Walter Harris’s thirty-year career in healthcare started with a deeply personal journey. Having been conceived when his mother was in her early forties, the medical care she received was integral to ensuring that his was a healthy and safe delivery. “I refer back to that moment as to why I have a passion for healthcare and helping others,” Harris says. “It also speaks to my need to be a respectful and humble contributor.”
But his start in the field began with an early job working on the patient-tray line at Northside Medical Center—a job he landed after serving six years in the US Air Force. Learning about the hospital from behind the scenes, Harris realized he’d like to continue a career in healthcare and went to speak with the COO to express an interest in learning more about how the industry worked.
“From that point on, he took me under his wing,” Harris says. This guidance eventually enabled him to move on to a job as the general manager of the healthcare division of Sodexho Marriott International, become a hospital COO with Healthcare Corporation of America (HCA) and Community Health System (CHS), then up the ranks to executive roles at the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and at George Washington University’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences.
Working across an array of fields, Harris prided himself on being willing to take on any new opportunity that allowed him to learn more and broaden his organizational development and operations expertise. “It has been a driving force in my career to take on jobs that launch me ahead, while recognizing how well I contribute to each position to get where I want to go,” Harris says. By working in healthcare in fields ranging from public health to academia, he was able to apply his expertise inside different settings, using his background to navigate political waters at the VHA, HUD, CDC, and FDA, and setting a priority on the bottom line in complex university settings.
These experiences led to some of Harris’s most valued accomplishments in earlier organizations, such as helping to change the culture and advancing inclusivity during his years as a deputy commissioner at the FDA and identifying and implementing a national housing locator tool for emergency victims at HUD. But his most important accomplishments, Harris says, have been preparing and developing the people he worked with in every setting to ensure that they had the tools they needed to continue moving their organizations forward long after he moved on.
“We’re focused on developing physician leaders and patient advocates who will help transform medicine by addressing health equity in the exam room and in the community.”
All these lessons are integral to his latest role as the SVP of administration and finance at the new Kaiser Permanente’s School of Medicine in Pasadena, where since July of 2018, he has been working tirelessly to plan and implement all financial, business, and operational services for its 2020 launch. “I’ve gone full circle in my career between public health, healthcare, and academia,” Harris explains. “Having that well-rounded pathway is what has driven me to the school.”
Harris was first approached about the position in the fall of 2017, and what most impressed him about the school was its mission. “We’re focused on developing physician leaders and patient advocates who will help transform medicine by addressing health equity in the exam room and in the community,” Harris explains. Given his interest in always taking on a new challenge, and the value he saw his diverse skills adding to the school, it was a natural fit.
As a brand-new educational initiative from the nation’s largest nonprofit integrated healthcare system, Harris characterizes his role as his “small, big job”—a small dot within the Kaiser Permanente enterprise, but one where the school’s mission has tremendous importance and impact. “The challenge is making sure we integrate the school of medicine in a manner that keeps the mission, values, and history of Kaiser Permanente in clear view. We are an anomaly, but one with a huge impact,” Harris says.
Educating internal and external stakeholders about the school’s strong mission and leveraging the robust infrastructure and resources Kaiser Permanente has to offer are critical to the school’s success. In addition to promoting its mission and strengthening internal and external relationships, he’s also played an integral role in hiring talented team members, and obtaining operational resources needed to successfully carry out all the tasks required to get a new medical school up and running, including the successful LCME accredited visit this past spring.
Throughout the school’s inception, Harris’s earlier experiences have helped him navigate many challenges. Harris cites three important lessons that helped guide his decision-making during times of uncertainty: knowing to never judge the book by its cover; knowing how to disagree when it matters; and knowing how to hire, lead, and follow a talented staff.
Having accepted its first round of student applications in the summer of 2019, the school will be welcoming its inaugural class in 2020. Harris is looking forward to seeing what comes with the new year, and for the years ahead, as that first group of students moves along through their own careers and helps to cement Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine as a destination medical school.
“The biggest joy I’ve ever experienced has been watching my two children grow and become adults,” Harris says. “I’m really excited to see this first cohort of students start, figure out their personalities, and to help them to grow.”