Picture a hospital. White coats, pastel scrubs, doctors with stethoscopes, and sophisticated, life-saving apparatuses all probably come to mind. But one critical aspect that might not is the extensive information and educational network each hospital relies on to ensure its seamless daily operations and to keep employees at the forefront of medical knowledge.
That’s where Allegheny Health Network’s (AHN) Dr. Brian Parker steps in. Recently transitioning from his role as chief medical officer and chief quality officer to chief learning officer and chief quality officer, Parker and his team are now working to define—and refine—the culture of learning for AHN, a nonprofit academic medical system consisting of 9 hospitals and around 21,000 employees headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“As part of our overall 2025 strategy at Highmark Health—which formed AHN in 2013—there’s an enterprise initiative centered on what we can do, from an organizational perspective, to support learning and development in every business unit, from Highmark Health to AHN and across all of our providers,” Parker says.
“Of course, as a health system, we have very big learning needs and a complex learning environment,” he continues. “After all, it’s an inherent part of providing healthcare to be an adult learner, both because you have to constantly stay abreast of your field and because regulatory and licensing bodies require continuing education so they know the practitioners are meeting the requirements to the highest degree.”
As the physician representative for AHN with decades of experience in a variety of areas, including clinical research, anesthesiology, liver transplantation, hospital administration, and quality and safety, Parker was naturally pegged for the role to design and implement the major education initiative across the Allegheny Health Network.
“I’ve always been interested in the administrative side of things,” Parker says. “My first foray into the administrative world, after three to five years of focusing on my clinical work, was into quality and safety. It’s a big topic in my field of anesthesiology, and anesthesiologists are certainly often touted as being at the forefront of quality and safety awareness due to the risks of going under anesthesia during surgery.” What opened his eyes and fascinated him during this time was the way compliance with regulatory requirements converged to evolve the nature of healthcare.
From there, he eventually grew into the role of medical director for clinical risk management at Cleveland Clinic. This role involved dealing with patient issues and serving on the captive insurance board, a side of the organization dealing with attorneys and medical malpractice. Taking on those roles in quality and safety, he says, helped him build experience and ultimately prepared him to emerge later as chief medical and quality officer when he joined AHN in early 2017. “Quality and safety have always been a core focus for me throughout my career,” Parker says.
Due to the scope of his career experience, Parker’s big picture thinking has allowed him to weave together conceptual approaches and skill sets from several different arenas in order to buoy his administrative initiatives. “As an organization, we want to make sure we’re not approaching patient experience, quality and safety, employee engagement, and clinician wellness as independent silos—and we’ve started to connect the dots regarding these things,” he says.
“We want the frontline employees that do the work in the hospitals to be able to focus on their work,” he continues, “and we’ve created a centralized network structure that creates real accountability and also recognizes the folks who sit at the different network levels as subject matter experts. It has allowed us to make sure we’re doing things similarly across the board, using best practices.”
“The reality is that talented employees pick up stakes and move on when they don’t see potential trajectories for themselves. I want to make sure that AHN is known externally and internally as a healthcare provider destination with education and development opportunities.”
Now that he’s also chief learning officer, Parker finds himself in a broad-view, leadership-oriented role, and he’s applying his eye for quality and safety toward the new learning-centered initiatives. Currently, he and his team are working with Highmark Health toward building a centralized resource system that will ultimately operate the learning and development program. The system will bolster infrastructure around hospital information access for employees and refine and update continuing education methods to make learning interesting and engaging for staff.
Having a top-notch culture of learning is vital for any business, Parker believes. And it’s not only beneficial from an operational perspective; it also helps attract and develop the best talent for the organization.
“We want to make sure our workforce will see opportunity for progression. And we want to be able to meet their learning and training needs while at the same time providing the tools and information to develop our supervisors into future managers and directors of the healthcare space,” he says. “The reality is that talented employees pick up stakes and move on when they don’t see potential trajectories for themselves. I want to make sure that AHN is known externally and internally as a healthcare provider destination with education and development opportunities.”
Of course, there are many challenges when seeking to accomplish something that truly brings an organization to the next level of its evolution. For Parker, the main obstacle is timing. His career path, he says, has taught him the value of assessing both when to proceed and when to pull back.
“Sometimes you can have great ideas that are innovative, disruptive, or both, in terms of driving things forward and making improvements. Making sure the organization as a whole is ready for that change is really an art form,” he says.
“Even if someone has the best idea in the world, an organization might not be ready for it. Being able to recognize that and realize the time might not be right is part of the maturation process of a leader,” Parker explains. “You’ve got to be able to have that perspective where you can step back, get off the metaphorical dance floor, and get onto the balcony to see the bigger picture.”