Profile: Experience in Medicine and Business Helps Her Improve Healthcare

Andrew Kitchenman | September 10, 2014 | Health Care, Profiles
Dr. Ruth Perry -- Trenton Health Team’s executive director -- applies lessons learned in ER and in corporate world

Dr. Ruth Perry
Title: Executive Director, Trenton Health Team

Hometown: Born in Philadelphia and a current Moorestown resident, Perry is currently looking to move to Trenton. Or as she says: “I’m putting my money where my mouth is.”

Age: 58

Why her work matters: The Trenton Health Team is one of several regional organizations working to improve the health of residents in low-income areas. It has applied to be part of the state’s Medicaid Accountable Care Organization Demonstration Project and if it succeeds in improving patients’ health through increased care coordination, it will attract the attention of health experts around the state – and the country.

Putting her diverse background into practice: Perry has served as both an emergency department doctor for seven years at Albert Einstein Medical Center and in a variety of environmental health, occupational health and product safety positions over 17 years with Rohm and Haas, a Philadelphia-based chemical manufacturer. Both positions taught her valuable lessons that she still puts to use.

Working in the emergency department taught her “the ability to quickly prioritize, because that’s what you had to do,” with an eye toward focusing on the core root of a problem as quickly as possible.

At Rohm and Haas, Perry said, she learned how to be a leader, while also acquiring business skills that are useful for doctors. “When you’re running your own practice, it’s the same as a small business – you didn’t get any training in medical school in that,” she said.

Perry said she also learned how to work with a wide range of stakeholders – an essential skill in Trenton, where Capital Health System, St. Francis Medical Center, the Henry J. Austin Health Center and the City of Trenton work jointly on the health team.

Link between manufacturing and public health: But another lesson from working at a chemical manufacturer may be most important to Perry: learning how to analyze the cause of health problems and improve the quality of outcomes by designing a solution.

Just as the risk of chemical worker injuries could be reduced by tracking and measuring potential sources of sickness, so, too, she says, must providers in Trenton measure and understand the causes of poor health in the city to help make improvements.

*Arriving in Trenton via South Africa: While Perry was on a trip to South Africa with a group from her church, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Trenton, the Very Rev. Rene Rory John, a priest and the cathedral’s dean, mentioned the possibility of working at the new Capital Health Medical Center in Hopewell. Perry then met Dr. Robert Remstein, a Capital Health executive who serves on the Trenton Health Team board, which led to her current job.

Listening to the community: Perry sees much of her work through the prism of a community health needs assessment that brought many Trenton residents together to describe their health problems and priorities. They talked much about the nonmedical factors that shape city residents’ health.

“We learned that the social determinants of health – income, culture, housing, transportation, insurance – all play a role in a person’s ability to really care for themselves,” Perry said. “And that we really have a lot of work to do” to address those things. For example, fear of crime prevents residents from getting exercise or letting their children go outdoors to exercise.

Family: Perry is divorced and has two daughters — Kendall Walton, 25, who plans to follow in her mother’s footsteps with a career in medicine. She is taking classes that are prerequisites for entering a nursing program, and hopes to one day be a nurse practitioner. Courtney Walton, 23, is studying for a master’s degree in television production and is completing an internship in the field.

Alternate path: As a teenager, Perry was an accomplished flutist and was interested in pursuing it as a career. But she was dissuaded by a combination of her studies at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and advice from her father, who told her “You could always be a physician who is a musician but you could never be a musician who is a physician.”

She still puts her musical talents to use by playing the piano and participating in her church choir.

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