Blog Post

Meet ECG Principal Keith Graff

Graff Web

Keith Graff is a principal in our Chicago office and a leader in the Academic Healthcare Division. Take a few minutes to get to know him and learn about his passion for healthcare research.

Q: How did you get into healthcare management consulting?

A: Early in my consulting career someone asked me, “Do you want to go to Boston?” And I said, “Sure.” Didn’t ask what the client was, didn’t ask for information. I just knew that as a consultant, I should be traveling. That project ended up being the major merger that created Boston Medical Center, back in 1997.

The partner in charge took me under his wing. So my background is a little different because I focused, really, in the academic medicine arena, including quite a bit of nonhealthcare-related higher education consulting. The partner ran what was at that point a higher education practice, and he needed to do projects throughout the country.

I moved on to join the higher education practice at KPMG and helped create the academic medical center practice. I continued working in the academic health arena at PwC and now here at ECG.

Q: What is the biggest challenge in academic healthcare facing those organizations today?

A: Let’s see; first off, there’s cost. Then there’s cost. And then there’s also revenue diversification, which is another view of margin management. And then there’s identity management, not in the IT sense, but in figuring out what the organization wants to be 5, 10, 25 years from now. Frankly, in academic medicine as a whole, everyone recognizes the brand of academic medicine as being very valuable.

When I moved to Chicago, I knew I was going to be a patient of either the University of Chicago Medical Center or Northwestern Medicine. I figured if something bad happened to me, I wanted to go to a place where they had lead researchers to help support whatever clinical care I needed. In general, the public understands that, but academic medicine is also very expensive, and organizations are facing significant cost pressure from payers. There’s been a lot of cost take-out initiatives throughout the country. With that, of course, comes revenue and expansion opportunities.

Identity management leads organizations to try to figure out what they want to be and why they’re growing. Why are you exploring ambulatory expansion? Why are you acquiring a hospital? Are you really going to compete with health systems? Or should you focus on what you are good at, such as tertiary/quaternary care? You see that a lot, especially in the larger regions, where you have a lot more players, when it comes to the health systems. You need the referral networks. As they build out their networks, academic health systems struggle with what that identity is.

Q: What is the most interesting challenge that you’ve faced as a consultant?

A: Twice in my career, I served in interim leadership positions at very large organizations. Both of those times, I was at a junior level in my career. I was 26 the first time and 30 the next. I had to adapt to those organizations’ decision-making processes. I couldn’t just throw out an idea and move forward with it. I was securing buy-in and working to get things implemented and executed.

Q: Is there a particularly rewarding project that you’ve worked on?

A: I worked with a large health system to set up an office arm that served three purposes. One was to commercialize the research that the health system was working through. The second was to identify and create business development opportunities, as well as brand the organization and expand its presence in the community. The third was economic development—tapping into that community piece and having it serve as the anchor for what became a biotech hub in that region. We set that up from scratch, including identifying straw model opportunities to take equity positions in some of the local biotech start-ups in the market and to position and mentor those organizations with the physician leadership of the health system.

I thought that was a fun, cool project, and it had a really nice result. The health system ended up taking equity in some of those entities. Both of those start-ups were fantastic. One was a new biomarker organization, and the other was related to a new form of IVF.

Q: What is the best part of your workday?

A: The best part of my workday is when I see the team come together and create a deliverable, even an interim deliverable, that really nails what the client’s been expecting and has that wow factor. Seeing how they’re able to translate the evolution of the project into a document that is logical and easy to follow but really shows the direction a client should take in the long run—I see that pretty much every day with the teams I’m working with right now.

Q: What are the publications you read to keep up to date on healthcare or management issues?

A: Harvard Business Review, New York Times, Wall Street Journal. Locally, Crain’s. Pretty much every newsletter out there, from FierceHealthcare to Becker’s Hospital Review to Modern Healthcare, hfma, etc. I try to stay on top of the news, and I try to allocate about an hour each day, either early in the morning or later at night, just reading, catching up, and staying current.

Q: Are there research or academic-specific publications that you gravitate toward?

A: There are two major associations that produce great newsletters. One is the National Council of University Research Administrators; it puts out a lot of information on research operations. The Society of Research Administrators does as well. When it comes to the research itself, I stay on top of Science magazine and JAMA.

Q: What do you do outside the office?

A: I am an avid tennis player, and I serve on the board of the largest free clinic in the country. But most importantly, I spend as much time with my two-year-old as I can.

Q: Anything that we didn’t cover that you would love to be in there?

A: I guess just a general view that I have; it goes back to the topic of identity. The reason I chose academic medicine was because, although I’m passionate about clinical outcomes and that component, I had a passion for the translation of research. The education aspect and research rotations are big parts of that. Serving the tripartite mission—and really covering all three components—is a personal passion of mine. But even more so, it is working with our clients to make sure they continue to incentivize and understand the value of all three parts of that mission that really keeps me doing this every day.