Chief and Physician, Baystate Noble Hospital Emergency Department
He Has Devoted His Career to Improving the Community’s ‘Safety Net’ Net’
Dr. Sundeep Shukla, or ‘Sunny,’ as most everyone calls him, has always felt at home in the emergency room, and he has never really wanted to work anywhere else.
There is a fast pace and decidedly unpredictable nature to the work, he told BusinessWest, noting that each day, and each hour, are different from the one before and the one after. But there are many more reasons why he has chosen to spend his career in this setting, the most important being the ER’s important role, both to the hospital in question and to the community it serves.
“The emergency room is the safety net for all patients,” Shukla explained. “Many patients do not have access to healthcare; we feel that the ER can provide care to anyone who walks through the door, regardless of whether you have insurance, regardless of your background; we’ll see anyone who walks through our doors, and I’m proud to say that.”
But Shukla has done more than work in the ER. Indeed, throughout his career he has devoted time and energy to bringing new efficiencies, better ways of serving patients, and, yes, better ways of doing business to the ER, especially in his current role as chief of the Emergency Department at Baystate Noble Hospital in Westfield.
And he brings what would be considered a somewhat unique background to this assignment. In addition to his undergraduate degree from the University of Missouri and his medical degree from Manpial University in Karnatka, India, Shukla also earned an MBA, with an emphasis in medical management, from UMass Amherst in 2017.
He has used all these degrees, as well as his hands-on experience in the ER, to help improve service, efficiency, and quality, and reduce wait times and what are known as ‘walkouts’ — people who come to the ER but leave before being seen, for whatever reason.
“Having earned that MBA, I was able to reconfigure how I look at things in my brain. Before, it was all medicine-related, but by doing the MBA, I was able to focus on flow and how we could improve certain processes to make an impact on the total visit.”
“Having earned that MBA, I was able to reconfigure how I look at things in my brain,” he told BusnessWest. “Before, it was all medicine-related, but by doing the MBA, I was able to focus on flow and how we could improve certain processes to make an impact on the total visit.
“At Baystate Noble, we do small thinks like put a greeter in the waiting room so when patients come in there’s someone they can talk to, someone they ask questions to; they round, they give patients blankets or small things just to make them feel appreciated,” he went on. “We also strive to push our nurses and docs to really bring patients in when they come into the ER; they don’t sit very long in the waiting room.”
As a result of such initiatives, Noble’s ER has made great strides during Shukla’s tenure. The unit has dramatically increased patient-satisfaction scores, for example, while also gaining certification as a geriatric ED, well-suited to serve the needs of older patients in the community.
The sum of these efforts has earned Shukla the Healthcare Heroes award in the highly competitive category known as Emerging Leader. And he is worthy of that designation, not only for his work in the ER, but also at Baystate Health (he is on the system’s board of directors), in the community (he sits on the nonprofit People’s Institute and also coaches youth soccer and baseball), and even on the ice.
Indeed, Shukla is one of the team physicians for the Springfield Thunderbirds, and was with the team through its exciting run to the Calder Cup finals last season.
He described that work as fun and rewarding — adjectives he would apply to every aspect of his work in medicine and administration.
Degrees of Improvement
Shukla was born in England and came to this country with his family in 1980. Early on, he said, his father, a professor of Pharmacology at the University of Missouri, and mother, a school teacher, impressed upon him the importance of not only education, but service to the community.
He achieved both while serving as a volunteer at the University of Missouri Hospital and Clinics while in junior high school, work he described as a learning experience on many levels.
“During the summer, I went there every Tuesday and Wednesday and spent eight hours each day volunteering in different parts of the hospital,” he recalled. “It was then that I realized that this was my true calling because I really wanted to help people and really wanted to make a difference.”
After graduating from medical school, he became a resident at Baystate Medical Center with a focus initially on general surgery. But at the advice of some friends who implored him to consider emergency medicine because he seemed a natural for that kind of work, his career outlook began to shift.
“I did some shadowing, I did some shifts in the ER, and eventually I went through the process of applying to be an ER resident,” he said, adding that he quickly fell in love with that setting — again, not just because of the fast pace and each-day-is-different aspect of the work.
“Not everyone has access to healthcare, and I’m a big proponent of health equity because I feel everyone should have the same access to healthcare as your next-door neighbor,” said Shukla, who, before coming to Noble, served as associate medical director in the Emergency Department at Baystate Franklin Medical Center. “When patients some come to my ER, I treat them with respect, I treat them exactly how I’d want to treat my family members, and I try to everything I can to make sure their health is better when they leave the ER.”
Elaborating, he said many people are coming to the ER on the worst day of their life, whether they’re having a stroke, a heart attack, or other medical problem, and it is the job of the ER doctor to “step up and help those patients.”
“It’s our goal to help lift them up and help them feel better,” he went on. “And in terms of mindset, you have to be able to function on the go and multi-task many different things, because there so many problems that are detail-oriented: the lab or CT scan, whether you have to stitch someone up, give different medications … there are all these processes you have to follow, and with every visit, there’s quality involved, and you have to meet certain metrics.”
Despite the fast pace and the constant flow of new patients, Shukla said he makes it a priority to truly connect with his patients.
“I always try to make a connection with my patients because, if I’m able to make that connection, whether it’s with a sports team that they like or a restaurant that they enjoy or some type of hobby they like, I feel like we can relate much better, and they can trust me. They just met me just a few minutes ago, so it’s really important that I build a trust and a relationship with them so that when I give them advice or we have what’s called ‘shared decision making,’ we can come with a good plan together. That’s why I’ll always spend the extra minute just to know them a little better.”
“They just met me just a few minutes ago, so it’s really important that I build a trust and a relationship with them so that when I give them advice or we have what’s called ‘shared decision making,’ we can come with a good plan together. That’s why I’ll always spend the extra minute just to know them a little better.”
Shukla currently works at all the hospitals in the Baystate system — Baystate Medical Center, Baystate Wing, and Baystate Noble — and became chief of the ER at Noble in March 2020, just as the pandemic was reaching Western Mass.
In each setting, and especially at Noble, he has been consumed with not only treating patients and making those important connections, but improving the overall experience.
“We try to look at the entire process — from when a patient walks into the waiting room all the way to when they go home,” he explained, adding that little things, such as having a greeter in the ER and having nurses, doctors, and other care providers working collaboratively so that patients don’t have to repeat their history and answer the same questions over and over again, often add up to big improvements in service, patient-satisfaction ratings, and statistics such as those concerning walkouts.
“The most dreaded word that most people see in emergency medicine is walkouts, which is basically a person who registered but wasn’t actually seen,” Shukla said. “That’s a problem throughout the United States, so we work really hard in the Baystate Health system to bring those numbers down. Even one patient walking out troubles us.”
Meanwhile, throughout his career, and even more so during COVID, he has put considerable emphasis on outreach and educating the community, with the goal of helping people make better, smarter choices about their health and well-being.
Indeed, he’s a frequent guest on area radio stations and has penned articles for several media outlets, all with the goal of creating a better-informed community.
“If people are educated, they can take care if their health better,” he said, adding that such efforts took on greater importance during the height of the pandemic, when the public had more questions — and needed more answers — and trust was a huge factor.
“We had a lot of COVID issues to contend with, but we also had to build up trust in the community,” he said, “because a lot of people were concerned about the ways people were contracting COVID, how they would protect themselves, the vaccines … there were many thongs we had to educate people on, and we did a lot of outreach for that.”
ERing on the Side of Caution
Overall, Shukla, as chief of the ER, assumes a role that blends medicine with administration, and, with his background and MBA training, he can bring a unique perspective to the table.
“Not many physicians go back and get a degree like an MBA; most of us go to school for a very long time as physicians, so not a lot of us go back,” he explained, adding that he enjoys both sides of the equation — business and especially medicine.
“It’s important for me to be well-rounded and understand how things are run,” he said, adding that he took a marketing class in 10th grade and since then has always been fascinated by business and management. “I really enjoy business, and so there’s the budget/financial aspect that I really like in administration, because I feel I can look at spreadsheets and Excel sheets in a different way than I did a few years ago before I earned my MBA.
“I understand the budget and the finances a lot more than I used to,” he went on, “and also how I can cut costs and improve efficiency in the ER, whether it’s flow in the ER or how I can reduce the cost of staffing or increase staffing to help show a return on investment.”
Going all the way back to when he was volunteering at the University of Missouri Hospital as a junior-high student, Sunny Shulka has known that he was destined to be in a profession — and a place — where he could help people.
That profession turned out to be healthcare, and the place is the ER, or the safety net, as he called it, which is now more his home.
For his efforts to continually improve that safety net, make it stronger, more welcoming, more comfortable, and better able to serve all those who come through its doors, Shukla is certainly an emerging leader, and truly a Healthcare Hero.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]