When Dr. Nizar Kifaieh talks about healthcare, he brings the perspective of someone who’s lived where medicine and care were practically non-existent.
“I come from a place where access to healthcare was horrific,” the president and CEO of Hudson Regional Hospital in Secaucus said. “We had one clinic for the entire camp.” Kifaieh, 50, grew up in the al-Amari Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank city of Ramallah and recalls that the one clinic had very few resources and very long lines of patients. “You literally either got aspirin or penicillin,” he said. “You arrive at the window, tell them what you think is wrong with you, and they’ll give you either aspirin or penicillin or both and then you just walk away.”
While healthcare in the United States is, for most, a day-and-night comparison to what Kifaieh experienced in his homeland, the issue of access to quality care has remained front and center for him throughout his career.
During his residency in emergency medicine at SUNY Downstate/Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, for example, he found that many in the neighborhood who were undocumented immigrants, underinsured or without insurance used the ER in place of a doctor’s office or clinic. In a sense, he became their primary care physician, knowing them by name when they came in, knowing their histories and caring for them because they had no insurance or no private physician would accept their insurance.
After completing his residency and working in various roles at SUNY, he came to New Jersey in 2012, first as chief medical officer and then CEO of CarePoint Christ Hospital in Jersey City. “The first thing I worked on was better access to care through what we called the neighborhood health centers,” he said. In 2018, he took the reins at Hudson Regional, which he said aids the undocumented, uninsured or underinsured through a strong relationship with two federally qualified health centers in Hudson County, Alliance in Jersey City and North Hudson Community Action Corp. “We’ve created a seamless process for them to come here,” he said. “It makes me smile when I know that you don’t have the Rolls-Royce of insurance, but you come to a beautiful place and (can) be treated well and cared for.”
Whether dealing with patients or staff, he said he’s always mindful of lessons of respect from his late father, his Muslim religion and his Palestinian culture. “I’m known for being calm and fair, tough but fair,” he said, “that’s how a lot of people describe me: tough, fair and consistent.”