MHCDS student 2022 Ismael Ortega

by Aimee Levitt
Apr. 29, 2024

After he earned his MBA, Ismael Ortega, MHCDS ‘22, began his career working in hedge funds. But he couldn’t imagine spending his life sitting in front of six computer screens for 16 hours a day. So he began thinking about other career paths. Health care attracted him because of its complexity. “There are opportunities to innovate and improve,” he says, “and make a meaningful impact in someone’s day-to-day life.”

He got a job at CHRISTUS, an international network of hospitals and medical centers, in its main office in Dallas. The team there was a small one that worked across many fields, and he was able to work on a variety of projects, including performance improvement, nursing, and ambulatory surgery. He realized he was more interested in operations work than accounting and finance. In conversations with Jeff Puckett, the CHRISTUS COO, Jeff encouraged him to broaden his skill set, and in 2020, he began looking for a program that would help him do just that.

Dartmouth’s Master of Health Care Delivery Science, a joint degree program between Tuck and the Geisel School of Medicine, appealed to him because it was designed for people like him who had already started their careers. He was also attracted to the diversity of the cohort: he would have a chance to work not just with other administrators, but also entrepreneurs and physicians.

“I was so blessed to be accepted into the program,” he says now.

The investment paid off. In the summer of 2023, after nine years at CHRISTUS, he was appointed CEO of the company’s operations in Colombia.

Ortega never thought he would ever work outside the United States. He immigrated to Texas from Mexico when he was four years old with his parents, who were looking for stability and better opportunities, and he stayed there: even his time in MHCDS was mostly remote.

But the opportunity in Colombia was one he couldn’t refuse. CHRISTUS has a robust health care network throughout Latin America, particularly in Chile and Mexico, and is planning to expand throughout Colombia over the next decade. Ortega was part of the team that negotiated CHRISTUS’s 2016 merger with Coomeva Cooperativa, a Colombian conglomerate, but as CEO, he would have a chance to have a real impact on people’s lives.

So before long, he and his wife Cristina and their two boys had packed up and moved to the Colombian city of Cali. “There’s nothing like living day-to-day in a 3G cell phone world,” he says. “But I have the potential to make a meaningful impact in Colombia. We’ll take the best practices from around the world. If we only apply 20 or 30 percent of those practices, we’ll have a huge effect.”

Colombia has a population of more than 50 million, and it’s shifting rapidly, Ortega says. There’s still a lot of poverty, but the middle class is starting to expand, and many people in rural areas are moving to the cities.

Since the 1990s, the government has been in the process of reforming its health care system with a program similar to Medicare, creating almost universal coverage. But the program is still severely underfunded: Colombia spends less than $500 per patient for annual care. The U.S. spends more than $10,000.

CHRISTUS is finalizing plans to take full ownership of the provider side of the healthcare operations. This larger provider network in Colombia, which includes two hospitals, two medical centers, and a lab business, will allow it to address the needs of more patients, 8-10 million by 2025.

[In health care] there are opportunities to innovate and improve and make a meaningful impact in someone’s day-to-day life.”

Ismael Ortega, MHCDS’22

Ortega is optimistic that he and CHRISTUS will be able to have a significant impact. Colombians, he thinks, are poised to embrace changes in payment models, though there are still relatively few commercial payers. And he has many good examples to work from, including case studies he was exposed to at Dartmouth.

“When I say things are going great, people are skeptical,” Ortega says. “But I sleep better at night. My sleeping aid is that I know our key priorities and our key problem areas and I know how to address or fix them.”