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Joanna Herath

Administrators in the department of medicine ensure that division operations are managed efficiently and effectively, to support faculty, staff, and trainees in their pursuit of education, research and clinical care. Their services focus on achieving continuous improvement in the quality and the value of our work, for those we support and the patients we serve.

What are your responsibilities?

My initial appointment in the UNC School of Medicine was to serve as the division administrator for gastroenterology and hepatology. I started in September 2003, when Dr. Bob Sandler was division chief and director for the Center of Gastrointestinal Biology and Disease. In this role, I am now responsible for the finances, physician-based clinical operations, human resources, and strategic planning for our faculty. Dr. Sandler and I also created a close working relationship with our research center so that we appropriately managed faculty effort and finances across the three missions. In October 2012, I was contracted by UNC Medical Center to become the director for GI Services under Marlene Rifkin, senior vice-president of operations. As director, I’m responsible for the operations and finances of our hospital-based endoscopy units, clinics and motility lab.

What is a typical day like working in GI?

Every day in GI is different, which is one of the things I enjoy about the role. Over the course of a day, we help a research faculty member write a contract to bring dollars into the institution, analyze the need for capital expenditures in the procedure units, and we work to keep clinical operations running during a snowstorm. I do have standing meetings with my nurse managers, division chief, vice-president, and leadership teams so that operations stay on track and deadlines are met.

Describe your career path? How did you come to join the Department of Medicine?

When I started college, I wanted to be an ophthalmologist. I had terrible eyesight as a child. A very kind ophthalmologist helped me through those challenges, and I wanted to be like him. However, organic chemistry and I did not see eye to eye. Mary Baldwin College had a program in Health Care Administration and the Director suggested that I take the introductory class. I started the program and didn’t look back. Next, I pursued a Master of Health Administration degree from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU.) During this course of study, I became interested in physician practice management and academic medical centers. The Master’s program required the completion of an Administrative Residency. I was selected for the residency program at UVA Medical Center. My first job Administrative Manager for Physician Compensation at Duke’s Private Diagnostic Clinic. My first management experience was at Blue Ridge Family Practice, which was owned by Rex Hospital. There were 10 clinicians and 40 employees. Rex chose to sell the practice back to the physicians, which gave me the opportunity to learn about private practice management and working with consultants. During my next job search I applied to the administrator position with UNC. My first few days at UNC felt like coming home.

What is most important about your work?

I am here to support our faculty achieve our tripartite missions: clinical care, education and research. My faculty do not have to become experts in business, pro formas, employment law or strategic planning. I am part of a team of professionals available to help our faculty be the best they can be – to provide the best care to patients, to educate clinicians of the future and to make the ground breaking discoveries that impact the world.

When I joined the division, I shared a list of what I believe is the “purpose” of an administrator in a Faculty Strategic Plan Meeting:

  1. To make a little money
  2. To make it a nice place to work
  3. To make sure they have what they need to do their jobs every day
  4. To be their advocate to internal/external parties
  5. To maintain standards of quality care
  6. To do what’s best for the business

In all fairness, my physician practice management professor came up with the first two items! I’ve expanded the list over the years. It seems to resonate well with my faculty and staff. This list is still on my bulletin board and I refer to it often.

What makes you a good fit for this role?

I started at UNC with an appreciation and admiration of the medical profession and a belief in the mission of academic medicine. Over the course of 15 years, I have gained a comprehensive knowledge of the business and politics of the School of Medicine and the Health Care System. I believe it helps me bridge the relationships across faculty, administration and staff so that we can align our goals, achieve our objectives and work better together.

What do you enjoy about your job?

I get to work with incredibly bright, talented, caring individuals who believe in the work they do and make a difference in people’s lives every day.

What do you hope to accomplish this year?

This is a year of challenges and changes (most years are starting to feel that way.) GI services is going through a leadership transition with the retirement of Marlene Rifkin. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Ian Buchanan and members of his leadership team previously. We’ll learn how to work together in our new capacity. At the same time we’re working with the department of medicine to translate the impact of the new funds flow model upon the operations of the division. Personally, I am participating in UNC Health Care System’s Advanced Leadership Academy. The program is giving me opportunities to connect with others leaders across the system, but it’s also helping me take inventory of my own skills and where I might improve. The feedback is invaluable.

What do you do for fun?

When time permits, I love acting and performing. My banker-father was not very supportive of my going to school for the arts (not a great return-on-investment.) I’ve found many opportunities to engage in the theatre community. I’ve been on stage with Cary Players, Theatre in the Park, Bare Theatre, the Nickel Shakespeare Girls, and Pequod Productions. I’ve also learned more about the business of theatre while serving on the board of directors for Cary Players. When there is no time to participate in a full production, there are opportunities to read parts for upcoming/aspiring playwrights as they put scripts together.

Tell us one thing about yourself that most people don’t know.

I have two parrots: an African Gray Timneh named Jynx, and a Scarlet Macaw named Woody. Their mimicry makes for an entertaining household. When people ask me how I became interested in parrots, I honestly cannot recall. I remember meeting my first parrot in Paris. I was delighted to learn that it was a parrot whistling the first few bars of the French national anthem. A number of years ago, someone shared a quote with me from Mark Twain’s Following the Equator: “She was not quite what you would call refined. She was not quite what you would call unrefined. She was the kind of person that keeps a parrot.” I’m afraid that quote definitely applies to me!