After an evening working out at LA Fitness, Robert Palinkas was walking back to his gym locker when a flurry of motion caught his eye. A group of people had gathered around a man lying horizontal on the ground. From the panicked looks on their faces, Palinkas could tell that something was wrong. They said, ‘We need a doctor,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’ve got that.’ That’s my passion - for medical care.”
It’s a fitting attitude for Northwestern’s new Executive Director of Health Service. Previously serving as the director of Health Services at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Palinkas came to Northwestern in January of 2017 with almost sixteen years of experience in college health services. Before that, Dr.
Palinkas was a medical administrator, but was drawn to college health because of a number of factors. “There is no school that prepares one for college health,” Dr. Palinkas laughed. “But I was attracted to college health because number one, it’s a lot of fun to work with a younger population. It’s a very intelligent population, so it’s always fun to have that kind of interaction with your patients.” He added, “I also have an interest in infectious diseases, and that’s a strong component of public health that you have to consider when you’re running a health services.”
Despite his personal interest, Dr. Palinkas’ passion has always focused on his patients, and his work as an administrator is another way to consider the impact of campus public health on individual patients. His role as executive director requires attention to all areas of health services, not just patient services.
Northwestern’s health services are a component of Student Affairs, and while it does a bit of research, their main function in Student Affairs is direct patient care. “We have to be careful to spend nearly all of our time on patient care,” Dr. Palinkas said. “While Northwestern as a large entity is heavily into research, that’s the academic side. We at Student Affairs are more on the supportive side, so our main mission is student care. We currently have a number of projects, but research won’t be a big focus of mine.”
Meetings with financial advisors, nurses, Health Promotion and Wellness representatives, and insurance stakeholders all keep Dr. Palinkas busy throughout the day. These play a crucial part in tailoring Northwestern’s health service to what students need. Northwestern’s medical practices need to fit with the insurance plan, and that requires meetings looking ahead to the next plan.
Still, Dr. Palinkas has no intention of relinquishing the relationship between patients and doctors. Right now, Dr. Palinkas is working on developing what’s called a Student Health Advisory Committee (SHAC). SHAC is a group of students and Health Services administrators who discuss student concerns and needs in regards to Northwestern’s Health Services as well as suggestions for improvement. Dr. Palinkas will spend some time working on the patient care side to get more familiar with the processes and be able to take on some of the electronic health record methods for providing health care. “I think part of it is just going to be interaction with the individual patients that might come here,” Dr. Palinkas explained. “The other part is interaction with groups of students like SHAC.”
These long-term plans will directly affect students as Dr. Palinkas is also looking into expanding insurance plans for students. “We want to grow the health service, make sure that, if we can, we acquire a bigger portfolio of benefits for students,” he said. “We’re looking at travel consultation and other things that can be of value to the campus as it starts taking on a stronger global mission. More people need medical focus here, and that’ll probably be my main thrust.” Luckily, doing that is what Dr. Palinkas loves. “How do you devise quality systems for good medical care?” Dr. Palinkas asked cheerfully. “Finding the answer to that - that’s what gets me going every day.”