Innovator Article

Heather Brown Aims to Heal Health Care

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The questions started for Heather Brown while she pursued her master’s degree in physical therapy at Washington University in St. Louis. She found herself asking how she could make a greater impact in the field.

“I was asking broader questions of how do we best treat a whole population of people with stroke as opposed to how do I treat this one patient who’s had a stroke?” says Brown, who will graduate in June from the Full-Time MBA program. She’s considering opportunities in consulting firms, health systems and medical device companies.

While working in health care, Brown diagnosed the industry like a patient. “As I continued, I found myself asking questions like: How do we pay for treating these people? How do the economics of health care start to play into the decisions we make?”

With an MBA, Brown hopes to create new healthcare models that keep large numbers of people healthy in a cost-effective way. “It’s the intersection of those two areas that interests me: How do we strategically move this organization forward so we are achieving our mission and also being a healthy, viable company or organization?”

Putting those issues into play, this spring quarter Brown led a team of four students working on an MBA Consulting Center project for the Tahoe Institute for Rural Health Research, a two-year-old nonprofit focused on technical solutions to improve the quality of rural health care. Brown’s team gathered preliminary market research for a business plan around a medical device now in the blueprint stage.

The Institute is a unique partnership with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the National Science Foundation, the UC Davis Center for Biophotonics, and has affiliations with the UC Davis schools of medicine, nursing and engineering, among other centers. James Stevens, the Graduate School of Management’s assistant dean for student affairs, serves on the institute’s board and is working on an agreement that will lead to future MBA consulting projects.

Last summer Brown put her MBA skills to work as a finance intern at Agilent Technologies in Santa Clara. Soon after, she was off to France to study for a quarter at HEC Paris, which expanded her view of international business. She appreciated the non-U.S.-centric perspective, learning how business is done in countries such as Georgia, the former Soviet republic.

After earning her B.S. in physiological sciences from UCLA and master’s from Washington University, Brown started her career treating stroke patients recovering from neurological deficits, and brain and spinal cord injuries, mostly in an inpatient or research setting. She postponed pursing an MBA to take a managerial position at Mills-Peninsula Health Services in San Mateo, Calif.

That experience turned out to be transformative. The physical therapy department she oversaw was disorganized. Doctors and patients were unhappy about the lengthy wait it took for some patients to get appointments, which led to stress and poor outcomes.

Brown spearheaded an overhaul of the department’s scheduling system. She gathered never-before-used data from a surgical schedule report, allowing her to anticipate how many patients would need physical therapy appointments, and create a triage system. Wait times for most patients went from three weeks to fewer than nine days. Those who could not get in immediately were referred to other hospitals. Brown showed senior management the demand for the department’s services, and was able to hire more physical therapists.

“Learning to work with a team of people and communicate ideas, gather the information needed and then get the team behind making substantial changes in the way the department functioned—that was a great education in management and leadership.”

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