Q&A with CEO Mitesh Popat: “Community health centers are public health in action”

January 12, 2023

Dr. Mitesh Popat joined Venice Family Clinic as chief executive officer last month from Marin Community Clinics, where he was CEO for five years. As a board-certified family physician, Dr. Popat brings a clinical perspective to his approach as CEO, while also being community-minded as a public health expert. He has dedicated his career to community health centers, serving as associate medical director of La Clínica de la Raza and as chief medical officer at Marin Community Clinics before taking the helm there.

Here he tells us more about his background, the experiences that influence his personal perspectives and leadership style, and why he chose Venice Family Clinic.

Venice Family Clinic: You’re originally from Southern California. Tell us about your history here and why you wanted to return.

Mitesh Popat: I grew up in the Inland Empire, and I went to college at UC Irvine. And then I went around the country a bit – to Boston for medical and public health school, followed by the Bay Area for the last 15 years. But deep down I think I always knew I’d come back to where my roots are the strongest. My parents are still here in Southern California, and my wife and I have three kids so they’ll be closer to their grandparents. It’s wonderful on a personal level. And I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to continue doing mission-driven work in a community like Los Angeles, where the need is so great.

Clinic: What drew you to Venice Family Clinic?

MP: There are a few things that really stood out to me. Of course, first and foremost is its mission to provide quality care to the most underserved people in the community and its commitment to achieving health equity. After all, part of my personal mission in life is to ensure that everyone has access to high quality health care. I believe everyone deserves that.

I was also impressed by the quality of the senior management team and the remarkable work that has been accomplished since the Clinic’s early days as doctors volunteering their time in a borrowed space after hours. I have deep respect and admiration for all that Liz Forer has done as CEO. In my short time here I can see the tremendous impact she’s had on the organization, the esteem everyone has for her and what an amazing leader she has been. So I thank her for her leadership and for her excellence in growing Venice Family Clinic to where it is today.

There’s also enormous opportunity for me to make an impact as CEO, not only as we move through year two of the merger, but also in the ways we expand the depth and breadth of the services we provide to the people in our community. I can see so much development and growth ahead for Venice Family Clinic.

Clinic: Where does that personal mission of ensuring everyone has access to high quality health care come from for you?

MP: It was shaped through my experiences, especially working overseas, where I witnessed massive disparities in access and resources and the impact that has on people’s health. In the United States you could have a room full of doctors talking about minor differences between different antibiotics; overseas the question was more often, can I just get any medication? That disparity was unjust to me.

Then, my residency program was based at a Catholic hospital in San Jose, CA. They were committed to a lot of charity care, as many Catholic hospitals tend to be, and were serving lots of patients with Medi-Cal and people who were uninsured.

And it made me realize that there are people in this country dealing with the kind of inequities and disparities I’d seen abroad. So that’s when I decided to focus my efforts and try to make an impact through community medicine at federally qualified health centers, which grew out of the social justice movement of the 1960s and have been focused on social determinants of health and racial inequity and justice.

Clinic: Where have you worked outside the US?

MP: In college I studied abroad in Costa Rica, where the health care system covers all its citizens, even though the country had just a fraction of the GDP of the US. I had one of those mind-bending moments where I thought, why can’t we do this in the United States?

Then when I was in medical school, I went to India and worked with local doctors and nurses to develop a new delivery model of group care that would maximize the impact of the few resources they had available to them. I also spent time in South Africa, where I researched the social impacts of health on HIV infection in mothers and their children.

I worked in Honduras as well, as a resident a little further into my career, providing medical care on the island of Roatán. That’s where it was important to find practical solutions, when patients would be in pain from physical labor but couldn’t afford to stop working because they had families to support.

Clinic: How did all these experiences influence your approach today?

MP: Each of these experiences helped me understand how important it is to recognize the complexity of what people go through and what they’re up against. It’s very easy for a clinician to tell someone to simply eat healthy or exercise more. But to make a lasting impact on that person’s health, it’s vital to consider why those ‘solutions’ may not be that simple. Maybe they can’t afford healthier foods or they don’t have much energy for exercising after working multiple jobs.

Those experiences also shaped how I think about program and service development. For example, it’s important that we consider whether something that may work on an individual level is sustainable on an organizational or community level. Because if you don’t, and you end up having to shut the program down for lack of funding opportunities, you might have actually done harm in the long run because you’ve built an expectation among patients for services they can no longer get, and they may become disenchanted with the health care system. So when I think about the services that are developed, you have to do it with integrity and with purpose and with lasting durability.

Clinic: How do you plan to use your expertise as a clinician to inform your leadership of Venice Family Clinic?

MP: Before I held leadership positions at prior clinics, I had a 2,200 patient panel assigned to me, so I know what that is like on the ground – how care is delivered, what the challenges are, what the impacts of staffing-related issues are, the time limits for visits and how much you can accomplish in that time. So I have a pretty deep understanding of how all that really works.

As CEO of Marin Community Clinics, I was seeing patients for a half day every other week, just plugging in and doing urgent care. I found it very meaningful to be on the ground delivering care and interacting with staff, because I could get the pulse of how people were feeling and how things were going. It’s so valuable to see the work in action. It re-grounds you and gives you appreciation for everything everyone does.

I’ve also learned over time when it’s appropriate to sit back and operate at my highest licensure, knowing that if I do something myself, that I’m choosing to not to prioritize something else and also preventing someone else from learning, growing and developing their confidence and ability.

Clinic: Why did you make the transition from direct patient care to administration?

MP: I enjoy being a physician. Those one-on-one relationships and seeing improvement in a person’s health over time is immensely impactful for the patients and personally gratifying to me. At the same time, influenced by my master’s degree in public health, I remained mindful that if we develop the entire system, we can impact the health of the entire community. That meant we should be considering where care was needed, what services we should offer, what partnerships we should develop and more. Over time, I realized that I had a knack for that work, and I gradually took on more responsibility and oversight, and my clinical time necessarily went down.

So it’s about aligning yourself with who you are, what your skills are, what your talents are and what your interests are. And that’s why I am where I am today.

Clinic: What are your goals for the immediate future?

MP: I just got here, so obviously I have a lot to learn about the Clinic and the team so I can understand the organization as it is today. I’m eager to visit all the sites and hear from everyone – staff, supervisors, senior management, the Board. We will do the work to develop a new strategic plan this year, and I’m excited to begin mapping out a strategy that defines what our priorities are, where we want to go next, and what we need to start working on to accomplish it. It’ll be an ongoing process, but I’m looking forward to it.