What prompted you to enter – and stay in – the health IT field?
As an undergraduate, I majored in history and Italian language. I spent a year in Florence, Italy to learn about the Italian Renaissance — a time in which people like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Medici family totally redefined art, science, business, and politics. I was captivated by the creativity, the drive for excellence, the connections across diverse subject areas, and the value placed on contributions to society. (The stylish shoes and the cannoli were also a draw!)
Though I love history, I wanted to apply its lessons to today’s world. I was lucky to land a fabulous first job at Harvard Business School as a research associate for Professor Richard Tedlow, a business historian. Working with Richard I saw how information technology — new ways to connect people and learn from data — was among the most powerful forces shaping our society, and I wanted to be a part of it.
My next move was to Washington, DC to work at the FCC, which was trying to figure out government’s role in shaping the emerging Internet in the 1990s. There I glimpsed the potential of technology’s impact on health and education as I worked to shape “universal service” policies to get schools, libraries and hospitals online. I got to meet and work with people at the cutting edge in these areas — and I fell in love with the technological frontier. That frontier also taps into some of the qualities I liked about the Italian Renaissance — it’s about empowering people and celebrating the best they can be. Through technology regular people — patients, consumers, families — have the agency to shape and improve the quality of their own lives.
I’ve skated on the bleeding edge of technology, especially in health, ever since, working at the Markle Foundation, an Internet startup, my own consulting practice (Clear Voice Consulting), and ONC at HHS.
How has your work in the field helped to improve patient care (directly or indirectly)?
Especially in my role as the “Consumerista” at ONC and since, I’ve worked hard to define and spread an increasingly patient-centric view of health and healthcare, supported by technology.
The Internet, EHRs, mobile apps and wearables empower patients and consumers because they give us access to information, tools and connections to others we never had before. But even more important than technology is the shift from yesterday’s paradigm — in which doctors gave orders and patients quietly followed directions — to one in which providers and patients collaborate on a more equal footing is a cultural shift. It’s a change in attitudes.
I’ve promoted that vision in speeches, blog posts, papers, policies and business models for the companies I consult for. I’ve tried to convince everyone from doctors to entrepreneurs to the Surgeon General to buy into it, because I believe it’s a win-win. I certainly can’t take credit alone for the positive sea change in attitudes that has taken place in the last six or seven years, but I feel proud to be part of a diverse community of passionate people that are continuing to make patient and consumer empowerment real.
More directly, my mother still tells me every time a doctor encourages her to go online get her health information. I’m pretty sure my work at ONC (including getting Meaningful Use policy and the Blue Button initiative to make it easier for patients to get their own data) had something to do with that, and it’s nice that my Mom actually benefits!
What health IT development or product has you excited about its potential to improve care access/quality/cost, etc.?
Though a lot has changed, I think we’re still in the early days when it comes to unlocking patient and consumer power related to health. Most people now use the Internet to learn about health, which is a great start, but we have so far to go. It’s still tough for people to get and use the health information they need when they want it. Too much of healthcare is about sick care, not promoting and maintaining wellness. Healthcare costs too much, and it’s confusing, disjointed, and not sufficiently anchored in scientific evidence. As we continue to give patients and greater consumers agency — and at the same time realign financial incentives across the health and healthcare industry to support the outcomes most patients really want — I believe healthcare will improve dramatically.
The #healthITchicks community believes strongly in doing good and giving back. What are your favorite ways to give back, personally and/or professionally?
In my work, I enjoy helping people grow and develop their talents. I feel grateful to have a wide network of people I’ve worked with throughout the health IT industry and related fields. Some I mentor, some mentor me, and with many, the learning and giving flows both ways. One of the greatest satisfactions I get is when I feel I’ve contributed to someone else’s success.
Outside of work, I’m a Girl Scout co-leader. I love spending a little extra time with my daughter Leela, who is now a Girl Scout Cadette, and her friends. I’ve known some of these girls since they were in preschool. It’s humbling and exciting to see them grow and help them learn about topics they might not get in school or anywhere else, like what it’s like to live in a homeless shelter, how to build a makeshift oven on a camping trip, or how to gather the courage to knock on a stranger’s door to sell cookies—or anything else you believe in.
When it comes to personal and professional development, who or what has had the biggest impact on yours?
Without a doubt, mentors. Some of my mentors have formally been my supervisors or teachers, but many haven’t. Many are people in the industry I admire who have been kind enough to take me in under their wings. They include government and business leaders, patient advocates, entrepreneurs, professors, and several who defy easy categorization. I only hope I can pay them back — or pay it forward.
In terms of career advice for younger colleagues, what do you wish you had known then that you know now?
Listen to and trust yourself. You will be happiest — and probably most successful however you measure it —if you are tapping into something deep inside of you – a passion, a skill set, whatever it is that you want to do with your precious time on earth, regardless of who might pay you for it. I’m not saying money isn’t important. I’m suggesting that you should tap into your passion first, then figure out how to get paid to do something that lets you run with it. I’ve had many false starts and dead ends, but the trick is to keep reinventing.
The first time I quit my job in favor of self-employment, I was terrified. I knew I wanted to challenge myself and do something more creative, but I wasn’t sure how. When I was younger I was known as the “class artist,” so I stayed up late at night painting for weeks to submit a portfolio of work to an artists’ exhibit and sale. Some of my work wasn’t bad, but I realized pretty fast that painting wasn’t a viable way for me to pay the bills. Consulting though, based on my health IT knowledge and skills, turned out to be much more lucrative — and in the end, very creative and fun. That’s partly because I focused on the areas in which I wanted to learn and grow (empowering patients and consumers!) rather than taking any loosely related task someone would pay me to complete that might not have overlapped with my inner passion, creativity and drive. That discipline may have cost me some contracts early on, but it let me develop a body of knowledge and skills that have been much more rewarding in the long term.
Along your path, people will advise you to take the path they took, or to take a safe, traditional route. Their advice may be right for you, but listen hard to what you really want and try to stay true to it. You will make mistakes, but wouldn’t you rather regret the mistakes you made than the chances you never took?
What are you looking forward to chatting about during the #healthITchicks tweet chat on May 16?
- Mothers and Mentors. Last weekend was Mothers’ Day. From early on in our lives and careers, we can benefit from the example and mentorship of others. Support from “someone like you”—which includes, if you are female, another woman who may share similar challenges with regard to gender discrimination or managing “work-life balance,” can be especially valuable. Give a shout out to a woman who has helped you in your career. Maybe it was your mom. Maybe it was someone who is part of this group — or not. What did she do? Did the fact that she’s a woman enable her to support you in any unique ways? (If you’re not a woman, please feel free to chime in about female leaders, mentors, or colleagues who have helped you, too!
- Own it, Ladies. Back in the 1980s women wore “power suits” with masculine shoulder pads and ties. To succeed in a man’s world, you had to look and act more like a man. Do you think that’s still true? In what ways do you hide or embrace qualities that are traditionally feminine at work? Is it harder or easier to navigate gender difference in the #MeToo environment?
- No Guys Allowed. As an undergraduate, I attended Wellesley College. “It’s not a girls’ school — it’s a women’s college,” as we used to say. Arguments in favor of single-sex education include less distraction, the ability to target teaching to gender preferences, and an environment in which to strengthen members of a disadvantaged group. Have you studied or worked in any single-sex environments? Was the experience positive or negative for you? Why?
- Not So Different? In today’s world, there is so much tension and distrust among different groups. As a strong advocate for women and women’s rights, I sometimes hear a perspective by someone from another “disadvantaged” group (for example, a member of the LGBTQ community, another race, ethnicity, religion, or level of physical ability) and am struck by the similarities in our experience. How much do you think the struggle to promote women’s success specifically has in common with the general push for an appreciation of diversity and inclusion? How much is our experience unique or shared with other people who have felt disadvantaged or discriminated against in some way?
- Super Self. I’m excited about technologies that give people “superpowers.” Not just about tools that help people make up for a perceived health deficit (for example, a prosthetic limb that helps someone walk), but also tools that make us even better than “average.” (For example, a prosthetic arm that enables a gamer to both complete basic tasks and also lets her launch a drone directly from his body.) What tools do you use today that give you superpowers? What kind of superpowers do you wish you had that technology could potentially give you?
Just for fun: What is your favorite vacation getaway spot/place to travel to?
Going back to the Italian Renaissance theme, I really like visiting Italy, though I don’t do it as often as I’d like. The food is amazing, the landscape is beautiful, and people have an inspiring way of fully savoring the moment. In my home town of Washington, DC, I feel like we are too often stressed, rushing somewhere rather than just taking in the world around us. In Italy, it’s easier to find people enjoying wine and fresh food with friends in a city square or on a vineyard patio, even on a workday. In addition to being a more enjoyable way of life, it’s also healthy. The “Mediterranean diet” is positive not just because the food is fresh and filled with nutrients — a big part of the health benefits come from social connections, and taking time to connect with people and savor the moment.