A Steady Climb: Karen Murphy, Ph.D. ’91

The secretary of health of Pennsylvania gets down to the nitty-gritty.

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Karen Murphy, Ph.D. ’91 views her career as a steady climb; it was not a life path chosen because of an epiphany, or plotted by serendipity. She won’t tell you that an unforeseen turn of events led her to her position as secretary of health of Pennsylvania. She had focus. She toiled. She earned degree after degree and accepted promotion after promotion, “as anyone would,” she said. 

She moved fluidly from clinical work to administrative positions in the private, then public sector. If there is a secret (or two) to her success it’s a “lifelong love of learning” and a “commitment to grow and change.”

“There’s always a tremendous amount to learn,” said Secretary Murphy, who admits that in her new job with the Department of Health, to which she was confirmed in May, she “learns every day.” She has always welcomed a challenge, sought it, really, and her first several months in this position has been no different.

“The goal of the Department of Health is to improve the health of all Pennsylvanians. That’s a big job,” she said, mentioning some of the most urgent public health issues in the state, such as heroin and prescription drug abuse. Most recently, she helped establish a new position in the Department of Health, the deputy secretary of health care innovation. She oversees a staff of about 1,400 in Harrisburg, coming home to Clarks Summit on weekends.

Learning to Lead

After graduating from Dunmore High School, she attended the Scranton State Hospital School of Nursing to become a registered nurse. She then worked in the intensive care unit at Moses Taylor Hospital, Scranton, for 10 years before she enrolled at The University of Scranton as a nontraditional student, at what was then Dexter Hanley College, for her liberal studies degree with a concentration in business. At the time, she had two young children and was still working full-time.

“Sure, it was challenging,” she said, of handling the pressures of school, a job and family during those years. “But there were students who were single mothers with full-time jobs, or facing other obstacles. I was so impressed with them. If you have a goal, I learned, you make it work.”

“The University of Scranton provided me with a foundation for my continuing education,” she said.

Secretary Murphy had a clear goal before she even matriculated at the University — to get a Ph.D. in business. She knew she had a long road ahead of her. After receiving a bachelor of science from Scranton, she went on to obtain an MBA from Marywood University and then a Ph.D. in business with a concentration in risk insurance and health care management from Temple University’s Fox School of Business.

In the meantime, at Moses Taylor, she served in various roles in health care administration. As founder and CEO of Physicians Health Alliance, she led an integrated medical group practice within Moses Taylor Health Care System. In 2009 she became president and CEO of the entire health care system, managing a staff about the same size as the Department of Health.

“She’s the hardest worker I’ve ever met and a true leader,” said Mary Sewatsky, M.D., chief medial officer and patient safety and quality officer at Moses Taylor. “She’s visionary; she’s intelligent, yes, but she also gets right down to the nitty-gritty with you.”

Dr. Murphy inspired Dr. Sewatsky to learn more about patient safety a decade ago, before it was a “hot topic” in hospitals throughout the country. Her encouragement helped what Dr. Sewatsky called “this little community hospital” to become well established in patient safety, leading to fewer patient falls,for example.

“In her role as CEO, she was always looking ahead. All of us on the board [of Moses Taylor] agree: she’s a mentor and motivator,” said Dr. Sewatsky, who mentioned how much Murphy accomplished at Moses Taylor (working 60 to 80 hour work weeks) while she was still at Temple. “I just don’t know how she did it all.”

Karen Murphy, Ph.D. ’91
Karen Murphy, Ph.D. ’91

Relying on Experience

Today, Secretary Murphy relies on her leadership experience in the private sector on a daily basis.

“In my 35 years at Moses Taylor, I worked with people who cared about community and taking care of patients,” she said. “This was an atmosphere where people were dedicated and committed to their work. I take those values with me and will use them in the public sector. Hopefully we will be able to effect policy that is supportive of those values.”

She moved from the private to public sector in 2012 (still keeping a home base in Clarks Summit) when she became director of the State Innovation Model Initiative, within the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) in Baltimore as part of the Affordable Care Act. “Being able to work on the federal level was incredible,” she said

When Gov. Tom Wolf nominated Dr. Murphy to his cabinet in January, he commended her work with CMMI: “Over the last two years, Dr. Murphy has run a $900 million federal program designed to accelerate health care innovation across the country. Dr. Murphy will apply the experience she has gained in the public and private sectors to her role leading Pennsylvania’s Department of Health and health care transformation across the commonwealth.”

She was thrilled to be nominated, but, to her, this move seemed like a natural progression in her career. “This was a terrific opportunity to take what I had learned at CMMI and to be able to work in my home state,” she said.

She and her team at the Department of Health work across government agencies to develop strategies and address public health issues through prevention and treatment. They “assure the safe delivery of quality health care for all commonwealth citizens.”

“We have many, many high quality delivery systems and health care providers. Our goal is to leverage what’s going on across the entire state,” said Secretary Murphy.

To “improve the health of communities,” in Pennsylvania is a challenge, but rest assured, Secretary Murphy is on the job.

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