Why I Left a Tech Start-Up to Work in Public Health

By: Sarah Lisker

Two years ago, I left a burgeoning tech career and the perks of Silicon Valley to work at one of San Francisco’s oldest public institutions: San Francisco General Hospital. As I began settling into my job at the Center for Vulnerable Populations, my coworkers were welcoming, but curious. What, they wanted to know, had pulled me from the well-resourced tech world to a public sector career in healthcare?

For me, the answer is simple. The switch has meant a chance to be creative and innovative while harnessing my skills to make a difference in the lives of underserved people in my community and beyond. Specifically, I help develop cutting-edge technology interventions for the San Francisco Health Network. Our aim is to re-balance serious health disparities and improve the poor health outcomes that often afflict our most vulnerable populations. Today, I’m happy to report, I’m finding this work more inspiring and satisfying than I ever could have imagined.

If you’re a techie passionate about #disruption in digital health, you might want to make the switch as well. Here’s why:

We are truly mission-driven. Organizations like the UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations are guided by social justice rather than profits. Our bottom line is to serve populations that critically need effective strategies to prevent and combat chronic disease with the aim of promoting better health outcomes for all.

Our metrics for success are something to feel good about. In the last year, for instance, I’ve worked on projects that seek to reduce time to diagnosis, prevent high-risk patients from being lost to follow-up, increase medication adherence, and improve clinician satisfaction. It’s rewarding to contribute to programs that have a measurable impact on health and health systems.

Learning is a part of the job and a growth mindset will take you far. At CVP, we are constantly asking questions: How can we lower language and literacy barriers in healthcare? How can we design patient portals that engage diverse patient populations? How can we enhance patient-provider communication? Posing challenging questions like these is fundamental to our work. Learning how to best answer them and build better solutions moves the field forward and is incredibly gratifying.

You can build amazing things. Public health is replete with unrealized and complex technology challenges, including opportunities to:

  1. Revolutionize outmoded communication tools. Text paging (two-way messaging on dedicated paging devices) is still used frequently in care settings, even though it is shown to be ineffective and unsafe. Many systems still run on fax machines and suffer from fragmented record-keeping systems.
  2. Transform existing health information technology. Many systems are increasingly complex, resulting in providers spending excessive time on the computer instead of interacting with patients. This can introduce safety risks and may impair patient-provider communication, particularly among diverse patients. Health IT carries immense potential for reducing medical errors, improving diagnosis, lowering costs, reducing physician burnout, and increasing the efficiency and security of healthcare delivery.
  3. Introduce cutting-edge technologies. We’re exploring applications of deep learning, artificial intelligence, and distributed ledger technology such as blockchain in healthcare. The way we manage and learn from health data will radically change, and you could play a role in how it happens.

In short, the opportunities for innovation are extensive and coveted across the health system.

So, are you interested yet? If your experience was anything like mine, you might be thinking “Great — but how do I get a job? I don’t know anyone in this industry!” Here some suggestions for taking the next step:

Start building contacts. Many public health organizations manage listservs and host seminars that provide excellent exposure to leaders in the field. CVP’s seminar series is an example of programs local to the San Francisco Bay Area that bring together experts and learners who are passionate about public health issues. Go to these events and introduce yourself!

If you are completely new to the public health world, take advantage of any chance to directly address any concerns that a hiring manager might have about this perceived gap. Craft your cover letter, resume, LinkedIn profile, Twitter account, and elevator pitch to take control of your narrative and demonstrate why your skills will be valuable in this field (and they will!)

Additionally, if you are interested in transitioning to a career in public health and this story resonates with you, feel free to contact me at sarah.lisker@ucsf.edu.

Thanks to Ryane Daniels, Courtney Lyles, Urmimala Sarkar, Gato Gourley, and Abby Cohn for providing comments on an earlier version of this post.

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