My Last Day at Optum IRD

[Read my Privilege Statement]

The Community Resource Finder team, a recipient of the Optum Make IT Happen Award

Today is my last day working at Optum Innovation, Research and Development (IRD). I meant to write a short post about my experience and what I will miss, but it turned into a little bit more than that…

Where did it all begin?

After graduating from Macalester in 2013, where I studied international development and global health, I had a realization: I was so focused on the health systems abroad, like in Brazil and Mozambique, that I hadn’t bothered to learn about healthcare in the US. I didn’t feel comfortable working abroad until I could truly speak to what healthcare was like at home.

I resolved to learn as much as I could about US healthcare, starting from the field and working up to programs or policy. Specifically I wanted to focus on the social determinants of health and health disparities.

I looked up the organizations that received grants from the Eliminating Health Disparities Initiative at the Minnesota Department of Health, contacted a bunch of them, and ended up getting a job as a Navigator at Open Cities Health Center, a celebrated and deeply rooted federally qualified health center (FQHC) in St Paul.

The timing was perfect: 2013 was the first year of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) implementation, and the federal government was funding Navigator positions at FQHCs around the country.

At Open Cities, I was surrounded by, and learned from, amazing staff committed to improving health in the Rondo neighborhood. As a recipient of the State Innovation Model grant, our clinic was piloting innovative models such as the Health Care Home, where patients could seek medical, behavioral, dental, and chiropractic care all in one place.

As Navigators, we helped patients apply for health insurance through MNsure, Minnesota’s health insurance exchange. We were on the front line of a massive policy and technology shift. We felt the pain when websites crashed and when glitches prevented someone from enrolling. And we also saw the relief and hope — and sometimes tears — in our patients’ eyes as they got coverage for the first time. Finally, they would be able to seek primary and preventive care instead of waiting until their conditions were serious enough to seek emergency services.

A MNsure article in which Open Cities Navigators were featured

We learned about our clients’ various socioeconomic needs, researched services that would fill those gaps, and made referrals. Many of us didn’t have case management systems to manage clients, nor databases to manage community services. We did our work manually and repetitively. In the Twin Cities, we gathered twice a month to share our pains and workarounds.

As I got deeper into the world of exchanges and health insurance, I realized that I didn’t know anything about the private healthcare sector. In order to be an effective healthcare thinker, mover, and shaker, I knew needed to learn more about the business side. Around the same time, I became involved with, Minnesota’s community for healthcare innovation. I was becoming immersed in the local healthcare startup scene.

Intro to business

I learned about Optum when UnitedHealth Group (UHG) acquired Amil, the largest healthcare company in Brazil, and Audax Health, a digital health startup focused on putting healthcare in the hands of individuals.

My conceptions of a large corporation changed almost immediately after the interview process with Optum Consulting. I felt as though my interviewers wanted to get to know me as a person. Shortly after I joined, they advocated to get me on projects that aligned with my passions in community and global health.

From day one, I felt as though I was valued, listened to, and respected, even as an entry level employee. I felt comfortable approaching people across the hierarchy, and was encouraged to do so. I quickly developed friends and mentorship relationships.

Luckily, I was almost immediately put on a project within our Innovation, Research, and Development group — the place I would end up calling home for the next four and a half years. There, I learned about the ins and outs of geographic information systems and geospatial analysis. Making maps was awesome!

Speaking about using GIS to address the Social Determinants of Health

Pursuing my passions

I was mentored by some of the greats to pursue a passion project called the Community Resource Finder. Based on my personal experience, and validated through a human-centered design process, we built a tool that Community Health Workers use to find resources that address peoples’ basic needs, refer them to those resources, track the referrals, and measure the impact of services on health outcomes.

Through this process, I had the chance to meet a bunch of incredible community health workers and care coordinators across UHG, as well as the program and product folks supporting them. It was inspiring.

Led by colleagues from our international businesses, I helped with initiatives to track the Zika outbreak, identify the roots of the emotional health crisis in Brazil, scope out opportunities for new products, and co-develop road maps.

Grabbing lunch with our favorite Brazilian innovation team in Sao Paulo

I got to go through our Emerging Leadership Program and co-organize the Innovation Forum in SF. A mentor blossomed into a partner as we started an internal community and blog focused on health equity. And now I’m part of helping bring an environmental lens to our enterprise.

I’ll be honest: sometimes it is really difficult to work at a huge company. We’ve had countless reorganizations and leadership changes. Sometimes I wonder if my mission is at odds with the realities of a publicly traded company.

But as I look back, I’m overwhelmed with the fact that I’ve had the chance to do so many things I care about, so many things focused on truly improving health and access to care. I still don’t quite understand how it all happened, but I do know that I get too much credit for it. I learned what I know from the folks at Open Cities. Through, I inherited an amazing network and a platform to grow as a leader. And Optum…it says something about an organization when they listen to and empower [young] [female] employees to run with their dreams. I’m so grateful to my colleagues who have given me opportunities to support them, to learn from them, and sometimes to lead them.

Co-hosting the UHG Innovation Forum in SF

My next steps

Today marks my last day working for Optum Innovation, Research and Development. On January 28th, I will start a new job at Rally Health (formerly Audax Health — mentioned at the beginning of this post). I will focus on new market strategy and design.

I’m sad to be leaving Optum IRD, but happy that I will still be in the broader UHG family. I’m excited to contribute to Rally’s mission while learning from leaders intent on delivering the best experiences to individuals who want to take control of their health. I’m thrilled that I will continue to push equity and climate lenses within our enterprise. And I’m grateful that I will have plenty of excuses to interact and work with my colleagues at UHG, poking my head in the office when I’m in Minnesota.

Thanks for the last four and half years, team!



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