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Leadership Profile: President & CEO Patrick Frias, MD

Patrick Frias MD sitting on a bench outside

Leading with Heart: Rady Children’s President & CEO on Balancing Work, Family and Impact.

When you’re at the helm of one of the nation’s top children’s hospitals, preserving work-life balance can be tricky. A standard day for Rady Children’s Hospital’s president & CEO Patrick Frias, MD packs in multiple virtual and in-person meetings with everyone from board members to community leaders. Yet, with so many demands on his time, one commitment rises to the top: family.

“Family is very important to me, and I think as a children’s hospital leader it should be important to all of us,” Patrick says. “There are times I may delay a meeting or do something to make sure I’m there for one of the kids’ events. It doesn’t mean the work won’t get done, it’ll just be at a different time. And I think that’s important to model.”

Patrick and his wife Anjie have three sons and a daughter. The young men are all in their twenties; one is in law school, another plans to start a dual physician assistant-MBA program later this year, and the third is studying criminal justice. Their 16-year-old daughter is a sophomore in high school. The family enjoys spending time together, whether it’s relaxing at home with a movie, heading out to live sporting events like the Padres or seeing musicians live in concert.

“I’ll tag along to see artists that my wife and daughter enjoy like Harry Styles and Taylor Swift, and they put on some really good shows,” Patrick says. “This year it was my turn, and I took the kids to see Def Leppard, one of my favorite bands from the 70s and 80s. My daughter’s probably one of the only kids in her high school with a Def Leppard t-shirt.”

The youngest of four siblings, Patrick, who also goes by his birth name Patricio, has strong family bonds that are rooted in his birthplace, Concepcion, Chile. He was three years old when his family fled the government of former president Salvador Allende and settled in Gainesville, Florida. Patrick’s father, a pediatrician who specializes in genetics, had the opportunity to start the genetics division at the University of Florida.

“It was tough for my parents. They left everybody and everything behind. They wanted the four of us kids to go to a place where we would have more opportunities.”

Patrick embraced life in Gainesville, where he developed a life-long passion for the Florida Gators and reveled in his childhood.

“Growing up in a small college town, we’d ride our bikes, play tennis, go to football games. Lots of great memories with friends and family. At that point, the only place I’d ever seen in the United States was Gainesville, so I thought it was the center of the universe.”

Patrick had always been interested in medicine, but a high school assignment to write a “day in the life” paper about a person of his choosing would set in motion his passion to pursue a career as a physician. He picked a family friend who was a chief resident in pediatrics and got to tag along on rounds with a medical team. Patrick was fascinated by what he saw and experienced, including witnessing a baby being born. The experience was also impactful in another way.

“Growing up I got teased a lot as a kid for having ptosis. At some point you realize it’s just one lazy eyelid, but I knew how it made me feel. And I thought, wow, some of these kids really have significant disabilities and issues they’re dealing with. How must that make them feel? And thinking about what I could do to help them helped drive me in my career.”

Patrick began his college studies as a chemistry major at the University of Florida, then transferred to Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. After earning his pre-med prerequisites there, Patrick decided to embrace the opportunity to earn another degree: a bachelor’s in theology.

“It was not a typical educational path in medicine, but I think it gave me a different viewpoint. It helped me dive deeper into people’s perspectives and how imperative it was to respect all of them and meet them where they were. Ultimately, when I went into cardiology and spent years taking calls in the cardiac ICU, there were nights when science had done all it could do and I had to draw on what I had learned in my theology education to make a difference, not necessarily coming at it from a religious perspective but a human one.”

Patrick earned his medical degree from the University of Nebraska College of Medicine and then headed back to the southeast for his residency at Duke and fellowship at Vanderbilt. He then spent the next 19 years at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta as a pediatric cardiologist, chief physician officer and chief operating officer before heading west to Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego to become its president & CEO at the end of 2018.

“I have the best job in the world. I get to wake up every morning and think about how to improve the lives of kids in our community, whether it’s by helping shape the strategy here at the hospital, supporting policy development or working with donors to make sure we have the resources available and the ability to execute on the mission.”

Patrick’s five years at Rady Children’s have been eventful. The pandemic tested the entire healthcare industry, with pediatric hospitals experiencing low volumes and struggling to maintain a workforce. Under Patrick’s leadership, Rady Children’s avoided layoffs and maintained critical programs. The hospital worked closely with San Diego County and other partners to form collaborations that would benefit the entire region, including setting up a vaccination clinic at Rady Children’s for the entire community.

When thousands of unaccompanied minors were crossing the border from Mexico during the pandemic, it was Rady Children’s that took the lead in providing medical care to these refugee children. Many of them had experienced horrendous conditions.

“I remember going to San Diego’s convention center, where the children were temporarily housed, in the middle of the night to help triage a group of kids as they came in, and they looked so down. But when I returned the next day, they completely changed. They were just kids who wanted to laugh and play like everyone else their age, and I think it was because they finally felt safe to be kids again.”

The decision to help these children speaks to Patrick’s approach to decision-making, which can be distilled into one touchstone question: “What’s best for the kids?”

Take the mental health crisis, for example. Under Patrick’s leadership, the hospital has raised millions in philanthropic dollars to support the Transforming Mental Health Initiative, which includes a pioneering program that embeds mental health providers in the same offices where children and adolescents see their primary care physician. Preliminary results of the program are impressive, indicating that patient response to therapy has resulted in a 62 percent decrease in depression symptoms and a 44 percent reduction in anxiety symptoms. The study also showed a 40 percent reduction in mental health emergency room visits among mental health integration patients.

Looking out for the best interests of children and families is the driving force behind the largest construction project in Rady Children’s Hospital’s 70-year history: a seven-story, 500,000-square-foot Intensive Care Unit and Emergency Services Pavilion. Opening its doors in 2028, the structure will house advanced pediatric, neonatal, and cardiac intensive care units, state-of-the-art operating rooms, and a new emergency department.

“We currently have an ER that was built for 25,000 visits a year and now we see over 100,000. So, we’re more than doubling the size of the emergency department in the new building to more effectively see children and their families. We not only need to be sized and scaled appropriately to serve our community today, but we also need to be built for the future.”

A highlight of Patrick’s first five years came in 2023 when U.S. News & World Report named Rady Children’s one of the ten best children’s hospitals in the country for the first time in the hospital’s history – though he’s quick to give others the credit.

“That wasn’t because of me. That’s because of the team and the incredible care they’ve provided over the years – and I’m proud to be part of that team. No matter where I am, I meet people who tell me stories about their kids that we’ve cared for over the years and the impact that our people had on them. And it’s just incredible to be part of that and be able to support that in some way.”

Even with the pressures of leading an organization of more than 6,000 employees, Patrick is careful to keep it from becoming all-consuming. He and his wife exercise several times a week to “help with mind, body, and spirit” and Patrick has recently picked up a new interest: playing the piano.

“I never played growing up, but my oldest brother is a near concert-level pianist, so now he is my Zoom piano teacher. It’s kind of fun because he lives across the country, and I get to see him and just hang out and laugh for a half hour. Right now, I’m learning to play Beethoven’s Für Elise and even a little Elvis and Tom Petty. It’s a great way to relax and take your mind off everything else.”

For Patrick, connecting with family is the best remedy for life’s stresses. His father turns 91 this year and his mother will be 85 in July. They’ve lived “in the frozen tundra of Minneapolis” for the last five years but “we try and get them down here as often as possible to help them thaw out in Southern California.”

And to get a taste of his mom’s incredible cooking – Chilean favorites like pastel de choclo (a corn dish), torta milojas (thousand-layer cake) and especially her famous empanadas made with beef or chicken.

“Whenever we visit them or when she’s here in San Diego, mom’s always making a fresh batch of empanadas. And she and my daughter cook them together, so she’s passing it down through the generations.”

Many of Patrick’s extended family still live in Chile, Brazil and Argentina and they stay connected over group chats on WhatsApp.

“We’re the North American cousins and they’re the South American cousins. We text in Spanglish.”

The marketing slogan “when you’re here, you’re family” is a fitting description for how Patrick relates to his Rady Children’s colleagues and mirrors his aspirations for his own children.

“You do you. As long as you’re happy and you’re being productive in whatever it is that you’re doing, we’re good. I’ve heard it said that, as a parent, you’re only as happy as your least happy child. I just want to make sure that we’re there for all of them.”

“Team Rady” is a much larger family, but just as important – and Patrick wants everyone to feel welcome and at home at Rady Children’s. When employees first meet Patrick, for example, they will naturally refer to him as “Dr. Frias” as a sign of respect for his title and position.

But he always says, “Call me Patrick.”

Because that’s what family calls him.