For Sundeep “Sunny” Bhatia, MD, a 2001 graduate from the University of Minnesota Medical School, a passion for giving back to underserved communities and educating the next generation of medical professionals has been hardwired into his career.

“It all started in training. The University of Minnesota Medical School played a big role in emphasizing the importance of giving back to the community with an emphasis on primary care and our vital role in those communities,” said Dr. Bhatia, a quadruple board-certified  interventional cardiologist at Prime Healthcare, a large national health system headquartered in Ontario, Calif. “Initially, given my passion for medicine, my original intention was to be a very active clinician, but as my career evolved and other opportunities presented, I was asked to be the chief medical officer (CMO) of a community hospital in southern California where I was practicing.”

Now, Dr. Bhatia serves as Prime Healthcare’s corporate CMO and chief executive officer of its western region, made up of 17 hospitals in California and Nevada. He’s focused on continuing Prime’s mission of saving distressed community hospitals on the verge of closure or bankruptcy and turning them around so they can continue to serve the healthcare needs of the surrounding communities. Through a Zoom call, Dr. Bhatia shared that he was at St. Francis Medical Center, a 384-bed safety net hospital near Compton, Calif., which Prime Healthcare acquired during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This large community hospital is vital for the health and wellbeing of its surrounding communities. For many years this large safety net hospital was in decline, and it got to the point where they entered bankruptcy,” he said. “Prime Healthcare had a unique opportunity to continue its mission during a time when it was needed most. Despite the extremely challenging circumstances surrounding this hospital acquisition, Prime Healthcare didn’t flinch and was determined to save this hospital.”

Saving a Hospital – and Community

Acquired in August 2020, the partnership is about to recognize its one-year anniversary – and there’s much to celebrate. Under Dr. Bhatia’s leadership, Prime Healthcare has been able to successfully bring the hospital back from the brink of bankruptcy, improving access to care, introducing new service lines and bringing in new equipment and technology.

“Doing what we did, and during a pandemic, was extremely remarkable. Our whole team deserves the credit for turning things around to ensure health equity and care for a very challenging patient population,” Dr. Bhatia said. “There’s a huge magnitude of need in that community, and it’s hard to imagine what would have happened if they lost that hospital.”

While St. Francis Medical Center was one of the hardest hit by the pandemic in southern California, it's been on the road to recovery and began organizing vaccine clinics in early 2021. Although there’s been an uptick in COVID-19 infections recently, Dr. Bhatia believes the early, proactive vaccination efforts have curbed the severity of their spread. 

“This was one of the most challenging facilities we have acquired, and I think it will demonstrate the impact and ability to do this going forward,” he said. “We can do this again because the mission of Prime Healthcare is alive and strong. We can do more for these communities and ensure they have access to high-quality care close to home.”

Prime Healthcare is a physician-founded health system, which means that physicians direct the organization at the corporate and hospital level, which is unique. Dr. Bhatia’s father-in-law, Prem Reddy, MD, founded Prime Healthcare starting with one hospital in 2001. Prime Healthcare has now grown to include 45 acute care hospitals and more than 300 outpatient locations in 14 states.

“We pride ourselves on the acquisition and turnarounds of distressed hospitals,” Dr. Bhatia said. “There has always been an emphasis on quality driving strong clinical outcomes, which is the foundation of our physician-led model.”

Prime Healthcare has hospitals that serve the Inland Empire community, the name given to the San Bernardino and Riverside counties of southern California, which experience significant health disparities compared to California and national benchmarks, including a higher incidence of diabetes, coronary heart disease and chronic liver disease. The Inland Empire also ranks in the lower half of California’s number of physicians per capita.

“It’s difficult because the patients who need care aren’t able to access it,” Dr. Bhatia said. “Education of healthcare providers plays a vital role in fostering growth and hopefully recruiting providers into those communities.”

A Legacy of Giving Back

To address the physician shortage, Dr. Bhatia’s family also founded the California University of Science and Medicine (CUSM) in Colton, Calif., an accredited, licensed medical program aimed at training physicians to address healthcare disparities, disease burden and the regional physician shortage. Dr. Bhatia’s time at the Medical School made him well-versed in the importance of quality medical education and postgraduate training and now he serves as associate professor of clinical internal medicine at CUSM.

“There’s such a tremendous shortage of providers in certain regions, and it’s important to encourage students to serve those regions,” Dr. Bhatia said. “At our medical school, we’re starting to see the value of that continuum from education to eventually recruiting high-quality physicians. We have also started numerous residency programs nationwide with a focus on primary care. We believe this emphasis will better support the underserved communities throughout the country.”

This understanding of the ripple effect that comes from investing in the next generation of physicians is part of what drives him to support current University of Minnesota medical students through scholarships. While Dr. Bhatia has tackled more administrative and leadership roles as his career evolves, he admits he’s missed the direct contact with patients at the bedside.

“What gives me solace is that I’m able to make an impact on a much larger level, so it’s not just a singular patient at the bedside anymore. While I can make an impact at the patient level, I look forward to making a difference on a broader platform: local communities, the state, the nation and perhaps globally,” he said. “While it may not be the day-to-day impact of taking care of a heart attack patient, we have the potential to save a hospital and serve its surrounding communities.”

While he’s making a national impact, Dr. Bhatia’s legacy is still deeply rooted in the education provided at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

“In medicine, there are so many opportunities to make an impact,” Dr. Bhatia said. “At the U, it was all about serving the community and patients. That element is constantly reinforced at the Medical School and allows us to better appreciate and believe in the ‘why’ behind what we are doing. That has certainly stayed with me throughout my career.”