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Access is Everything

Jan/06/2024 / by abhijit-masih

Sara Mathew is working to improve the healthcare system, combining her engineering background with everything she’s learned about hospital administration.

Born and raised in Mumbai, Sara Mathew struggled to find a program in India that enabled her to pursue her calling to improve healthcare access for all so she embarked on a journey to the United States, where she excelled in a top healthcare administration program at the University of Minnesota. After earning her master’s degree, she established her career in New York City, to work with prestigious institutions like the Mount Sinai Hospital and Weill Cornell Medicine. Now, as Associate Director, Research and Operations Administration at Weill Cornell Medicine, NY, Mathews is laser-focused on filling the gaps in access to healthcare.

She has devoted a decade to mentoring students globally, particularly those pursuing healthcare administration, earning accolades from the American College of Healthcare Executives. She also assumed the role of Board Director at Bridging Access to Care, making a significant impact during the pandemic and earning recognition as a 40 under 40 leader in health and a Notable Leader in Healthcare by Crain’s NY. She shares her inspiring journey with SEEMA.

Can you tell us about your early exposure to the healthcare environment and how it influenced your career choices?

I was born and raised in Bombay, my father was a professor and my mother worked in hospital leadership at Hinduja Hospital. Visiting her during vacations sparked my interest in healthcare, and I was particularly inspired by her passion to help people. I enjoyed going to my mother’s hospital, I liked the smell and I liked the environment.

How did your engineering background intersect with your interest in healthcare, and what challenges did you face in pursuing a career in healthcare administration?

During my second year of engineering, I wanted to combine my engineering knowledge with a career in healthcare administration to improve access to basic healthcare. However, I faced a challenge as there were no master’s programs in India that was accepting engineers for healthcare administration. I started doing a lot of extra-curricular work, attending medical camps and even did my engineering projects in medical instrumentation and built a good profile. This led me to pursue a master’s program in the U.S. I applied and got accepted in the University of Minnesota which has a top program in MHA. I came here on that very strong belief that I am meant to do this and I will succeed.

Can you share your experiences working in New York City and the challenges you encountered?

While I did my masters, I traveled throughout the country and when I came to New York, I thought this is like Bombay. I saw the roads are busy, loads of diverse people and I decided I need to come and work in New York. I applied for jobs, found one and then I also realized the struggles of obtaining a Green Card. I was very fortunate with the hospitals and they offered to sponsor me. I was at Mount Sinai for three years and seven years with Weill Cornell Medicine. 

How did you contribute to mentoring students interested in healthcare administration, especially those from India?

Over the course of 10 years, I dedicated time to mentor hundreds of students, particularly from India, who were interested in pursuing healthcare administration in the USA. I aimed to provide guidance on courses, pathways, and interview preparation. 

You are also a Board Director of Bridging Access to Care. Can you tell us about the organization’s mission and your role in it?

Bridging Access to Care is a community-based health center in Brooklyn with a mission to provide basic healthcare services to everyone, especially those from harsh economic backgrounds. In 2020, I was appointed as the Board Director, contributing to the organization’s goals and impact in the community. I did a lot of partnerships so that anyone who has no insurance, but want all the preventive services, that they would have money from the government subsidy. So, I connect them through strong partnerships to big hospitals like Sinai and that’s my role. It came very organically to me like I was following my passion.

What are the gaps in the US healthcare system that you feel should be highlighted?

When I came to the US, I first thought everybody in the West has healthcare. But the fact is that it’s not accessible to everyone. Not everyone has insurance. Expenses are not affordable. In rural places, the hospitals are not as amazing as the ones in Manhattan. However, the US does have very strong regulations. The auditing standards followed by the Joint Commission are very good. The mistakes are reported properly, not as investigation but so that you learn from your mistakes and fix it. 

Why do you think that health care is so expensive in the US?

Hospitals have to make money and they don’t get money directly from the consumer. They get it from the insurance companies. The problem is if the hospital says I spent $10,000 on doing a hernia operation, the insurance company says well, I don’t believe you, I am only going to give you $2,000 back.  So hospitals often suffer a loss on the procedure and different insurances will pay differently. Medicare will say, I really think you should get $500 for the $10,000. United Health Care will probably pay $2000 instead of $10,000.  However, the hospital is giving the same treatment and using the same surgeons and OR room. So the private insurance companies don’t pay the hospitals and doctors accurately. A part of my job is dealing with denials. Let’s say that my surgeon does 50 surgeries and sends the bills to the insurance, we get a denial rate of 20%. So in 10 cases the insurance will say, why did you do this case? Then we have to fight and that takes about six months. 

What according to you is the best part of your job?

I like that no two days are similar. I am involved in research, in patient complaint management, strategy, especially in Manhattan where we have NYU and Mount Sinai right next to us. Health care is a business also, so I have to put a strategy of why one should choose Weill Cornell. I get to work with very intelligent doctors finding new and innovative techniques, bringing companies together helping them from an idea to execution, it’s great.  Right now we’re working on a clinical trial where we can potentially save patients legs from getting amputated and that’s exactly why I did this. If I had a small role to play in it, that feels amazing.

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