June 18, 2021
PA Shares Possibilities of an Informatics Career
May 11, 2021
By Kate Maloney
“I had a calling,” Patti Cuartas, PA-C, says, when asked why she became a PA. “I always wanted to care for people.” Cuartas grew up in New York City with siblings who are much younger than she. “I had to stay close to help care for them,” Cuartas remembers. “By nature and by life, I’m a care provider.”
While she knew she would end up in the medical field, she wasn’t sure in what capacity. Cuartas gained exposure to different providers and careers when she worked at a hospital during the summers and throughout college. One day after work, she got invited to a celebration in New York City’s West Village neighborhood. She said yes without knowing exactly what the celebration was for. As it turned out, her colleagues were celebrating a PA school graduation. Cuartas, interested, talked first to the partygoers and then researched as much as she could. “I liked that you could practice different specialties right away,” she says. “It was important to me that I be able to practice in different ways.” She only applied to one PA school – Stony Brook University – and never looked back.
Mentor inspired MBA
Cuartas worked first in an emergency department. It was immediately clear to her that she’d made the right choice. “I loved it,” she recalls. “I would work 14 shifts in a row, that’s how much I loved it.” After three years, Cuartas wanted to broaden her experience and moved on to different specialties – surgery, surgery ICU, and oncology, to name a few. All the while, she was noting things: over-crowdedness, inefficiencies, and chaotic environments. Wanting to improve patient care, she arranged to meet with her boss. While supportive, he made an off-the-cuff comment that changed her life. “I agree that there are some inefficiencies,” he said, “but I didn’t go to business school.” Cuartas decided right then that she would get her MBA.
Getting her MBA taught Cuartas not just the business side of healthcare, but also how to manage people and departments, as well as finance, HR, and legal issues. After she completed her MBA program, she wanted to deploy the clinical skills and knowledge from her time as a PA with her newfound business acumen. She found a job managing five clinics for the homeless population in New York City. Not only did she gain management experience, she was also still able to see patients. “It was a great opportunity for me,” she recalls. “I made really great connections and got to do a lot of different things.”
“It could have been worse”
Cuartas describes herself as “type A plus plus plus.” During this time, she was practicing clinically full-time, running the five homeless clinics, and she was training for a triathlon, zipping around the city from location to location on her bike. On her way to the gym before a night shift, a bus hit her bike. Remembering now, she extols the virtues of helmets (very important!) and says, matter-of-factly: “It could have been worse.” The accident sidelined her for a few months and, once again, she found herself at a crossroads. “I needed to rethink my life in a way,” she says. “I loved everything I was doing, but at the time, recovering from the accident, I really needed a job that wasn’t as physical.”
How a PA ended up in IT
She reached out to contacts she’d made throughout the years and had some leads. It was increasingly important that she work for an organization whose mission she believed in, and that her work ultimately improved patient care. Surprisingly, she ended up in the Information Technology department at NYC Health + Hospitals. “When I read the job description, it talked a lot about being a programmer, an analyst, a developer. I didn’t know what those things were,” she laughs. “But I really hit it off with the CMIO there and he said, ‘trust me, we’re going to have fun!’” While she eventually left Health + Hospital for Montefiore Medical Center and then Mount Sinai Health System, she has been working in IT since.
Cuartas is often the only person with clinical experience on her IT teams at work. She serves as something of a translator, she explains. The programmers she works with don’t always understand healthcare provider workflows; she certainly doesn’t know how to program. “We ask each other our questions,” she says. “We are impacting patient care by improving systems through technology.”
Cuartas’s role at Mount Sinai has steadily expanded. When she started, she oversaw the technological aspect of the health of the Medicaid population. She now works with not only Medicaid but Medicare, commercial insurances, urgent care locations, and Mount Sinai’s international arm, which helps stand up hospitals throughout the world. And, in October 2020, Cuartas was put in charge of the technical aspects of Mount Sinai’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
PAs should consider informatics
Busy as she is, Cuartas wants to expose more PAs to the potential a career in informatics might offer. She teaches a class in clinical informatics at Stony Brook, in hopes that informatics will become a field in which more PAs practice. “It’s such a great alignment with the PA profession,” she says. “In informatics, you’re thinking about creative solutions to problems all the time, just like when you’re taking care of patients.” Cuartas would like to formalize a fellowship or certification for PAs in informatics, like nurses and physicians have. Cuartas wants her experience to not only inspire PAs, but also to benefit those that come behind her. “I want more PAs to follow me to the C-suite,” she says.
Patti Cuartas, PA-C, MBA, is the executive director and associate CMIO at Mount Sinai Health System. In her spare time, she and her wife run a farm sanctuary and dog rescue in rural Pennsylvania. Cuartas can be reached at [email protected].