University of Washington School of Public Health

UW SPH Close Up: Close Up January 2013: Chris Johnson

Close Up January 2013: Chris Johnson


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Close Up January 2013: Chris Johnson
Close Up January 2013: Chris Johnson
"Managing these days means that change is part of your day-to-day existence"
Chris Johnson
Director, MHA Programs

Chris Johnson leads the School's Master of Health Administration program, preparing future healthcare leaders for a rapidly changing world. An associate professor of Health Services, Johnson joined SPH in July 2012 from the School of Rural Public Health at Texas A&M.

Q: How did you get interested in healthcare administration?

I'm a Naval Academy graduate, and was in the Marine Corps for seven years as an infantry officer. I served in the first Persian Gulf conflict. When I came back, my wife informed me I needed to find a new occupation (laughs). I enjoyed managing and leading people, and thought about going into business and maybe getting an MBA. But the more I looked at it, that wasn't very satisfying. I had developed a service mentality and realized there was a greater good that I needed to aspire to. I have a relative who happened to be a hospital executive and he suggested health care as an option. I was really interested in how things work. At the end of the day, I decided to get my PhD at Minnesota.

Q: What brought you to the UW from Texas A&M?

When Will Welton decided to step down as MHA program director, they cast a very wide net, but he called me a couple of times and told me what was going on at the UW. I liked the quality of the curriculum and the quality of the faculty, many of whom are internationally known.


  • Austin Ross Chair in Health Administration, UW SPH
  • Chair-elect, Diversity Faculty Forum, Assn. of University Programs in Health Administration
  • Former Research Health Scientist, VA Houston Center
  • Former MHA Program Director, Texas A&M School of Rural Public Health

Q: And what do you think of the students?

Very bright. The MHA program is one of the top in the country, so we get a good selection of applicants. They're all very eager to head off and do great things in a healthcare setting. In the Executive MHA program, we actually have somebody who flies out from Boston for classes.

Q: What are some of the differences you've noticed coming from Texas?

In Washington, different kinds of insurance are probably more prominent than they are in Texas. Hospitals are probably stronger institutions in Texas, and physicians may have a little more political power than they do here. The culture in Texas is pretty conservative across the board, particularly in the way they view access to the healthcare system. There's a much higher uninsured rate than in Washington.

Q: Does it seem much more progressive here?

I went to school in Minnesota, so I'm used to people calling themselves pretty progressive in health care (laughs). But to give the Texas health system a little credit, they're progressive in different areas. There are some really world-class institutions providing health care. Here the emphasis is more on managed care. You have Virginia Mason and Seattle Children's, which are pioneers of "lean management" techniques.

Q: What are the biggest challenges for today's healthcare leaders?

Dealing with the uncertainty related to the country's budget issues. Although people moan and groan about entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, they provide a significant portion of financing for healthcare systems. Any changes will have a huge impact on the bottom line. Under the Affordable Care Act, how will health information exchanges affect costs? Also, do you have enough staff to provide care to all the new people who will have insurance under the ACA? It's an exciting time. There are a lot of challenges for people going into the field.

Q: What skills will our future public health leaders need?

"We're trying to teach our students how to be flexible"


Managing these days means that change is part of your day-to-day existence. Tomorrow you could have a completely different framework that you have to apply to managing your processes. We're trying to teach our students how to be flexible, how to manage change behavior, how to get buy-in from staff when things change rapidly. We give our students good analytic skills and an understanding of the basics of finance, project management and health-information systems.

Q: Any new directions for the MHA program?

We are interested in expanding the University of Washington's brand. We are very happy with the curriculum. We're very happy with the students we're attracting. Now we want to make sure we're getting proper credit from our peer institutions for the quality of the graduates we're putting out. We're doing a lot more outreach to the community. We're also in the process of designing an interdisciplinary center for healthcare management research here at the UW. And we're creating a new PhD track in health systems research.

Q: You've done a lot of research on health disparities and veterans. What's the big issue now?

Chronic mental health conditions will become a tsunami-like problem. The Veterans Administration has spent a lot of time and money figuring out ways to use telemedicine and outpatient clinics to provide services. My personal interest has been in the rural portion of the VA – getting veterans diagnosed and into care. Nine times out of 10, PTSD or combat-related mental health disorders flare up and are diagnosed after the fact. Someone beats up a spouse, or shows up in court after an altercation. We're trying to reduce those kinds of incidents.

Q: You're also working on diversity issues at the national level.

It's less an issue now with the industry than it was in the past. We've got a good pipeline. In most MHA programs, women outnumber men. Those are good things. An area we're severely lacking in: those with PhDs to teach or lead in these kinds of programs. The programs are becoming more diverse, particularly gender-diverse, but the people who teach them don't reflect the student body.

Q: What are your interests outside of work?

My students are always surprised when I say this. I actually paid for part of my graduate school by writing reviews on PC and video games. I was part of the Internet revolution in the sense that I worked for a number of gaming websites back in the 1990s. I'll still pick up a game occasionally. I also like photography and cycling, and was on the Navy cycling team. Other than that, my wife and I like going to plays. That's one big difference about living here. We've never lived in an urban area like Seattle. We have better access to cultural things.