Health Systems Administration Alumna Serves as a Leader at NIH Clinical Center

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August 17, 2020 – Ila Anita Flannigan (G’09), who received her master’s degree in health systems administration at Georgetown, is now the deputy executive officer of the Clinical Center at the National Institutes of Health. Flannigan, a fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives (FACHE), has served in health systems administrative roles around the country and is focused on racial justice and health equity.

Ila Anita Flannigan poses for a formal photograph in business attire in a clinical setting hallway
Ila Anita Flannigan

Question: Tell us about your leadership role at the NIH Clinical Center.

Flannigan: I began serving as the deputy executive officer of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)’s Clinical Research Center (CC) in December 2019. The Office of the Executive Officer (OEO), for which I’m deputy, is responsible for all of the administrative operations of the CC. This involves leading, coordinating and conducting a wide range of administrative management and planning activities by providing direction and support to CC non-clinical departments including the offices of administrative management, human resources management, workforce development, space management, nutrition, social work, materials management and environmental services, hospital/facility engineering services, hospitality services, patient support, spiritual care, our lodge for patient families and numerous other CC wide administrative functions and projects. 

My office also provides management analysis of administrative and programmatic systems and provides guidance and leadership for systems improvements with our other NIH Institutes and Centers (IC). My office also ensures collaboration with our clinical operations counterparts to effectively support the goals and objectives of the CC and research missions of the NIH. (Read Flannigan’s biography.

Question: How has COVID-19 affected your and the center’s work?

Flannigan: I jokingly always say, I sure picked one heck of a time to start working for NIH; however, I couldn’t have asked for a better organization to be a part of during these challenging times. 

Of course, as a hospital we are dealing with what many others across the nation are, such as significant reductions to census, elective procedures, and overall physical presence in the CC and on the NIH campus, which is operating about a 30 percent capacity.

Additionally, we’ve had many operational disruptions including human resource, supply, and bureaucratic challenges to overcome, especially as a federal agency. We have both patients and providers/researchers from all over the world and the country that have been hit hard by travel restrictions and other limitations. Many of our training programs and the numerous hands-on training opportunities we normally offer have been halted or greatly reduced. There has also been a significant impact on the ability to conduct non-COVID related research.

From a more positive perspective, NIH has had a pretty big role in the COVID-19 pandemic operations for the United States, including the incredible Dr. Anthony Fauci’s leadership as one of our nation’s top infectious disease experts and our responsibilities related to the development of vaccines, treatments, and numerous other COVID-19- related research protocols.

I have felt very lucky to be a part of an organization and working for a CEO that have taken this pandemic very seriously since day one to ensure effective management and the safest possible operations and environment. 

For example, we enacted emergency operations (including multiple daily multidisciplinary ops meetings), established a dedicated COVID-19 ward, and required things like 100 percent surgical masking and health screenings before entering the building, and limiting all visitors before we had even had our first case. These proactive and highly effective operational activities have only continued. We also reallocated a significant amount of resources and fast tracked many innovations and technological solutions we previously hadn’t considered or saw as too challenging to be implemented anytime soon. Some of these developments include increased telehealth, virtual waiting rooms, and electronic document management. We will be able to benefit from many of these efforts long after we are no longer in pandemic operations mode.  

For me personally, though the circumstances are tragic, it has been amazing serving in a leadership role on such an effective team and organization during such an unprecedented health care crisis. This is incomparable on-the-job training in emergency management and rapid systems improvement. Overall, it has been an invaluable learning experience and opportunity for growth, both organizationally and professionally. 

Question: What role does the clinical center fill on the NIH campus for our readers who might not know?

Flannigan: It’s actually pretty common for people not to realize that NIH has its own hospital. NIH is actually composed of 27 institutes and centers (IC). As one of the 27 ICs, the NIH Clinical Center, also known as the “House of Hope,” is the nation’s largest hospital devoted entirely to clinical research. Through clinical research, clinician-investigators are able to then translate laboratory discoveries into better treatments, therapies, and interventions to improve the nation’s health. However, our patients and researchers come from all over the world.

The NIH CC provides all medical and patient support services for patients participating in human subjects’ research protocols. In addition to the primary role of supporting IC clinical research and patient care, CC staff conducts both collaborative and independent research and supports a variety of training programs. The NIH CC supports the NIH intramural clinical research program hosting over 100,000 outpatient visits and 6,600 inpatient admissions a year.  

Physically, the CC is comprised of two main buildings in Bethesda, Maryland. The original Warren Grant Magnuson Clinical Center is 14 stories and 2.5 million square feet with more than 5,000 rooms, nine miles of corridor, 15 outpatient clinics and a Department of Laboratory Medicine housed in a space the size of a football field. The 870,000-square-foot Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center has 200 inpatient beds and 93 day-hospital stations. (Read more about the Clinical Center.

Question: What have been some of your leadership roles since Georgetown?

Flannigan: Since my days at Georgetown, I have always sought out career opportunities that focus on unique and underserved populations, which is reflected in the various organizations I have been a part of. 

I began a career serving our nation’s veterans as a health care administration fellow for the Department of Veteran Affairs Healthcare Administration (VA/VHA) in 2009. Proven dedication and leadership to the role and VA mission provided me the opportunity to advance quickly in numerous leadership capacities, including serving as a health systems specialist (HSS) for the San Diego VA hospital CEO’s office and community-based outpatient clinics, as well as the administrative director of primary care services at the Houston VA hospital, the second largest VA in the nation. 

I’ve also served as a HSS and high level staffer for the VHA secretary’s office and as the national director of business operations for the VA Homeless Program Office before moving into my last VA position as the administrative director of the Central Office of Nursing Services, which provides national oversight for the VA’s over 105,000 nursing personnel. 

I’m also very active and have served in a variety of leadership and committee roles as part of professional organizations such as the National Association of Health Service Executives (NAHSE) and American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE), of which I’m a fellow.

Question: How do you feel the Georgetown degree prepared you for your career?

Flannigan: I was part of one of the original cohorts so the program has changed a lot since I was there; however, for me the great thing about Georgetown was that there was a lot of support and opportunity to do things beyond just the coursework to develop as a health care leader. 

Georgetown not only introduced me to ACHE and NAHSE, but supported my student membership and participation in conferences and case competitions, etc. We had a great mentorship program that allowed me to be paired with a top health care leaders in the DC community. We also had many extracurricular offerings, such as hospital tours, which allowed me to get invaluable behind the scenes understanding of hospital operations. 

I also was able to secure a residency after meeting the Howard University Hospital (HUH) CEO during one of those tours, and Georgetown was very flexible by permitting me to have HUH be my official residency site despite it not being previously used/offered. These sorts of things made me feel the most prepared, maybe even more so than the formal curriculum.  

Furthermore, the toughest part of any job or leadership role I’ve had is dealing with and managing people. At Georgetown, we did a tremendous amount of group and team work, which at the time I thought annoying, but in hindsight it was one of the best learning experiences in preparing me for navigating the various people and work ethics I’ve encountered in the working world. Along those same lines, the invaluable relationships I developed with my instructors, program directors, and classmates have continued to serve my career growth and professional network. 

Also, a lot of people don’t like to admit this but the Georgetown name and reputation also has helped to open doors and make me more competitive for career growth and professional opportunities. 

Question: What are some issues in health care you hope to address through your professional career?

Flannigan: As I mentioned previously I have always sought out opportunities to serve disenfranchised communities. This is reflected by my career and community service record so for me the top issue of focus is, and continues to be, addressing racial and other health disparities in this country including ethnicity, socioeconomic status, age, gender, disability status, and sexual identity. The current events, including the reignited civil rights movement and the global health crisis, have only further highlighted how deep and wide the divide is when it comes to health care access and treatment thereafter, particularly related to race. As the US population continues to diversify, this has to be a top priority for both providers and administrators. Being at NIH has lent itself very well to providing me opportunity to be a part of real solutions to address the disparities. We have numerous research protocols at all of our ICs and an entire IC dedicated to these exact issues; the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, which leads scientific research to improve minority health and eliminate health disparities. Learn more about NIMHD.