You could say Sean Patrick Murphy manifested this.
Cooper Health’s senior vice president and general counsel was just 16 years old when he decided that he wanted to pursue a career in health care. “One important lesson that I learned early was the need to take responsibility for myself and my life,” he muses.
In that moment, it’s as if he’s teleported back to his childhood days in Middletown, New Jersey. He was one of 11 children in their snug Irish Catholic household, and he believed “out of necessity, that we control a large part of our own destiny and we have to know what we want out of life.”
As a teen, Sean worked in the dietary department of Bayshore Community Hospital (now Bayshore Medical Center). During that time, he had many opportunities to talk to and learn from different health care professionals, including physicians and nurses, along with the people who “actually ran the hospital”: the hospital administrators. He asked the administrators what they did, what their role in running the hospital was and how they obtained a career in health care management, including their educational background and qualifications. Two of the administrators told him that they received their master’s degrees in hospital administration from George Washington University (GWU), the largest and one of the oldest graduate programs in health services administration. Once he learned this, he began his research. In the evenings, Sean studied and learned about various graduate schools for health services administration. He also learned from his family. His mother was a registered nurse — as were his three sisters — and his brother-in-law was a physician. Sean knew that he did not have the “constitution for medicine” (he’s still queasy around blood to this day), but he was nonetheless drawn to health care, the business of caring for those who are sick.
So, he charted his own path.
Combining Health Care and Law
Sean received his bachelor’s degree from Rutgers College (now integrated into the Rutgers-New Brunswick School of Arts and Sciences) and did his honors thesis on the need for health care reform. He then followed in the footsteps of the administrators who guided him and received his master’s degree in hospital administration from GWU.
As part of his graduate training, Sean spent a year as an administrative resident at Christ Hospital in Jersey City, New Jersey. “I was only 24 at the time,” he explains, “so I decided to take a different path.” Sean was then commissioned as an officer in the United States Air Force Medical Service Corps. This provided him with unique experience as the administrator of an ambulatory care clinic, in addition to serving as a commander of a combat casualty unit. He went in a second lieutenant and left as a captain. After he completed his time as an active duty military officer, Sean decided to attend Rutgers Law School, with the hope of combining his long-held interest in health care with law.
“Health law is an established and recognized discipline in law with many specialties and subspecialties,” Sean says. “Most major law firms have some sort of health law practice. But that was not the case back then. Most large law firms did not have a health law practice.”
John Degnan, former New Jersey attorney general and then-managing partner of legacy firm Shanley & Fisher, had the foresight to recognize the importance of this burgeoning discipline. He was committed to forming a health law practice group at the firm. John tapped talent like Dan O’Connell, Jim Freis, John Francis, John Kandravy and, of course, Sean. He also gave Sean the latitude to take on a part-time faculty position, teaching health law at his alma mater, GWU: “Graduate schools and law schools also needed help. [They needed] qualified instructors who could teach health law.” So, in addition to his responsibilities at the law firm, every week Sean would hop the train from Metropark Station in Edison, New Jersey, to Foggy Bottom to teach health law. Teaching “kept him sharp.”
However, things began to change in health care. A new reimbursement model, prospective payment, was being adopted by the federal government, and many states had started the process of deregulation in order to encourage competition. At that time, New Jersey had not transitioned as many other states. This caused it to “become insulated” from many important market forces, such as the prospective payment system and managed care, So Sean packed his bags once again and moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, then a more “cutting-edge market.” He practiced health law there for the next five years.
Once New Jersey began to transform and become “more competitive,” Sean returned home, effectively combining health care and law as general counsel to JFK Health System (now part of Hackensack Meridian Health).
A Mission-Driven Shift
“I always wanted to be in a health care organization, but law gave me tangible tools and skills to add value — something that I could bring in-house to a hospital’s senior management team,” Sean affirms. “JFK was a progressive organization run by a very young, talented management team. It was New Jersey’s first integrated delivery system. It had the full continuum of services, from home care and acute to hospice.”
After spending 20 years at JFK, Sean thought that it was time for him to expand his experience and perspective. He formed the TanAlto Health Care Group. He would go on to run the health care consulting corporation for five years. “This gave me the opportunity to take my experience as a health lawyer and administrator and apply my experience to health systems around the country, from small rural providers to large, multihospital national health care systems.”
It also readied him for his current role.
Cooper University Health System
“I started at Cooper in December of 2019,” Sean explains. “I was transitioning in because the incumbent general counsel was retiring. I’ve been here since and I absolutely love it. Academic medical centers are the epicenter of learning, teaching and caring in medicine and health care — exactly where I want to be. The thing that I find striking about Cooper is its culture. It has all of the sophistication and intellectual acumen of a leading tertiary academic medical center; yet it has old-world values: kindness and caring. That makes Cooper both unique and special.”
Sean oversees all aspects of Cooper Health’s legal affairs, including all legal and risk management claims. The stakes are higher now with COVID-19.
“Just when you think that you’ve seen everything, then comes COVID-19,” Sean shares. “It’s ironic. When I first started in health law, we had to deal with the uncertainty of HIV and AIDS. Now it’s COVID-19.”
“Cooper has done an amazing job and a great service to New Jersey,” he continues. “Cooper is one of New Jersey’s three COVID-19 regional coordinators. It was a bit scary at first. None of us really knew much about this virus or how it was transmitted. But we’ve learned a lot this past year.”
Outside of work, Sean finds balance in his many interests. He loves college sports, especially Rutgers basketball and football. He also enjoys the arts, history, philosophy and theology (Sean is an ordained Roman Catholic deacon, incardinated in the Diocese of Trenton). Mostly, he enjoys spending time with his family, especially his wife and three children.