EP88 Health Tech and the Evolving Public Health Domain with Vivienne La

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I AM GPH EP88 Health Tech and the Evolving Public Health Domain with Vivienne La
EP88 Health Tech and the Evolving Public Health Domain with Vivienne La

Maureen: Hi, my name is Maureen Zeufack, and you're listening to the I AM GPH podcast. In this episode, I speak with Vivienne La. She's an alumna of the MPH program and serves as vice president of the school's inaugural alumni board. We get to talking about her career trajectory, from working in health consulting to what she does now: working in the health tech sector as a project manager for a company called Veeva Systems. If you would like to hear more about her experience working at a health consulting firm, her thoughts on the intersection of health and technology as it pertains to the current public health domain, or her insightful advice to students about navigating the vast public health field post-grad and especially the health tech sector. You're not going to want to miss this episode. Stay tuned.

Maureen: I'm here today, joined by Vivienne La. Welcome to the I AM GPH podcast.

Vivienne: Hi, thanks for having me.

Maureen: So Vivienne, can you tell us a bit about your background and what led you to work in the public health field?

Vivienne: Yeah, I started my interest in public health in a way that a lot of other public health people did in that I wanted to do something in healthcare. And when you're young, you think that path is medicine in some capacity, but through just learning through different classes and education, getting some work experience, I stumbled into public health kind of by accident when, after undergrad, I was working in a hospital as a practice coordinator and I was working with complex care and cancer patients and I was working at a comprehensive cancer center where we tried to coordinate a holistic approach to health and take kind of that public health lens of the patient-centered home, and then branch out all the different supporting parts to it. But even through those initiatives, I saw how inefficient the healthcare system was.

Vivienne: It was really frustrating at times, just trying to navigate the complexities. And I really felt for the patients. They're dealing with this now chronic, but very serious illness, and they're shuffling around paperwork and dealing with insurance and navigating these big health systems and trying to find their appointments in three buildings over. And it just kind of struck how what a behemoth the healthcare industry was. And I think that's what kind of inspired me to do a little bit more research and how I found public health and led me to NYU and getting my MPH, and haven't looked back. It's been a great experience.

Maureen: That's fantastic. I think I've been hearing that recently, a lot of people come into public health with the idea of medicine and realizing how broad the field can be and how much opportunity there is.

Vivienne: Yeah, definitely. Because I mean, medicine is very personal and on a one-on-one level, with the exception of clinical research, of course, and I think something really great and what I think draws a lot of people and myself towards public health is the ability through policy, through research, and through programs, you can actually affect full populations and make widespread, lasting change that will continue through generations, not just one lifetime. And we're seeing it right now. It's a very exciting time to be in public health.

Maureen: Upon graduating from NYU GPH, what was your experience entering the workforce? Do you think you had any idea of, in this vast domain, what you were hoping to do?

Vivienne: Definitely not. Public health in itself is such a broad field. I mean, just look at GPH and all the concentrations that you can go into. And just because you are in one concentration doesn't mean that you can't explore others as well. And there's a lot of skills that apply across the board that you can develop in the program. So I think it was definitely overwhelming, not really knowing where to start in the job search. And just kind of the possibilities are a little bit endless and you kind of get frozen by choice. You want to do good, but also at the same time, you want to be able to make a living, and you also want to be excited about the individual projects that you're doing, and then you have to think about career growth.

Vivienne: So a lot of research was done, and you can do research until the cows come home, but there's always going to be more. And I think that's one thing that's really great about public health is that public health sits in a lot of places where you don't think initially that it might. So that's definitely something that I try and tell everyone that comes to me and asks for advice, whenever I talk about my career trajectory, is that it's not linear. A lot of people come into GPH thinking I'm going to maybe start my own nonprofit, or maybe I want to go into consulting for global health initiatives. And that may be your end goal and that's awesome, but there's so many ways to get there and there's so many relevant skills that you can develop along the way.

Vivienne: So I think just doing your research and being willing to be flexible was something that I definitely learned. I mean, I was fortunate enough to secure a role that was my first choice, but also knowing that it's okay to end up at your first choice after maybe job round two or three. And then maybe by the time you get to that company that you really want to work for, then you can enter in at a higher level with new perspectives and new skills from outside of that particular organization. And outside of that narrow subset of the industry that can give a new perspective and maybe increase your value to that place overall.

Maureen: And speaking of your previous job experience, you previously worked at a consulting firm. What was your experience like there and what do you feel you gained from it?

Vivienne: Yeah. Consulting was a very valuable experience. I think, especially for people who aren't 100% certain and haven't pinpointed exactly what they want to do, I think consulting in general offers a really broad landscape for you to explore a lot of different exciting projects and things. And it was a really great opportunity to kind of get my hands onto a lot of different unique situations and kind of become a Jack of all trades.

Vivienne: So I specifically worked at Mercer and it was health and benefits consulting. And speaking to my point before where sometimes you don't really know where you're going to end up and it actually ends up being really valuable. If someone had asked me if I wanted to work in health insurance during my time at GPH, I would've laughed, because health insurance sounds awful and boring, but actually through my time there, yes, I did work in benefits consulting and worked with HR.

Vivienne: But a lot of research goes into areas where there was public health in areas where I didn't even realize where it was actually completely necessary, like planned designs. Everything we learn about in class about consumer-driven health plans and the new push in that direction, cost-savings, primary care promotion, all of that actually gets baked into insurance. And so I actually got to use a lot of my skills and bring a new perspective to my teams outside of just cost savings. And I think that brought a lot of value to the clients and definitely was a really great opportunity to kind of expand my knowledge base in the healthcare business side.

Vivienne: And another great thing about consulting is that it's not just the meat and potatoes of it. There's a lot of really fun side satellite projects that come along with it, too. And there's always going to be someone, a client out there with a specific question and hopefully you're kind of that person that can provide the answer. I ended up specializing in healthcare startup research and kind of pairing employer benefits with new and innovative tech startups that were trying to disrupt individual spaces in the healthcare field gaps, whether it be chronic disease, musculoskeletal, cancer, care coordination.

Vivienne: I mean, the list is kind of endless. There's definitely an increase in attention towards health tech and big data and what they can contribute to the industry and how we can disrupt healthcare as a whole. So it was a really exciting opportunity to be able to kind of explore different avenues. So I definitely would highly recommend consulting as an option for people who aren't 100% sure about exactly what they want to do and want to pick up a lot of valuable skills along the way and explore.

Maureen: That sounds like a very well-rounded kind of experience. What role do you feel that these health consulting firms play in ushering the future of public health?

Vivienne: That's a great question. I think consultants, they definitely try their best to stay on top of any new trends. Anything new that's popping up and that's the role that they're supposed to play with the clients. And public health is having kind of like a second Renaissance. It's up, it's coming, everyone's realizing how important it is now, and realizing the importance of treating healthcare, not just for the individual, but as a community, symptoms versus root cause, et cetera.

Vivienne: So I think consulting, at least what I see how it's going to position itself in the future is kind of being that bridge, because obviously there's definitely a disconnect between the health community and the general population, just because of the nature of the complexity of it. And so I feel like consulting firms are very much positioning themselves to be that communicative subject matter expert bridge between the two, which is why I think it's a great and exciting time and a good opportunity to kind of get in there and be that bridge.

Vivienne: And so with consultants having that responsibility to be on the forefront of things and where everyone in this program is basically setting themselves up to be that SME, I think that's where it's going to go next, because a lot of people who are going to be asking questions about public health that they never even thought to ask before.

Maureen: Can you share with me a rewarding or memorable moment from your time working in that domain?

Vivienne: Oh man, I have to think about that one for a little bit. There's so many. It's tough. I'll caveat this by saying it's tough as a consultant to directly see the impact of your work naturally, just because you come in for a project and then you disappear after it's done. But I will say that for some of the longer-standing relationships that the firm that I've been able to establish with some of the clients, the longtime clients that have the same team for several years.

Vivienne: I have very much enjoyed this one particular instance where I, through my research through health tech startups, was able to recommend implementing this new program to supplement their insurance, to kind of promote primary care promotion. Because I noticed that they had really high incidences of chronic disease. And it was a manufacturing client, so they happened to have a lot of blue-collar workers in low-income areas. And I was noticing that ER visits were incredibly high while primary care visits were super low. And the public health person in me immediately started kind of digging in, like why is that? Why is this a thing?

Vivienne: And the strategy before was just communication. But I don't know about you, but I never read my HR's emails. So I proposed implementing a primary care promotion startup, essentially. And there was a lot of pushback because they're not cheap, but I think through a lot of research and rigorous financial analysis, we kind of made that pitch that there would be savings down the road. We didn't know exactly how much, but we had a good, long-standing relationship with them. And I was really fortunate enough that the lead consultant on my team had faith in me and let me take the lead on this and convince the client to take the risk.

Vivienne: And I found out right before I was actually leaving that there was a reported 15% cost reduction in their claims. And ER visits were down by, I think it was 30% because we just met them where they were and kind of understanding how people communicate and understanding what people respond to. And I think one thing that the tech industry has done really well is that they understand users and they understand people and patient behavior.

Vivienne: So yes, people ignored their HR's emails, but they didn't ignore the push notification on their app. And they ended up having a net positive effect and people were healthier, a little bit happier, and I was really happy to know that my studies actually played a role in helping some people lead a little bit of a healthier lifestyle.

Maureen: That's amazing. It must be so gratifying to see your work come into fruition and actually impact people.

Vivienne: Yeah. I will say that it doesn't always pan out that way, at least just with consulting, because like I mentioned, just by the nature of the work, oftentimes you don't get to stick around and see if it helps. Or sometimes things just take so many years for you to actually see the effect. So there's definitely a lot of patience and there's definitely kind of a little bit of uncertainty of did this actually help? But little things like that help kind of restore the faith of like, I think we are moving in the right direction. We're trying to do the right thing by our clients and these people.

Maureen: Can you please tell me a bit more about your current company that you work at, Veeva Systems, and your current role as a project manager within the Crossix Analytics product strategy team there?

Vivienne: Yeah. So Veeva Health Systems is a really cool company. They've been around for a while, but not a lot of people know much about them because they aren't consumer-facing. But essentially what they do is cloud services for the life sciences. So Veeva as a whole has a hand in a lot of major clinical trials. We're talking about the COVID-19 vaccine right now. We are partnering very closely with Moderna to try and get their vaccine through their clinical trials.

Vivienne: They're also really involved in compliance and quality and safety, anything in the life sciences, really. The product specifically that I work on Crossix Analytics, is censored around health communications and targeted marketing. So we basically leverage consumer data, which is very easily available, but what's unique about our product and what I think really brings value is that we're able to connect these individual consumer behaviors to actual patient behaviors. Because HIPAA is a very stringent and important law, but it does shield a lot of companies from basically being able to derive meaningful insights and determining, are we actually hitting the right people? Like I'm a mental health solution and I want to be able to reach out primarily to people who would want to utilize my services.

Vivienne: So that's where we kind of step in and provide those analytics, and we're able to match back, which is really exciting. Match back the actual patient exposure data to ads with their own behavior. Like after I saw this ad, did I actually go see a mental health provider and how long did it take? And so then our clients are able to attribute their marketing dollars and their advertising dollars to the right channels. And we can do this without breaking HIPAA, which I think is pretty cool.

Vivienne: So that's the product that I work on right now. And I oversee the launch of these analytics platforms that our clients utilize.

Maureen: That's fascinating work. I think it's so important. We don't really often think about what goes into accessibility of platforms to patients. What would you say would be the most challenging aspect of working with healthcare platforms? What is the most rewarding part?

Vivienne: Yeah, I think it differs for every product, but I think one thing particularly that hits home for me and my team is that health tech is booming, but a lot of people in healthcare who have health backgrounds want to work in healthcare. And so that intersection of health and tech is relatively new, and tech moving so quickly and being so agile, it definitely is in stark contrast to the type of environment that is within healthcare, that moves a little bit slower, is very cautious, rightfully so.

Vivienne: But I think that because of that and because people are still getting used to the idea of that intersection, a lot of people within health tech are not in health. So there is a little bit of that disconnect of the why. The why are we doing this? Oftentimes, senior leadership have a personal story that they can relate to, but it doesn't necessarily always trickle down to the day-to-day. So I'm hoping that over time, as this kind of grows and people become more comfortable with telemedicine, health tech, and that intersection, that people who are interested in healthcare are going to start exploring that side as career options as well.

Vivienne: I know that it can be really intimidating just because engineers, data scientists, they are a particular breed of people. And a lot of people who go into healthcare generally have that softer, more empathetic approach and tech can come off very harsh, but we need people like that to keep driving the industry, not just forward, but also forward in the right direction. And I think that's something that's really important.

Vivienne: I really want to put that kind of call to action out there for anyone who is even remotely interested, to at least even if data, statistics is not really your thing. It was by no means my favorite subject, but understanding that this is the way we're going, and it's going to move forward with or without us. And we want to be able to get in there and have our voices in that public health and empathetic perspective and lens in there during the design process early on so we're not course-correcting later.

Maureen: You just touched on the intersection of health and technology. What do you feel specifically are the gaps that your role or the things that your company is doing is filling in the public health field and what do you think, looking towards the future, are the greatest opportunities for health and tech to make an impact on the lives of healthcare practitioners, as well as those who are patients?

Vivienne: Yeah. I think that's a great question and there's so many different layers to it, but I think tech offers this really great opportunity when you're talking about filling gaps. I mentioned before, healthcare, just by its nature, with all the regulations and a lot of the safety considerations that come out of it, it naturally moves slow. I think I read somewhere that on average, once a new medical procedure gets approved, it takes 17 years for it to become common practice, even though it's been already proven as best practice in certain cases.

Maureen: Wow.

Vivienne: So I think one thing that tech really offers is that kind of agile mindset, that prototype thinking of fail fast, fail hard, and fail early so that you can get all of this out of the way, all of it all the way right up at the gate so by the time you step foot into the door, everything's ready to go and you have all the questions answered. So I think the speed with which tech, and not just tech, but the private sector moves is something that the public sector definitely could leverage. And that partnership could definitely push things along a little bit faster, especially in very niche and complex areas. Because healthcare as a whole is a very broad industry and it's very interconnected.

Vivienne: But what we're seeing a lot right now in the industry is the emergence of point solutions, apps that are targeted towards people with chronic musculoskeletal pain, apps that are targeted specifically towards type one diabetes, or patient navigation apps specifically for people who have several providers that need help navigating the system. So I think that's one area where tech has very successfully stepped in and helped improve the experience and fill some of those gaps that we haven't really been able to solve on our own through public health.

Vivienne: And then also what I do now, there's a lot of great, great organizations, grassroots organizations out there that are providing incredible services and they want to help, but they haven't been able to reach their audience or people don't really know that they exist. And there's limited marketing dollars. Marketing and advertising is incredibly expensive, so if you're going to spend that money, make sure that it's going to the right place. So I think there's a lot of opportunities for that kind of partnership for tech to kind of help bolster the existing infrastructure in public health.

Maureen: What do you believe are the most important hard skills or soft skills for being successful in this line of work?

Vivienne: I think no one's going to like this, but hard skills, data. We are moving in that direction. I mean, not everybody has to learn how to code, that's definitely not a requirement to be able to do this kind of work, but at least a baseline level of comfort of the basic tools like Excel, and maybe some comfort around some data visualization tools such as Tableau. I think those are incredibly valuable.

Vivienne: And not just being able to analyze the data, but being able to draw a story out of it. And I think that's where public health and what we do here at GPH, that's where the real value is. You have to be able to understand the data at least to a certain point where you can draw that story and draw meaningful insights from it, because someone who doesn't have a health background will just see a bunch of numbers, but we will actually be able to see the stories behind it and the policies behind it that have led us to get to the results of these data and be able to kind of draw those parallels.

Vivienne: So I think that, yes, it's not fun, but definitely pay attention in all of your bio, stats classes. Take free courses if you can. It's definitely, even if it's not a requirement in some of the job descriptions that you're seeing, I guarantee you're going to find some value in using it at some point. Everyone is moving in that direction and there's a huge push in big data and not just in healthcare, so you can't avoid it.

Vivienne: But in terms of soft skills, communication is key. Relationship-building, communication. Because we crack a lot of jokes about how tough group projects are, but working in any industry is basically one collective group project. So you are building those skills along the way and being able to be an effective collaborator is, I can't stress how important that is. And everyone knows it, they just forget it. There's not a lot of roles out there for you to just excel as an individual contributor. Everyone works with someone.

Maureen: I'm going to close out with the final question. What advice would you have for graduates who want to pursue a career in this sector of public health?

Vivienne: I think I will reiterate my very unpopular advice again about data and comfort with it, but I will also throw in there, doing your due diligence with research, because health tech is very new and it's booming and it's growing really fast. And it's very easy to look in the news and see a lot of the big-name brands. I mean, I guess this advice transfers over to basically any industry, but there's always going to be the big names that everyone knows and gets very excited about, but I really want to stress the importance and the value of smaller groups and smaller companies. There's a lot of new and emerging, exciting solutions out there that don't necessarily have that feature in the Forbes magazine that are doing incredible work and are really exciting that you haven't heard of yet because they're so new and they're so small and it's easy to kind of get stuck on title and get stuck on a brand and get stuck on a company.

Vivienne: But one thing that I will call out is that if you're with a smaller group, like a startup, you have the opportunity to take on way more responsibility and get your hands on way more exciting projects and have a wider breadth of what you're able to accomplish. And these smaller groups, though not as shiny and not as recognizable, will often give you far more skills in a shorter period of time. It's something that I see a lot. When people ask me how do I end up working at Pfizer? How do I end up working at a Grand Rounds or at Deloitte? Whatever industry it may be, if that is your end goal, that's awesome. But a really great and I think easier path to get there is to work at a boutique firm, to work at a smaller startup.

Vivienne: You'll get a better title, you'll get more experience. And by the time, if you do want to move and work for those big brands, you're going to be way better equipped in a shorter period of time than you would have been if you had started there at maybe a lower level. And who knows, I think there's something exciting to be said about working for a small scrappy organization. It kind of speaks to the grassroots, boots on the ground kind of approach that public health likes to take.

Vivienne: So I think in some sense it actually aligns better with the way that we're taught to work. So it takes a lot more work upfront in researching and finding those hidden places, but I think that research is well worth it. I recommend, I mean, I don't know if this is at all valuable, but if anyone's interested in health tech, I would very much recommend doing research in the built-in side, so for New York, built in New York, built in NYC, Crunchbase, CV Insights and finding groups that you are excited by and then next step looking at their competitors. And that'll start to build out a really comprehensive list of organizations and companies that you can look at.

Vivienne: Because one's career path is never linear. There's very few, especially now I think that trend, people don't work at one company for 45 years. Not anymore. I think there's been a generational shift. And so you will move companies in your career. You will move industries in your career. So there's no reason to limit yourself and pigeonhole yourself. So I think that's something that we're all very action and task-oriented. It's the way we are as public health professionals, but I would definitely caution against pigeonholing and coming at the career search with tunnel vision because at least in my experience, I've kind of been all over the place in the health sector, but I wouldn't change it because I feel like it's led me to where I am now.

Maureen: What a great note to close on. Keeping our minds and our eyes open to all the opportunities that are out there. Thank you for joining us today, Vivienne.

Vivienne: Thank you so much. It was fun.