Sally Buta Of PatientKeeper: “Find the humor in every situation”

Find the humor in every situation. Even in the tough situations — or maybe especially then — you need to laugh at yourself and the difficulties you face. Anything can be bearable if you are laughing. Sally Buta is a co-founder of PatientKeeper Inc., and has had a hand in guiding the company from its formative stages to its […]

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Find the humor in every situation. Even in the tough situations — or maybe especially then — you need to laugh at yourself and the difficulties you face. Anything can be bearable if you are laughing.

Sally Buta is a co-founder of PatientKeeper Inc., and has had a hand in guiding the company from its formative stages to its current position as a leader in healthcare applications for physicians. Buta helped design PatientKeeper Charge Capture, the leading solution for capturing physicians’ professional billing charges, which is used today by physicians throughout the U.S. at major academic medical centers, community hospitals, and physician practices.

Since helping to start PatientKeeper in 1998, Buta has held a variety of positions at the company in software development, project management, product management, and product marketing. As vice president of strategy & innovation, she has a range of responsibilities, including leading PatientKeeper’s innovation initiatives.

Buta holds an S.B. and S.M. in Materials Science and Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

From when I was a child, I’ve found beauty in understanding how the world around me works, which naturally led to a love of science and engineering. Twenty plus years ago, when doing my graduate degree at MIT, three of us started playing around with writing software on PDAs — Apple Newtons and Palm Pilots. We turned it into a small company developing productivity tools and games, software that were precursors to apps we see today on our iPhones and Androids. We then joined together with a couple more MIT classmates to see how we could help physicians also have on-the-go tools for tracking their patients. I started as a programmer, and quickly realized I enjoyed defining the workflows and talking with the physicians more than writing code. From there, we threw ourselves into the dot-com startup process. We took our ideas first to angel investors, then to VC firms, to get the funding we knew we’d need to turn the ideas into a company and a product, and get it into physicians’ hands.

Since then, I’ve learned to love the high-level strategy and innovation side. I’ve been part of what is now PatientKeeper for the past two decades, touching all the aspects of the business at various times, from serving as an individual contributor, to being responsible for the entire engineering group, to serving in C-suite roles. I have taken advantage of the opportunities to learn and grow, and am currently enjoying my role guiding our strategy and innovation planning.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?

Starting a company, travelling all over the country, being in and out of hospitals and seeing how they run from all sides has been so enlightening! If I had to choose one story, I’d say it was during a presentation to a hospital’s physician leadership, where we introduced showing patient results on a phone for the first time. We had set up a department head’s application beforehand so he could walk along during the demonstration. He looked at the screen and said, “Wait — is this real data for my patient?” When we confirmed yes, he ran out of the room, and we later heard that seeing the data in real time might have actually saved the patient’s life. Talk about a reason to come to work every day!

Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When we first started, we hired some “gray hairs” — management with years of experience — to run the company, while we tech nerds did what we do best: design and code software. About a year in, we realized that the upper management had wasted huge amounts of our hard-earned VC funding. They made strategy decisions based on experience running large companies, not on creating a software startup in the nascent field of medical software. Because of the spending, we couldn’t afford to hire badly needed additional tech resources. It was a damning and sobering experience. The founders all got together and led a mini-revolution at the time, and I was the spokesperson. I learned many lessons that week, including how to manage up, how to communicate unwelcome information, and how to value experience. I am definitely a better, and more thoughtful leader as a result.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Definitely my dad. He has been my inspiration my entire life. His story is so much richer and more interesting than mine! His parents were Romanian immigrants and he literally lived on the wrong side of the train tracks. His dad worked in a local metal foundry and his mom cleaned houses in town. The siblings were all raised in a tight-knit community with a strong work ethic and focus on education and all four kids went to college and had amazingly successful careers. My dad started his own company when I was 12 and grew it into a 300-person firm that is one of the most respected employers in my hometown. He always does right by his employees and by his customers. As his company grew, he went on to purchase the building his dad worked in as a welder. From him, I learned that you need to love and believe in what you do in order to have meaning in your life. Knowing that I am helping physicians and healthcare workers do their jobs better and thus give better care to patients is what keeps me going.

Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?

That’s easy! This reminds me of our slogan a few years back: “Physicians save live. I save physicians.” Physicians, and all healthcare workers, dedicate their lives to helping others. It becomes their ethos. Unfortunately, in the United States, we are making it harder and harder for them to do their primary job — caring for patients. They are given increasingly higher numbers of patients to care for, being asked to do significantly more managerial paperwork, and to make more complex decisions with significantly greater amounts of data. These pressures result in huge jumps in physician burnout. What I am doing now, at PatientKeeper, is making it easier for them to do their primary task — patient care. Our solutions give providers access to all the information when and where they need it — on their phone, at a nursing station, or at home — and make it easier to do those administrative tasks the healthcare industry has asked them do. Given our software is used in caring for over 8% of the U.S. inpatient population, we are definitely having an impact.

Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.

  1. Develop a routine. Nothing beats decision fatigue better than not having to decide. After my son was born, I went to a local gym every morning at 5:45 to get a quick 30 minute workout in. It gave me the drive to do everything else I needed to do for the rest of the day.
  2. Be deliberate about connecting with others. I call a family member or friend on my drive home from work each day. It helps each of us wind down and keeps those connections strong. One of my best friends and I talked several times a week for years. Even when she was travelling to third-world countries doing emergency crisis response, we managed to find a way to talk.
  3. Start your day or week with a plan. My methods have varied over the years, but I find myself most productive when I start each day with a plan of what I need to accomplish that day, and what I hope to accomplish. Even when I take a hard left, and the day goes awry, the plan can help bring me back to focus.
  4. Always be learning something new. During the pandemic, I started listening to podcasts during my morning bike rides. Laurie Santos’ The Happiness Lab, and the corresponding Yale course, The Science of Well-Being, are extremely enlightening. The fact that it is all based on hard evidence and research really appealed to me. Of course, I am still a work in progress!
  5. Be grateful. Each and every one of us has something to be grateful for. Expressing that gratitude daily — aloud, in a journal, or however works at that time — has made me a happier, better person. I truly feel I am a better spouse, daughter, mother, friend, colleague and employee when I can articulate my gratitude for everything in my life.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I’d love to see a movement focusing on empathy. We are so divided in the U.S. right now — so many people seem to be defining themselves as “Us”, and more specifically, “Not Them”. A little empathy will help us all work together to better the world around us, and perhaps to stop spending our energy attacking those we perceive as “not like me”.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

  1. Be careful what you ask for. When a leader wonders aloud, questions can take a life of their own and absorb huge amounts of resources. Eager employees will go out of their way to get you the information they *think* you want to hear. I have learned to be more thoughtful and clarify the difference between idle musings and specific requests.
  2. You get what you measure. There are pros and cons to quantitatively measuring outcomes, and as a leader you need to be aware of both. Analyze and update your metrics on a regular basis. Is what you are aiming for, really what you want? I have a good friend who optimizes his travel to increase his frequent flyer status. He will take two or even three flight segments for what takes me 2 hours on a direct flight. Sure, he gets first-class upgrades on most flights. But I can’t count the number of times when at the end of a trip, he is sitting in his big first class seat with a drink in hand, and I am relaxing on my much larger sofa with my favorite beverage out of my fridge. Where would you rather be?
  3. Not being on the front line is harder than I expected. As I climb the ladder, I am spending more time planning and strategizing, which means going away from the specific problem solving tasks I enjoy so much. I miss most that spark of creativity — the aha! moments — when figuring out a particularly thorny issue. I’ve been lucky that I have been able to switch roles many times in my career, so I’ve had the opportunity to have the 75,000 foot view, as well as be in the details. Those opportunities have given me appreciation of both perspectives, and made me a better leader.
  4. No-one can “have it all”. No-one can do everything perfectly all at once. You cannot pursue all your goals simultaneously. You can’t satisfy all your desires at the same time. You can’t be the superhero to everyone. As a wise friend once said to me: “I can do anything. I just can’t do everything.” We over-achievers need to accept that we need to choose where we want to give our time and energy. What are our long-term priorities, and how do I move a step closer to those today?
  5. Find the humor in every situation. Even in the tough situations — or maybe especially then — you need to laugh at yourself and the difficulties you face. Anything can be bearable if you are laughing.

Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?

Mental Health is a hot topic these days because we are in a mental health crisis in America right now. It is touching everyone. In COVID and in general, some of our most vital lines of defense in the crises today are our doctors — the trained professionals who are taking care of us. But who is taking care of them? Physician burnout rate is at an all-time high. In total, 42% of physicians self-report as being burned out, including slightly more than half of all critical care specialists, according to Medscape’s latest survey. Of course, the medical and societal impact of physician burnout isn’t limited to physicians themselves; WebMD recently reported on another survey that documented its impact on patients. The article said 80% of 2,000 patients surveyed noticed that their doctor or nurse seemed highly stressed and exhausted during a health care visit in the past year; 70% said they were alarmed by it, and 1 in 3 respondents said doctor burnout negatively affected their care quality. Given my work is designed to make their lives easier by given them access to all the information they need to do their job better, I am particularly attuned to the topic.

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Thank you for these fantastic insights!

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