility and coordinate care for patients on Medicaid and Medicare]—we design high-quality, equitable care models for vulnerable populations and older adults; and third, I serve as a medical contributor for ABC News, communicating at scale about critical issues facing our nation and providing expert commentary to the public during a very challenging time with the pandemic.”
Bhatt has worn several hats over the years, many related to health equity. He formerly served as managing deputy commissioner and chief innovation officer at the Chicago Department of Public Health in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, where he used predictive analytics to reduce foodborne illnesses and lead exposure, provided leadership in implementing Healthy Chicago, and strengthen public health and health care delivery; he also worked as a senior vice president and the chief medical officer of the American Hospital Association (AHA), as chief health officer at the Illinois Health and Hospital Association, and president of the Midwest Alliance for Patient Safety. In these positions, he directed large-scale quality, physician, and health equity initiatives including an initiative on Age Friendly Health Systems that was deployed in over 2,000 sites of care across the nation, and elevated the work of the Institute for Diversity and Health Equity, including an equity-of-care initiative for the membership.
At the AHA, his leadership of the largest Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Hospital Improvement and Innovation Network, including nearly 1,700 hospitals in 34 states, contributed to a national effort for better, safer, and smarter care, making significant progress towards the goal of reducing adverse events in hospitals by 20 percent. Studies have estimated that thousands of lives and billions of dollars were saved over the course of the CMS Partnership for Patients program.
“Keeping people healthy is about policy, systems change, and environmental change... we need to look upstream to see what was causing the poor health outcomes in the first place.”
Working as a senior advisor at the Illinois Department of Public Health, he recommended methods to minimize COVID-19 in long-term care facilities, setting up critical data infrastructure needed to deliver insights and intelligence to public health officials; later, he partnered with community organizations to help vaccinate underserved communities through leadership on #ThisIsOurShot and to provide tools and training to trusted messengers. Last year, he provided input on health policy issues and COVID-19 for the Biden for President campaign, and served as a steering committee member for the National Academy of Medicine on a collaborative to address the opioid epidemic.
These are just some of his many achievements, all on behalf of at-risk individuals in the United States. While he acquired his ethos of public service early in life, he credits his time at Harvard Kennedy School, where he was a Zuckerman Fellow and Commonwealth Fund Minority Health Policy Fellow, for developing and honing his leadership toolkit. “I’m better as a professional and as a human being because of HKS,” he says.
At HKS, he learned how to approach problems from various angles. “If we are going to tackle tough challenges in cities and states across the country, we need to think across sectors, and we need to have the skills to bring stakeholders together toward a challenge,” Bhatt says. “Keeping people healthy is about policy, systems change, and environmental change. We often send people back to the conditions that made them sick, and we need to look upstream to see what was causing the poor health outcomes in the first place.”
He says his professors and classmates pushed him to think outside his clinical care box. “Many of the ideas I implemented—predictive analytics, getting partners to work together across the city and across disciplines—came from examples I learned at HKS from other sectors such as transportation, technology, urban planning, business, and retail,” he says. “It is so important to bring parties with different views together to think about how policy affects health.” This was reinforced in my time as a Presidential Leadership Scholar and Aspen Health Innovator Fellow.
Bhatt drives impact both with larger populations and individuals. “In my own care of patients, education is power. Trust takes time to develop”—and dancing doesn’t hurt, either. Amidst all his accolades, Bhatt is known to his patients not as a chief medical officer or vice president, but as the “Dancing Doctor,” a moniker bestowed on him by a patient he was treating while he was a medical resident in Boston. “I was taking care of someone who was really struggling. His family had told me that music was very important to him, so I put my phone next to the man’s ear and he started moving his shoulders in his bed, and he got a smile on his face. I did this every day he was in the hospital for three weeks, and he slowly improved to the point where he got up and danced with me—and he told me, ‘You’re not just my doctor, but my Dancing Doctor’.”
The name stuck. “Dance brings me joy and it brings others joy—it’s an additional secret ingredient. Music breaks down barriers and helps people start to have a conversation and normalize fear and vulnerability,” says Bhatt, who teaches hip-hop and bhangra, a traditional Punjabi folk dance often done to celebrate the harvest and weddings.
Whether dancing with his patients or harnessing big data and AI to improve health outcomes, Bhatt knows how important it is to listen to others—and to see the community itself as his patient. “I want to partner with communities to change their future and help them achieve their highest potential for health,” he says.
This award recognizes alumni who have significantly improved the human condition at the local, state/provincial, national, or international levels. Recipients will have made a substantial difference for people, organizations, or governments through a single influential act or a series of steps that produced positive societal change.
Photos courtesy of Jay Bhatt