President’s Update: August 2021

Vaccine Development Tells a Story of Perseverance and Sacrifice

Wendy Nickel

August 27, 2021

The topic of immunizations seems to open a Pandora’s box of emotions these days. Regardless of which side you stand on in the immunization debate, the development of vaccines has a truly fascinating history. In honor of National Immunization Awareness Month, I spent a little time learning about the history of vaccines and thought I’d share some of my findings. 

Although Dr. Edward Jenner is credited with performing the first smallpox vaccination in 1796, the antecedent to vaccination was variolation, a process that involved injecting a small amount of infectious material from smallpox postules under the skin. Those injected with smallpox material had a much lower mortality rate (1 in 50) compared to those who were not (3 in 10).  The subcutaneous method of variolation dates back to around 1000 CE and was introduced in India. This practice became commonplace in Europe throughout the 1700s.  However, in the late 1700s, Jenner and his colleagues noticed that people who had been infected with cowpox (usually people who worked on farms) didn’t get smallpox. This discovery ultimately led to the smallpox vaccine.  Smallpox was eradicated in 1977 and now only exists in two heavily secured laboratories in the US and Russia. The word “vaccine” comes from the Latin word “vacca” – meaning cow.

Another important chapter in vaccination history occurred in the 1950s when Henrietta Lacks, a black tobacco farmer, died at the age of 31 from an aggressive cervical cancer. At the time, it was common practice for physicians to collect human cells for research, without consent. Lacks’ cells had the ability to replicate indefinitely, while normal human cells are able to replicate on average around 50 times. This indefinite replication of cells allowed researchers to grow and study the cells in laboratory settings.  Researchers from all over the world have used this cell line (now knowns as HeLa cells) to further their research. The cells have contributed to many important scientific breakthroughs, including the development of the polio vaccine and the study of the human papillomavirus, leading to today’s widely available HPV vaccine.

While the scientific breakthroughs attributed to the HeLa cells are remarkable and many greatly profited from new discoveries, Lacks and her family never benefited from these contributions.  Her family was not aware that her cells had been in wide use in research until the 1970s (nearly two decades after her death).  This injustice has led to a reckoning of sorts in research and healthcare communities. Informed consent is now required for those who donate tissue and cellular materials for research. Additionally, Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) examine every research study involving human participants before it is approved. As for Henrietta Lacks, her legacy lives on and is being honored by Johns Hopkins, the institution where she received treatment. Several scholarships and symposia have been named in her honor and a new building on the Johns Hopkins campus will bear her name. A book and movie also were developed, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” and share details of her legacy.

Immunization history tells a fascinating story of adaptation, innovation, and ethical considerations. Undoubtedly, the development of the COVID vaccines will offer another milestone chapter in the history of immunizations. How fortunate we are today that humans had the fortitude to continue developing a vaccine that was most effective for smallpox eradication. And we owe a debt of gratitude to Henrietta Lacks and her family for their many contributions to science, as well as understanding ethical considerations associated with medical care and research. As someone who desperately wants to protect my loved ones and community and for my children to be able to safely return to school, I am grateful for the perseverance and sacrifices of those who have contributed to vaccine development.

Staff Profile: A Conversation with Kaynaat Syed

August 26, 2021

Kaynaat Syed recently celebrated her 2nd anniversary with HCIF. She is a Project Manager for many of our hallmark clinical improvement programs, including the Pennsylvania Urologic Regional Collaborative (PURC). Additionally, Kaynaat serves on many of our internal committees including Anti-Racism and Marketing and Communications. The HCIF team enjoys when her office mate-at-home, Ayla, (Kaynaat’s one year old daughter) vocally contributes to our virtual meetings. Get to know Kaynaat better in this month’s staff profile.

1.) Describe your role at HCIF:

I am a Project Manager on the Clinical Improvement Team and have been in this role for two years. I oversee the PURC program and provide support to a few other clinical improvement programs, including Pennsylvania-New Jersey Surgical Opioid Stewardship (PENNJ SOS), Partnership for Patient Care (PPC), and a 2-year initiative with HAP which recently ended called the Opioid Learning Action Network (OLAN). As a project manager, I am responsible for planning, organizing, and directing project tasks and ensuring project deliverables are met on time. A lot of my time is spent on PURC, for which I oversee the clinical data registry, plan for collaborative meetings, manage working groups, and complete data requests for participating practices.

2.) How did you learn about HCIF and what prompted you to start working here?

I learned about HCIF after I completed my graduate degree in Healthcare Administration and was ready to make a career move. I was interested in continuing working in the nonprofit space and learned about this particular role through my participation in the American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE). I was amazed at all the work HCIF does at the local and state-level in bringing together various health care stakeholders with the purpose of advancing quality of care.

3.) What is your proudest accomplishment during your time at HCIF?

I would say that I am most proud of the Opioid Learning Action Network (OLAN) project that I supported from 2019-2021. This two-year initiative brought together over 100 hospitals and health systems across Pennsylvania to assess evidence-based practices for addressing opioid use disorder.  There were a significant number of deliverables for this project and a lot of planning and execution behind each one. I am very proud of the hard work put into this project by myself and my team members and more than anything, appreciate the knowledge I have gained through this work. Looking back, I am amazed at the number of clinicians, patients, partners, and community members that we connected with and brought together to address the opioid epidemic.

4.) What excites you most about your position at HCIF?

The most exciting thing about my position is that no day is like the other. Each day I get to learn something new, whether it be something related to my projects or something I learn from the super smart individuals I get to call my colleagues. Working as part of a small team, there is always an opportunity to get involved in various other projects that serve diverse populations, which keeps my work exciting and interesting. Recently, I joined the population health team in working on a podcast series as part of the PENNJ SOS project. This is something I have very little experience with, but am excited to take on! 

5.) What is one of the most important things you have learned while working at HCIF?

One of the most important things I have learned is the value of collaboration-both at the organizational level and in working with different healthcare professions. People’s skill sets are very specialized, and when a group of individuals come together and contribute their expertise for the benefit of a shared objective, it helps with problem-solving and improves efficiency. Specifically in patient safety and quality, collaboration amongst multi-disciplinary teams leads to improved patient care and outcomes. HCIF’s mission is largely based on this type of collaboration and something that I have appreciated during my time here.

6.) What is a quote that inspires you in your work?

“Your talent determines what you can do. Your motivation determines how much you’re willing to do. Your attitude determines how well you do it.” —Lou Holtz

7.) What motivates you both personally and professionally?

On a personal level, happiness is my motivator. I choose things that make me happy, whether that’s food, good company, or Fall weather. On a more professional level, things that motivate me include working well as part of a team, overcoming challenges, learning new things, and coming up with creative ideas to improve something.

8.) What are your interests outside of work?

Outside of work, I enjoy spending time with my husband, my 16-month old daughter, and our dog, Fitz. I also enjoy true-crime podcasts and documentaries, although most of my time is spent chasing a very active toddler!

President’s Update: July 2021

Wendy Nickel

July 28, 2021

Like many people across the world right now, I am captivated by the Olympic games. What is it about this event that is so compelling, that seems to suck people in, and dominate our collective psyche for two weeks every few years?  For me, it’s connecting to the human stories of the games and recognizing that people make so many sacrifices to achieve the highest pinnacle of competition by participating in the Olympics. Many of the competitors are people you’ve never heard of, and may never hear of again, but they continue to work tirelessly to achieve their Olympic dreams every day. Sometimes there is heartbreak, such as Simone Biles’ withdrawal from the competition, and sometimes there is incredible victory, such as Katie Ledecky’s amazing swimming performance.

As I thought about this month’s column, it occurred to me that HCIF and our partners face our own Olympics of sorts on a much more immediate basis. There are the everyday heroes who we may never be able to name who rise above day in and day out to meet the needs of our patients. There are the community partners who work to provide resources for their vulnerable clients and communities. There are the hospitals and healthcare stakeholders who band together to address public health crises, such as COVID. While medals may not be doled out for this work, we are driven by our own Olympic goal of supporting the well-being of all Americans through the provision of high-quality, equitable, and transformative healthcare.

HCIF is currently re-visiting goals we formulated during our last fiscal year and determining our goals for this fiscal year. In collaboration with our partners and colleagues, we achieved many programmatic victories during FY21. These include authentic engagement of community members in listening sessions to understand needs related to blood pressure management; reducing the biopsy complication rate for men with prostate cancer; and identifying individuals at high-risk for colorectal cancer. We also achieved organizational victories, such as developing partnerships with new stakeholders important to our mission, bringing on new Board members, addressing racism and health equity, and achieving wider exposure to our work.  However, this work doesn’t come without heartbreak and there were goals we were not able to achieve, primarily due to COVID-related factors and unanticipated challenges.  But this is all a part of our own Olympic story and recognizing that we’ll be back next year trying to overcome challenges to achieve metaphorical medals.

As we look towards Olympic gold in fiscal year 2022, our goals will be to continue providing high quality programming and support, while developing plans to expand our organizational focus, priorities, and impact.  We will fully launch our exciting new health equity data strategy program, complete the next regional community health needs assessment, and celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Partnership for Patient Care program. We will also continue to strive for equitable care for all and develop new organizational strategies to achieve this goal.

Thank you to our staff, Board members, partners, funders and other stakeholders for continuing to support our Olympic dreams.

HCIF is Seeking a Director of Clinical Improvement

July 28, 2021

The Health Care Improvement Foundation (HCIF) is seeking a Director of Clinical Improvement.  This position is responsible for designing, delivering and evaluating certain HCIF clinical and quality improvement programs under the supervision of the Vice President of Clinical Improvement and in collaboration with HCIF’s clinical advisors, partners and other stakeholders.  This role provides support for HCIF’s clinical project portfolio and other HCIF programs as requested. 

Candidates for consideration must have a MSN or Master’s in a health-related field.  Individuals must have at least five years of healthcare experience in quality and patient safety in a hospital or other healthcare setting and have served in a supervisory role. Must have experience in project management and multi-organizational initiatives involving patients, physicians, and other disciplines resulting in improved healthcare outcomes. Responsible for planning, implementing and evaluating collaborative events and activities and ensuring the timely completion of all program deliverables and milestones.  Must be able to apply quality improvement methodologies and have a working knowledge of clinical data registries, survey design and analysis tools, graphic presentation and infographic platforms, and project management tools.  Must possess experience in grant writing, contracts, budgeting and business development. As an organizational senior leader, candidate will be expected to contribute to strategic discussions. Successful candidate will be detail-oriented and be able to analyze, summarize and present clinical and community health data.  In addition, must possess excellent facilitation, written, and verbal communication and presentation skills.  

In support of our commitment to diversity, HCIF welcomes a diverse candidate pool.  EEO Employer F/M/veterans/individuals with disabilities are encouraged to apply.

Click here to view the full job description. To apply, please send your resume to

Founded in 1980, the Philadelphia-based Health Care Improvement Foundation (HCIF) ( is an independent nonprofit organization that drives high-value health care through stakeholder collaboration and targeted quality improvement initiatives.  We are dedicated to the vision of a responsive, coordinated health care delivery system that fulfills the needs of patients and consumers, and achieves better health.  HCIF’s approach engages multi-stakeholder resources to implement solutions that no market participant could achieve individually.  Since its inception, HCIF has been recognized as an outstanding example of how advances in quality care can be achieved through large-scale collaboration. 

The Board of Directors is composed of leaders representing health systems, health payers, the business community, and the public health sector; plus two consumer representatives.  HCIF maintains a staff of eleven (11) professionals and is supported by contributions from hospitals and health systems, government grants, contracts, partnerships with corporate sources and payers, and donations from foundations and individual donors.

Whitehead Internship Reflection

Katie Hughes, Summer Healthcare Quality Data Analyst Intern

July 27, 2021

I had the good fortune of joining HCIF through Haverford College’s Whitehead Internship Program. As I was applying to different summer programs, HCIF stuck out to me – its mission aligns closely with my interests in public health and process improvement.  My experience has exceeded my expectations.

HCIF is broken up into two divisions, one team serves projects having to do with Population and Community Health, and the other, the team I joined this summer, focuses on Clinical Quality and Patient Safety Improvements. It is a small organization, with around 10 full time staff members. Given this small size, I found it relatively easy to get acquainted with the different personalities and projects. This process was made even easier through the welcoming and supportive culture that came through, even in an entirely remote environment. I worked primarily on two projects, the Health Equity Data Strategy Collaborative (HEDS) and the Pennsylvania Urologic Regional Collaborative (PURC), I also sat in on the Anti-Racism Council and the Marketing team meetings and assisted with a few Partnership for Patient Care initiatives.

I consider the highlight of my time at HCIF to be my involvement with HEDS. This initiative really kicked-off during June, so I was privy to many of the early conversations and decisions being made about the direction of the program. I got to see first-hand how a collaborative decision-making process can produce polished, thoughtful outcomes. This initiative focuses on the collection and use of race and language data as a necessary step towards identifying and remedying disparities in healthcare outcomes. I particularly enjoyed attending larger meetings that convened healthcare workers at regional hospitals to discuss this project and the topic of health equity – I was enlightened by the nuance of the conversation and felt inspired by the eagerness and urgency with which they spoke about the issue.  

The other project I got to work on, PURC, aims to improve outcomes in treatment and diagnosis for men facing prostate cancer. My work primarily involved quality assurances of different reports and I was able to attend several meetings between physician participants in the collaborative. In the more data forward component of my internship, I got to troubleshoot the formatting in different excel documents and I enjoyed trying to make improvements that made them more functional. Again, I was heartened to see the enthusiasm and care with which these professionals took to their quality improvement initiatives.

While I was fascinated with the projects I got to work on, the thing that left the biggest impression on me was the culture of the organization. My coworkers demonstrated sincere interest in each other’s lives, and feedback was given kindly but authentically.  Our meetings often began with a “color check” where everyone on the call would select a color that best described their workload and emotional outlook for the week. This encouraged truthful reflection – there was no pressure to indicate that “everything was fine” and people often shared when they were having an overwhelming week or when they I had capacity to be helpful to those in need. I especially appreciated the intentional efforts each team member made to give credit when it was due. I always felt free to speak up and when I did, I felt that my contributions were thoughtfully considered and valued. I owe a specific debt of gratitude to Liz Owens. She is a project manager on the Clinical Improvement Team and the individual with whom I worked most closely. During our weekly one on ones, Liz showed me immense patience as I got my bearings within the organization and set me up with interesting and meaningful work.  I am very grateful for my time at HCIF and feel that it has equipped me with a greater understanding of working in a team and of the public health space more generally.