Never discount the value of authentic and meaningful relationships. Many studies have shown that with the advent of social media our sense of community has declined, while our sense of loneliness and isolation has dramatically increased. Researchers have begun to study the link between social media use and depression, and the news isn’t good.
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. E Hanh Le, M.D., Senior Director of Medical Affairs at Healthline, the world’s fastest growing health information site, reaching over 250 million people monthly.
At Healthline, Dr. Le brings her years of clinical and healthcare technology experience to help develop high-quality and engaging evidence-based content and products that uphold the highest medical integrity. She earned her MD from Baylor College of Medicine and completed her residency at St. Joseph Hospital in Houston. After years of clinical practice, Dr. Le transitioned from clinical medicine to healthcare technology via her work at Epocrates, where she developed clinical news products and disease and drug content. She has also helped develop an electronic health records system, secure messaging products, and clinical decision support tools for healthcare systems.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
As a primary care provider in clinical practice, my work required diagnostic and treatment problem-solving skills, along with the ability to “quarterback” and coordinate care for my patients across a multi-disciplinary care team. When I started to look beyond clinical medicine, I realized that those same skills — plus the ability to communicate complicated information to a highly diverse audience with varying levels of medical literacy and specialty needs — could be applied to other industries, too.
I took my first non-clinical job as a physician editor at Epocrates, where I applied my medical and communication skills to creating drug and disease content for physicians. I wore many hats, worked with a wide variety of people, and was thus exposed to other career paths. I was given the opportunity to become a product manager when Epocrates created its own electronic health record (EHR) system. In that role, I was able to apply my medical experience and non-clinical skills in innovative ways to create new products.
Since starting down this path with healthcare technology companies, I’ve come to realize that I am still a diagnostician, and I still treat problems. The “sick” systems I diagnose today are related to the healthcare system as a whole, and the “treatments” require creative and scalable technological solutions.
I still apply my medical knowledge and experience to help others. However, where my clinical work helped thousands of patients, today my work in healthcare technology impacts millions of people.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Some people demonstrate great ingenuity in preparing for their office visits. When I was in clinical practice, a patient came in and told me that she had suddenly started passing “black urine.” As I asked her questions to clarify what the urine looked like, she said, “See for yourself,” and pulled from her handbag a Ziploc freezer bag containing charcoal-colored liquid. Though we couldn’t test the substance — it wasn’t sterile — it made a big impression on me and the nursing staff that day. I remember thinking, “Wow, she really has a lot of confidence in the quality of that Ziploc bag!”
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
I was very proud of myself for getting into the office early for a meeting one day. As I waited with several others for the meeting to begin, people started messaging me, saying that they were running late. I assured them that they hadn’t missed anything yet. One person messaged me asking if there was a link for the video conference call. As there was no link, and I was feeling particularly helpful, I shared one for the meeting owner. After another few minutes of chatting, one of the attendees asked me, “Should we go ahead and start the meeting?” I responded, “I think we’re just waiting for Cody. It’s his meeting.” Everyone in the room looked at each other, and one said, “No, it’s not. This is YOUR meeting.” I was completely befuddled as I stared at the meeting invite frantically trying to figure out what I had dragged everyone into the office early to talk about. I could barely figure it out based on the meeting subject line I had sent.
I laughed, admitted my mistake and simply said, “Well, thank you everyone for joining this VERY IMPORTANT meeting.” Luckily, I was able to get my act together within the next minute, and we were able to get our decisions made. We even ended 30 minutes early!
From that experience, I learned that I have too many meetings, that I should do a much better job of only attending meetings that are worthwhile, and that, when scheduling my own meetings, I should add A LOT of information to the meeting invitation so that we all know what the heck we’re meeting about. The experience also reminded me that I have great coworkers who are very patient and forgiving.
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?
In my first non-clinical job at Epocrates, then a startup, I worked on the medical information team as a physician editor. In that position, I got to work with many different teams and people across a technology organization and learned about disciplines I hadn’t known about before, including marketing, sales, engineering, QA, and business development. In a startup, you end up wearing many hats and pitching in where needed. As I helped with product management tasks, Marianne Braunstein, then Epocrates’ VP of Product Management, took a keen interest in me and recommended that I transition from the medical information team to the product team. This created a new career pathway for me that I would not have been aware of, much less considered, without her coaching.
Marianne opened up a wonderful world that has allowed me to apply my medical and clinical experience in new and creative ways. Today, in my role at Healthline, at the nexus of clinical, content and product, I get to meaningfully impact millions, if not billions, of people. How many lifetimes would I have had to work in my previous career to be able to say that? I’ll be forever grateful to Marianne for that opportunity.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
With so many projects, initiatives, teams, and people to coordinate, it can feel overwhelming at times. There are always a million things that you can do that will be interesting and potentially beneficial. I personally love a “zero” inbox and have not been able to get below 65 unread emails in months, which sometimes makes me feel like I can never catch up. I shared this with one of my colleagues recently, and she responded, seeming perplexed, “You seem on top of everything, though, so it’s surprising that you feel like you’re behind.”
I’d been focusing on the wrong things — the slow but persistent growth of email in my inbox. I’d overlooked entirely what my colleague noted — the fact that the MOST important things were getting the care and management that they needed.
I was actually focusing my attention and time on the right things — those that needed my most urgent attention. I was spending time with my team and my colleagues, working through solutions that would set us up for success on a much larger scale for the long-term benefit of our growing audience.
Sometimes we need to flip our perspective — figuring out the two or three highest-priority areas to focus on and investing time and people into those initiatives. I’m not saying to forget about your inbox — but don’t let it distract or divert your attention and resources from your most important goals.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Be willing to pivot and be flexible. Whether you call it a learner’s mind or an ability to innovate or adapt, successful organizations tend to be those whose leaders have a flexible mindset and are open to new ideas and viewpoints. These qualities support fresh approaches to driving employee commitment while meeting business objectives. Examples include enabling employees to work from home or offering flexible hours and can extend to encouraging experimentation into new business domains, expanding opportunities for underrepresented populations, and encouraging new roles and career opportunities. Taking what may seem like intangible measures like these helps all members of an organization come to feel that their leadership cares about them, trusts them, and wants to provide them with every opportunity to succeed and develop their careers. The benefits go two ways, of course: loyal employees are more likely to remain with your enterprise and are more motivated to invest discretionary effort in their work.
At one point in my career, I worked for a manager who insisted that people always work in the office and who became irritated when we were asked to participate on other teams because those new opportunities would “take [us] away from [our] real day jobs.” It was clear that he didn’t trust us and felt threatened that we would outgrow him. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t long before I realized that I had outgrown him and his organization because I had learned all I could and was discouraged from growing professionally.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.
With technology becoming less expensive and more accessible to more people, it’s very tempting to look to digital tools and products to help us with our biggest problems. However, sometimes the simplest solutions are the best, and we shouldn’t lose sight of the fundamental tactics that have always been and continue to be our best strategies for maintaining a healthy physical, mental and emotional state of being. Here are the five strategies I recommend to people and use myself.
Get at least seven hours of uninterrupted, quality sleep
For starters, you’ve heard the adage about getting plenty of sleep, but what does that mean, and how do you do it? Typically, it means prioritizing sleep by creating a space and time window that will allow you to get at least seven hours of uninterrupted, quality sleep. That includes avoiding television or other forms of technology that will can cause your mind to become distracted or preoccupied with anxiety-provoking thoughts or concerns.
Decide on your nutritional goals and select a plan that will help you meet and sustain them
We all know that we should eat a healthy, balanced diet to promote good health. But with so many diets out there claiming incredible (and sometimes unrealistic) results, it’s hard to know where to start.
In general, I agree with journalist and author Michael Pollan, who encourages us to “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Going beyond that, the best first step towards improving your diet is to be mindful about your relationship with food and learn about the nutritional value you receive from the food you eat today. Spend some time reflecting on your eating habits (for example, do you eat on the run or sitting at a table?), your taste preferences (sweet or savory?), and your goals (do you need to maintain, gain or lose weight or manage a chronic condition like diabetes?) Take stock of how you’d like to feel while you establish fresh eating patterns that will help you meet your goals. At that point you can begin the work of figuring out how to create habits that will set you up for success.
Exercise at least 60 minutes every day
When it comes to exercise, we hear all the time that we should walk at least 30 minutes every other day. But given that my fitness tracker has rewarded me for walking to my local area restaurants for a second lunch, these recommendations should be increased to at least one hour every day. This may seem aggressive and challenging. However, you don’t have to put in that one hour of walking in one continuous session; you can divide it up into multiple walks during the day. Even a short walk during the workday will help you to relieve stress and decompress. Weather permitting, it’s also better to walk — or do other exercise — outdoors. People tend to think it’s healthier to remain indoors, but constant exposure to indoor pollutants doesn’t make you healthier. Spending time outside also ensures healthy endogenous production of vitamin D.
Learn something new every week
When it comes to mental well-being, one of the key tenants for health is that mental challenge and continual learning keep us sharp. It is easy, in our careers and in our personal lives, to put ourselves in comfortable scenarios where we are domain experts. Where we already know how to do things well, we interact with the same people all the time and feel quite comfortable because we’ve mastered those skills and that knowledge. But unchanging patterns and lack of mental challenge can lead to a complacent, rigid mindset. People who seek challenges and new experiences improve their mental health every time they try to learn a new way of thinking or doing something. It doesn’t matter whether you’re interested in learning for a new career, advancing a skill, playing an instrument, or trying a new cooking technique. Be curious and give yourself permission to try new things. Remember, we don’t know what we don’t know, and it’s a big world out there.
Develop and foster more meaningful relationships with friends and family in the real world, not just in the virtual/social media world
Last, but not least, we can never discount the value of authentic and meaningful relationships. Many studies have shown that with the advent of social media our sense of community has declined, while our sense of loneliness and isolation has dramatically increased. Researchers have begun to study the link between social media use and depression, and the news isn’t good. Studies have linked the use of social media to depression, anxiety, poorer sleep quality, lower self-esteem, inattention, and hyperactivity — often in teens and adolescents. To combat this trend, we can consciously make other choices about how, when and with whom we communicate. The best strategy is to reduce our reliance on easy technology-based solutions in favor of fostering and maintaining real relationships with friends and family members who provide us with the emotional and psychological support that we need, especially in our most vulnerable moments. You can’t say that about a “like” in a Facebook entry.
Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
People often think of retirement as a time when they will finally get a chance to stop working and just do nothing; they’ll finally get to rest and get out of the “daily grind.” However, that mindset carries with it some factors that put people at risk of physical and mental decline. People who do nothing — reducing mental and physical activity and social connections — are at increased risk of becoming lonely and depressed.
I always recommend that people remain as socially connected and active as possible. Our relationships — with friends, family and community — are like a lifeline, helping us get out of the house, get mental and physical exercise, and nurture a sense of purpose and impact.
How about teens and pre teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?
As a teen, I participated in team sports. I was never particularly athletic or strong, but I always enjoyed the competition and camaraderie and found that playing team sports and participating in other team activities provided some of the happiest memories of my childhood. As a member of a team, I met a wide variety of other kids, and I learned the value of practice and collaboration. I got to compete and reap the rewards of our hard work. Every victory was shared success, and winning was sweeter when it came from great teamwork.
Also, playing basketball, volleyball and tennis provided a great physical release from the rigor of my schoolwork, and those sports gave me the opportunity to travel to other schools and districts for competitions so I could see beyond the boundaries of my own limited world as a young student.
So, I would recommend that teens and preteens consider joining some form of team activity, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be in sports. Being a member of a team helps you understand your strengths and the strengths of others and what it means to be interdependent. When your team wins, you can savor shared success; when your team loses, you learn with your teammates how to develop the mental and emotional fortitude to overcome setbacks and obstacles.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen was one of my favorite books as a child. The main character is Elizabeth Bennet. Her intelligence, confidence, well-spoken arguments, and ultimate acceptance of her own prejudice when making hasty judgments served as a great primer and role model for me as a girl growing up in a very male-dominated culture and community.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would mandate education for all young teen and preteen girls globally. Research suggests that, by educating young girls, society improves overall because a more educated female population leads to fewer teen moms, lower rates of infant mortality, and lower poverty rates, among other benefits. Though the research has been conducted in third-world nations, there are also many communities in the US that would benefit from a stronger emphasis on education for girls and younger women.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
My team is quite used to me saying, “The reward for good work is more work!” On the surface, that might sound like punishment, but what it means is that if you deliver amazing quality, insights and value, then your customers will always come back asking for more. My team appreciates the truth behind that quote because they live it daily. They know that every time they are sought out for projects, insights and expertise, it’s because they are regarded as adding value, driving positive impact and providing leadership. So, instead of feeling burdened by the volume of work that they have, they take great pride in being highly sought-after.
In my own experience, when I first started at Epocrates, I was only meant to work on the disease reference as a physician editor. As I participated in more projects and provided value to the teams, I was given more opportunities to work on new projects and then ultimately to lead them. It was through the course of those opportunities that doors opened for me and I achieved the career that I have today.
It’s human nature, really. If you work with someone who is difficult, misses deadlines, does not deliver high-quality insights, or does not provide value to the team, you tend not to seek out that individual for other projects. On the other hand, you’ll turn to others time and time again when they provide reliability and consistently valuable performance.
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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!