Profile with Pooja Kumar
Pooja Kumar (Pennsylvania & Magdalen 2004) is an associate partner in Boston at McKinsey & Co., where she works closely with hospitals and payors to improve delivery of healthcare. She was previously a resident in the Harvard Affiliated Emergency Medicine Residency. She has worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on the Congo-Zambia border, Save the Children Federation in East Timor and the International Rescue Committee in Azerbaijan. She also taught documentary photography to children at Duke University Medical Center and Boston Children’s Hospital. She holds an MD from Harvard Medical School, an MSc in Economic and Social History from the University of Oxford and a BA in Health Policy from Duke University.
Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?
Pooja Kumar: Right now, I call home Cambridge, Massachusetts. That’s a recent change because we moved around a lot when I was growing up. Until I got to Boston, I would not have called anywhere home. I was born in India and then we moved to Singapore, Jakarta, Toronto, and finally to the United States (New Jersey) when I started high school. I moved to Boston for medical school, and I’ve now lived here for over ten years – longer than anywhere else.
Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favorite childhood memory?
Pooja Kumar: Some of my favorite childhood memories are from family vacations, particularly when we lived in Jakarta. We left when I was nine and my brother was seven and a half. It was a formative time of my childhood. We would take family vacations to places that I’m sure have now been converted into resorts, but back then were relatively remote and low-key. We would stay in huts on the beach and play Uno and explore - it was just a very comforting and happy time in my life.
Rhodes Project: What is the last book you read for pleasure?
Pooja Kumar: I am in the middle of Middlesex right now, by Jeffrey Eugenides. It was published a while ago, but I just got around to reading it. I also just finished reading Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her.
Rhodes Project: When did you first become passionate about medicine?
Pooja Kumar: It was probably in the middle of college. In high school I really loved English and thought about becoming an English professor. Then during my sophomore year I read a book called We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. It’s a book on the Rwandan genocide by Philip Gourevitch, who is a fantastic writer. It is a shocking and compelling read. After that, I became very interested in refugee issues and medical humanitarian relief. This morphed into an interest in medicine as one path towards participating at some level in addressing global health needs. I went to medical school, did my internship, and then made the decision to transition to the healthcare practice at McKinsey, a global consulting firm. Here, I focus on both domestic and global health issues from operations and strategic lenses. My interaction with medicine has been a sort of journey. Right now I work a lot with hospitals on how to improve the care that they deliver to patients. I also work with state and federal governments on how to change the way that we pay for healthcare in order to incentivize better quality and higher value. It’s been a circuitous journey, but things seem to have all tied together for me. I try to make the quality and value of care better for the individual patient by improving the system.
Rhodes Project: What was your favorite part about writing your Master’s at Oxford?
Pooja Kumar: I loved the independence I had during the whole experience. We basically had a year to go and talk to whoever we wanted in the world. Then we came back to these sessions that were incredibly thought-provoking with professors who pushed us. We were able to workshop our ideas instead of being lectured to. I wrote part of my thesis at Oxford, but ended up coming back to Boston for summer and wrote a lot of it here while I was amidst all of my medical school friends. I ended up submitting it that following fall, so it was nice to think about my life on “both sides of the Atlantic” contributing to that final thesis.
Rhodes Project: Tell me a little bit about your current job.
Pooja Kumar: My current job is a bit of a whirlwind. One of the defining experiences to me of both medical school and Oxford was to be surrounded by people who are really excited, driven and passionate. They were passionate about very different types of things and had different personalities, but were all motivated to see progress in the fields that they had chosen. My job at McKinsey right now puts me in a place where I am surrounded by the same types of people. My primary driver of happiness is the teams and individuals that I work with here. They are dedicated and excited about what we are working on together and also what they undertake outside the workplace. We already spoke a little about the job it itself. We are working to improve the way healthcare is delivered in America. By that, I mean figuring out ways that hospitals as well as states can operate differently and find different ways to pay for care that incentivizes better value. Healthcare in America now is around 17% of GDP and has been growing at an unsustainable rate. It’s frankly impossible for us to continue to spend in the way that we have been. Every dollar that we waste in healthcare – and waste is not uncommon – is a dollar that we could have spent on something else.
I think there’s a lot of opportunity to improve the level of quality and service that patients are getting. That’s essentially what I do at work. I work with hospitals to figure out ways for them to be more efficient and deliver a higher quality of care and higher service experience. Then I work with the folks who are already paying for healthcare to find out how we can support physicians and hospitals in achieving that.
Rhodes Project: Are there any other parts of your job that you find particularly rewarding?
Pooja Kumar: The other thing that I love about my job is actually seeing change happen on a short time-scale. Before I left medicine, I was training in emergency medicine. I’m the kind of person who, while I like thinking about big ideas, loves seeing things have quick impact. My job allows us to work on strategy as well as actual implementation, which is rare.
Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to address any issue, local or global, what would it be?
Pooja Kumar: I’m obviously impacted by healthcare, so it would be to both globally and locally improve the way that we actually get the right services to the patient when they need it, which is often before a disease even begins. There’s so much we just aren’t doing today around how patients even access care.
A close second would be education, which I think is a fundamental driver of almost everything else that we face. It clearly affects economic development, but also, a lot of healthcare begins with education. So that would be my second priority for my unlimited dollars.
Rhodes Project: If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?
Pooja Kumar: I think I would pick flying. I am terrified of heights, but if I had the super-power then perhaps I wouldn’t be terrified! It seems like such a joy to be able to fly, just the experience of it. It would also allow me to get from place to place so much more easily, which would allow me to travel a lot. The other super-power I’ve considered is stopping time.
Rhodes Project: What is something you’relooking forward to right now?
Pooja Kumar: I am really looking forward to any time – including tonight and during the weekend – that I can spend with my husband and my dog. I know it’s kind of a boring answer, but I am always looking forward to that. My husband and I got Hannah from a rescue pound around a year and a half ago. I grew up with dogs and have wanted to get one forever, but with all the travelling and school we kept telling ourselves it would be too hard. But once we took the plunge it’s been easy to just make it work!
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