Dr. Michael Karpf believes the UK Arts in HealthCare program enhances the healing environment of the UK Hospital. The Kentucky "wall" on Level 1 is among is favorite elements.
Dr. Michael Karpf no longer sports his profession’s iconic white coat, nor does he dangle a stethoscope around his neck. And he certainly isn’t involved in the day-to-day care of the thousands of patients who come through the doors of the University of Kentucky HealthCare system.
But Karpf, the executive vice president of the massive operation that includes UK Albert B. Chandler Hospital, numerous clinics and a team of 6,000 doctors, nurses and other health care professionals, is anything but removed from his calling.
“I won’t get into patients’ medical management, but I will try to make sure they’re being taken care of well and that they’re happy with their care and that their care is at the highest level,” said the longtime physician and now head of the state’s flagship academic health care center.
Dr. Michael Karpf
A skilled administrator known for his previous role in leading University of California Los Angeles Medical Center to its No. 3 national ranking by U.S. News & World Report, Karpf was recruited to UK by former president Dr. Lee T. Todd Jr. to work similar magic. While UK HealthCare has, indeed, grown in scope and size in the nearly 10 years Karpf has been at the helm, the measure of his success may very well lie in his determination to stay close to patient care.
It’s not uncommon, for example, for Karpf to stop in the UK Albert B. Chandler Hospital emergency room to check on someone in crisis. Just ask Mira Ball, former chair of the UK Board of Trustees.
“I had to have an emergency appendectomy on a Saturday and thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I don’t know if I I’ll get my physician.’ So I called him and he met me there,” Ball said.
“He’s also met my daughter there and met my husband there,” she added.
Ball also recounts the time when jockey John Valazquez was injured at Keeneland Race Course and track president Nick Nicholson, wondering what more he could do to help, called Karpf to ask him to meet the ambulance there. And he did.
“He’s a pretty fantastic person,” Ball said.
Karpf also is no stranger in other parts of the hospital. He visits a handful of patients most days, including long-term employees who sometimes find themselves on the other side of the health care equation.
If that’s not enough proof of Karpf’s continuing commitment to patient care, all one has to do is ask him how many hospital admissions or discharges there are on a given day.
“I’m pretty aware of the details,” he said. “I let my people do their jobs, but my folks know that rather than hovering at 60,000 feet, I’m sort of right above the mud. As long as things are going well, I stay out of their way. But I do stay close enough to try to understand what’s happening …”
Most convincing of all, however, is Karpf’s penchant for sharing his cell phone number with anyone who might happen to need it. Literally. He gives it to patients, staff, friends and even strangers. There are at least a thousand people who could ring him up “24-7, 365,” he said.
“I’ve been called all over the world. When we were in Cambodia, I had several phone calls from people who needed help. … I’ve been called in Moscow, been called while fishing in Florida.”
And if the phone doesn’t wake him up in the middle of the night at least once a week?
“My wife thinks I don’t deserve my M.D. any more. She actually thinks after all the time I put in earning my M.D. and with all the patients I’ve seen, she doesn’t want me to get any further away from my patients than I am now.”
But, he added, “I don’t mind. That’s the way we do business.”
A man of ideas
Karpf, a cancer specialist who spent 16 years teaching and practicing at the University of Pittsburgh, is no stranger to academic health care. Although he had some administrative duties there, he didn’t officially join the administrative ranks until he went to UCLA in 1995 to help develop UCLA Healthcare into an integrated health delivery system.
When “UK came along” in 2003, Karpf said he had been thinking a lot about changes needed in health care and formulating ways to bring about those changes. The UK position offered by Todd provided the ideal avenue for him to put his ideas to work, he said.
“So in terms of how health care needs to change and how academic medical centers need to change, this was a better laboratory,” he said.
When Karpf arrived at UK in October of 2003, it was a university on the move, he said. Its goal of creating one of the nation’s best academic health care centers provided ample opportunity for him to hit the ground running.
“When I first got here, we did careful strategic planning, financial planning, facilities planning and academic planning,” he said. “And those plans were all put together so they supported each other. That turned out to be pretty good. We essentially kept focused on those plans so we have a clear idea of what we need to do.”
As a result, Karpf has had a hand in recruiting some 250 senior-level staffers, assuring all Kentuckians have access to the best care available, lending support to regional providers so they can receive care closer to home, overseeing the building of the new UK Hospital, and actively engaging the physicians “in a very productive way.” And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“Dr. Karpf has helped lead a transformation of UK HealthCare that has benefited the university and the Commonwealth by providing greater access to the highest quality subspecialty care available anywhere,” said UK President Eli Capilouto. “Because of his passion and vision, we are moving closer to the dream Dr. Karpf articulated nearly 10 years ago – the idea that a Kentuckian can wake up anywhere in the Commonwealth, comfortable in the knowledge that no matter how serious their illness or health issue they and their family members can receive the treatment they need at UK HealthCare.”
Taking time to decompress
With the duties and responsibilities that come with being head of a major academic health care center, it would stand to reason that there is little time for anything else. And until about five years ago, Karpf did little else but work. He never took off more than a day or two at a time and kept the stereotypical physician’s schedule of 16- to 18-hour days.
“And then I realized you can’t do that for ever. You’re better off pacing yourself, being able to stay intense but also being able to decompress,” he said.
Now, thanks to a good team to help keep the operation running smoothly when he’s gone, Karpf and his wife, Ellen, take “serious” vacations for the first time in their lives.
“We’re trying to get in all those tough kind of trips we’ve always dreamt of doing that we won’t be able to do in five or 10 years. So last year we went to Thailand and Vietnam, and the year before we went to Cambodia. This year we’re going to India on a photography safari looking for tigers,” he said.
Plus, with the birth of their first grandchild, the couple takes a “fair amount of quick trips” to Los Angeles where their son and daughter-in-law live with baby Noah Jason.
Karpf also regularly plays tennis, and accompanied by two “fabulous” golden retrievers, he and Ellen walk to a neighborhood Starbucks most mornings before he heads to UK.
“My wife got them to make sure I got exercise,” he laughed.
Health care and the arts
When it comes to Karpf’s successes at UK HealthCare, pinpointing the most important is not easy. It’s safe to say, however, that bringing the UK Arts in HealthCare program to the new UK Hospital is somewhere close to the top – especially when you ask Karpf himself.
"A Natural History of Kentucky" oil painting by Robert Tharsing of Lexington hangs in the surgery waiting room at UK Albert B. Chandler Hospital.
“It really has worked out extraordinarily well,” said Karpf of the program designed to enhance the healing environment for patients and to focus on the spiritual and emotional well-being of staff.
“This is the third hospital I’ve built. This hospital, technologically, is as advanced as any place in the world. But as we built this technological hospital, we tried to do a couple of things. One, make it easier to navigate, and we’ve done that. We also tried to create an environment to be supportive of patients and their visitors and also our staff,” he said.
To that end, the UK Arts in HealthCare program has, through private funds, incorporated multiple forms of art throughout the hospital. The visual arts include scenic photographic images of the Kentucky landscape over the patient beds in each room, sculptures and folk art. The performing arts, under the Lucille Caudill Little Performing Arts in HealthCare Program, also brings performances by artists, faculty and students to the hospital’s auditorium.
“We’ve done about as well as anybody in the country,” Karpf said. “I think it starts setting the trend for other people to copy.”
Photos from UK and UK Arts in HealthCare