Staff Profile: Robert Ferguson, MPH, Director of Government Grants and Policy
As the grandson and nephew of orthopedists, the teenage Robert Ferguson was taken with the idea of becoming a doctor.
"I was really interested in the ethics of the patient-physician relationship," Ferguson recalled. "There's something very unique and pure about it."
Upon graduation from Mount Lebanon High School, he entered Northeastern University, intending to major in exercise science with a pre-med concentration. But within the first year, his view shifted.
"Northeastern really opened my eyes to the extremely complex system that surrounds that patient-physician relationship," he said. "In my free time, I found myself reading about payment models, not clinical care. I realized that if I could use public health and health policy to address the system issues, I could help many others, instead of caring for one person at a time in a broken system."
He switched to the university's then-new health sciences program—an undergraduate version of a public health degree. "I learned a lot of skills and competencies there that I use every day. I learned about policy; healthcare and public health systems; research; how to use 'systems thinking' to design and evaluate projects and trainings; and how to write for different audiences, among many other skills."
The summer after his junior year Ferguson became an intern at the Jewish Healthcare Foundation. Back in Boston, he interned at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services. When he concluded that internship, he accepted a job at JHF, starting work back home in Pittsburgh just a few days after graduation.
"Boston is a great place to go to school. It's such an epicenter of amazing things going on in health," he said. "It's one of the few places where you can go and hear lectures from leaders in the field like Paul Farmer on a random night. But I was a recent graduate with a job offer at a place where I knew I'd enjoy working and where I knew I could apply my new skills and competencies. I had no doubt that joining JHF was the right move."
Ferguson started out as a program associate, creating data reports and researching reimbursement policies for a local pilot program that integrated behavioral health care into community health centers. . When the demo, ITPC, led to a four-state implementation and dissemination grant from AHRQ and then a CMS-CMMI innovation grant, he moved into project management. Today he oversees JHF's government grants and policy work while managing the Reinvesting in Health Initiative — a local initiative to redesign maternity care and payment — and three statewide learning networks (HealthChoices Patient-Centered Medical Home Learning Network, the Pennsylvania Perinatal Quality Collaborative, and the OUD Centers of Excellence Learning Network). Throughout his time at JHF, he has also supported the Fellowships and the Pennsylvania Health Funders Collaborative — a statewide network of health foundations in Pennsylvania that operates at the intersection of health philanthropy and health policy. He completed a master's of public health degree from the University of Pittsburgh while working at the foundation.
Ferguson is finishing a fellowship at CMS' Center for Clinical Standards and Quality on integrating physical and behavioral health care. He became a Fellow at CMS through the 2015-2016 Health and Aging Policy Fellowship that JHF supported. "The Fellowship gave me the ability to understand how to analyze and affect policy by factoring in people, politics, procedures, policies, and the dynamics between the branches of government. We met amazing health policy leaders and were trained by the same agency that orients Congress. It was a phenomenal experience."
What does a typical workday for you look like?
A lot of bouncing from internal and external meetings. A fair amount of travel to Harrisburg, Scranton, and Philadelphia around managing our learning networks. Answering a lot of emails, and thinking from a project perspective about what's happening in a week, a month, a quarter, a year; and thus, what do we need to be doing now as a team? Also monitoring what's happening on the policy landscape – the implications and opportunities. By and large, I spend a lot of time thinking about our networks and opportunities, and how to leverage those things to move collective priorities forward.
What's the most rewarding part of your job?
I like converting a vision into reality. I enjoy thinking about how partners, opportunities, and resources can come together to achieve common goals.JHF is perfectly situated to do this work because of its vision, diverse toolkit and staff, and ability to serve as a neutral convener.
What do you do in your spare time?
On Saturdays I go to my family's cabin in Somerset County and do yard work outside for the whole day. At work, you are lucky if can see the primary outcome of your work in a year. On Saturdays, I can work outside and see the impact immediately. It helps me re-set. I also enjoy hiking. Some of my favorite places have been in the highlands of Scotland, the Isle of Skye, and Wales.
Rumor has it you never actually take vacation.
I do take a few days each year, but I never take all of them. My goal each week is to go to the country on Saturday. If I can do that, I'm happy.