AJ Harper Propels Action and Collaboration to Improve Quality of Care

AJ Harper, MBA, a longtime friend of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation (JHF) and the Pittsburgh Regional Health Initiative (PRHI), has built a career rooted in the belief that a focus on patient safety, reducing clinical variation, and refining processes of care improves quality of care and can save lives. Harper spent 16 years as the president of the Healthcare Council of Western Pennsylvania, helping to transform it into one of the premiere healthcare regional trade associations in the country. He recently entered retirement and stepped down from his longtime position as a member of the PRHI board of directors, where he influenced the success of numerous patient safety initiatives across the region. 

Born and raised in Beaver County, outside of Pittsburgh, Harper's interest in health care was sparked in high school during a shadowing program at Aliquippa Hospital. Although his uncle was a doctor, he quickly realized he didn't want to provide bedside care; rather, his passion was working to support those in direct patient care.

He attended The Ohio State University to pursue healthcare administration, and he started his first job in Cleveland, Ohio, spending almost 30 years there before returning to the Pittsburgh area. Whatever his role in an organization, Harper has emphasized employee relations principles of respect, honesty, transparency, and fair compensation. Those principles were shaped by watching his mother, an Italian immigrant, be the victim of ethnic slurs and being inspired by faith-based traditions of care in action.

In Cleveland, Harper quickly earned his success by helping physicians understand that through reducing variation in care they were able to reduce costs and improve outcomes. Harper says the key to success is "finding a gap where one can work meaningfully." In the wake of hospital consolidations across the nation and growth of competition, Harper said there will always be an opportunity for associations to help the community collectively and neutrally.

Harper made his way back to Pittsburgh in 2006 to serve as president of the Healthcare Council of Western Pennsylvania. He immediately set out with the goal of making the council more pragmatic and supportive of the C-suite in the face of growing regulations. One of his greatest achievements was a project focused on inequity in Medicaid reimbursement policies and funding distribution to hospitals. Working closely with the health systems they were able to identify the specific problems and revise the existing reimbursement methodology.

One of Harper's first calls after relocating was to JHF's president and CEO Karen Feinstein, as they shared a common passion for patient safety and improved outcomes. As Dr. Feinstein and PRHI co-founder Paul O'Neill established their work in Pittsburgh, Harper was an integral part of the Cleveland Health Quality Choice Program, the first non-governmental public report card on quality of care in the country. The Program analyzed patient satisfaction surveys, length of stay, and mortality/morbidity rates to direct patients to the facilities with the best outcomes. When he moved to Pittsburgh, Harper would become a trusted partner with PRHI, serving on its Board and helping to promote PRHI's initiatives. In collaborating with PRHI over the decades, Harper appreciated that, at the core, its work was always about quality and admired PRHI's commitment to improve patient safety and quality of care while also reducing clinical variation.

One example of Harper's close partnership with PRHI goes back to the moment when the Affordable Care Act was passed. New funding became available for innovation and PRHI took on several big initiatives. Patient resource centers were created to improve outcomes for those who were being readmitted to the hospital for heart or lung disease. Dr. Feinstein turned to Harper to play a key role in the effort. Harper recruited six hospitals to share their performance metrics and improvement measures to find a pathway to better outcomes for patients. PRHI's work and Harper's work at the Healthcare Council have remained steadfast in growing, adapting, often overlapping, and consistently returning to the mission of making care safer and better.

Reflecting on progress and existing opportunities for advancements within patient safety, Harper pointed to four key areas to focus on to improve outcomes: 1. reducing variation with data and clinical registries; 2. addressing healthcare workforce shortages with artificial intelligence; 3. employing advanced electronic health records and systems to avoid medication errors; and 4. creating a national patient safety board to develop and share best practices. He remains an optimist that with these strategies and coordination, like the kind he was able to foster at the Healthcare Council, real progress can continue to be made to make care safer.

The scientific method says any organism that is not dynamic becomes static and dies. The same is true for any organization, community, or individual. As Harper enters retirement, he is excited about the next generation of leaders stepping forward, especially those at the Healthcare Council. While they do, Harper plans to enjoy retirement with his family, but with his eyes to the future, he hopes to one day again join back in the work when the right timing and opportunity presents itself. 

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