Market yourself in whatever role you are in — Make sure that your role and your importance is known to those around you, regardless of what project you are working on. You may be getting everything done behind the scenes, but if no one knows about your contributions, your value won’t be fully recognized. You also have to advocate for yourself and tell people about your career aspirations. If you’re bored in your current role, ask for a new project or a new focus. If you don’t tell people what you want, they may never knock on your door when a new opportunity arises.
As part of my series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rebecca Cotton.
Rebecca Cotton is the Executive Director of Data Analytics and Intelligence at Cardinal Health Sonexus™ Access and Patient Support. In her role, Rebecca is responsible for the definition, development and delivery of comprehensive data analytics, business intelligence strategies and client solutions. Rebecca brings extensive technology expertise in data modeling, data lakes, data science, predictive analytics, performance dashboards, reporting analytics and tools within the pharmaceutical industry. Rebecca holds a Bachelor of Sciences in Cellular and Molecular Biology as well as a Masters of Sciences in Biostatistics from the University of Michigan.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the ‘backstory” of how you decided to pursue this career path?
My father was a math teacher, so it’s not surprising that I ended up in a math-related field. Although I planned a career in medicine with a major in cellular molecular biology at the University of Michigan, I soon realized that becoming a physician wasn’t the right path for me. During a brief sabbatical from my studies, I took a position in a medical research lab where I worked closely on data analysis projects. One of the physicians in the lab suggested that I consider a career in biostatistics because it was an area I excelled in and enjoyed. As a result, I went back to school and earned a master’s degree in biostatistics.
I worked briefly for the government before moving into the pharmaceutical industry. As a young professional, I was lucky to work on a major litigation case where I had the opportunity to work alongside some of the best statisticians in the country. This experience gave me great perspective about how to think both practically and broadly about data analytics — and those lessons have stuck with me throughout my career.
Throughout my career, I’ve worked in almost every area of data and analytics in the pharmaceutical industry, including roles at Bayer Healthcare and Novartis. I’ve typically worked in spaces that sit in between technology and the business, which has given me great perspective on how data can solve challenges. And I’ve had the privilege of seeing how those solutions can deliver real-world benefits for patients.
What lessons can others learn from your story?
Early on in my career I learned that effective statisticians are those who take the time to understand where the information is coming from, where the holes are and, most importantly, what not to do with the data. It’s essential to stop and ask questions such as: How do I know this data is accurate? Have I looked at it in different ways? Does it align with what I know is true in the real world? When you can look beyond the data and visualize the bigger picture, you can be mindful of the broader implications, including the ethical ramifications of applying these numbers. This is an important learning for anyone working with data analysis, regardless of the industry.
Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
I’m excited about how we are using AI and technology at SonexusTM to help patients get faster access to their therapy sooner and receive better care throughout their journey. In the past, the process of navigating prior authorizations, benefits investigations, step edits, and benefits appeals was very manual. Today, we are flipping the model by using machines to manage the process and administration and focusing our people where they can add the most value — in directly supporting the patients. It’s extremely fulfilling when we’re able to help patients overcome hurdles to get the treatment they need.
I’m currently exploring new ways to use natural language processing technology and AI to improve patient support services at SonexusTM. This technology has the ability to uncover hidden barriers to care and bridge the gaps between patients and their therapies. By applying the technology to recorded calls between patients, payers and clinicians, we can identify key terms that may signal an issue and assess whether these are isolated incidents or more commonly occurring. By identifying these issues early, we can help biopharmaceutical companies intervene with additional patient support and maintain continuity of care. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we adapted this technology to recognize coronavirus-related words and phrases so that we could better support patients at a time of extreme uncertainty and confusion. It’s been incredible to see how AI can help the healthcare industry adapt in times of crisis to better serve patients.
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?
My sister is someone who has a particularly impactful influence on my career right now. After she was diagnosed with cancer, I accompanied her to some of her doctor’s appointments and experienced firsthand the hurdles that oncology patients can face. Witnessing my sister — a well-educated, intelligent woman — struggle to understand some of the complex processes and terminology related to her oncology care made it clear just how confusing managed care hurdles can be for patients. This has influenced my perspective on the patient experience and reinforced how important the work is that I do at SonexusTM.
I’ve also been lucky enough to work with several leaders who have helped me grow my skills and career. My current boss, Tara Herington, Vice President of Cardinal Health Sonexus™ Access and Patient Support, is someone that continues to inspire me. She has an impressive mix of strategy, operations and being approachable as a leader. She cares about her team and the patients we support in a genuine way.
What are the 5 things that most excite you about the AI industry? Why?
It’s still an emerging field.
The AI industry is ever-changing which means that I’m constantly learning and developing new skills. It’s exciting to explore new opportunities and develop strategies as we discover all the possibilities of AI and machine learning.
The ability to drive meaningful change.
The AI industry is full of very powerful tools. Applying those solutions in the right way can lead to complete transformations in the way we work. This is exactly what we’re trying to do at SonexusTM. By relying on machines to drive many of the processes that were formerly managed manually, we can ensure patients get the right therapy and get access more efficiently.
The positive impact our work can have.
The numbers and data points that we analyze equate to real people. Whether you’re working in the healthcare sector or consumer packaged goods, our interpretation of data sets can have a direct impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. With the advanced capabilities of AI, we have the opportunity to make a profound and positive influence on the world around us.
What are the 5 things that concern you about the AI industry? Why?
The ethical application of AI.
Just because we can do something with data, doesn’t necessarily mean we should. It’s important that analysts maintain a practical view of the applications of the data they’re manipulating, and how its use will impact people in the real world. Within the healthcare industry specifically, we need to make sure we consider how the application of AI may affect individual patients, rather than just looking at the implications across broad groups. We also need to be prepared to consider the ethics of every decision.
The lack of guardrails across the industry.
I’ve spent most of my career in the pharmaceutical industry which is heavily regulated. However, AI has had very little, if any, regulation by the government to date. It’s up to each individual analyst to maintain the integrity of our field. It’s critical that we analyze each model in the context of what implications it has on the future. It’s also on us to ensure that all the right questions are being asked. Where did this data come from? What was overlooked?
AI has become a buzzword.
There is currently a lot of focus on the potential of AI to improve healthcare — and I agree that the possibilities are exciting. But AI is not the best solution for every challenge. It’s important to consider the practicality of using AI in certain situations and whether we’re going to get the meaningful outcomes we want in order to make a difference.
As you know, there is an ongoing debate between prominent scientists, (personified as a debate between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg,) about whether advanced AI has the future potential to pose a danger to humanity. What is your position about this?
When I think about the role of AI in healthcare, I believe we always must maintain a balance between the role of machines and the role of people. Empathy, compassion and understanding are things that machines cannot provide, but they are critical to delivering exceptional care and ensuring that patients achieve the best outcomes.
At SonexusTM, much of our work is focused on helping chronic care patients navigate challenges and barriers to care so they can get on therapy as efficiently and easily as possible. Machines can help make some of those hurdles easier to overcome, but there are others that can be extremely complex. The emotional support that a person can provide when directly helping a patient to navigate through managed care barriers can never be replaced with a machine. As much as AI presents a wealth of opportunities to better serve patients, we cannot lose sight of the crucial role that humans play in that journey.
What can be done to prevent such concerns from materializing? And what can be done to assure the public that there is nothing to be concerned about?
Placing and maintaining an emphasis on the importance of data ethics in the AI and analytics space will help mitigate the risks of data being misinterpreted. It’s important to be mindful of what your data and analysis will mean for your audience, or society at large, in both the short- and long-term. Keeping a forward-looking perspective is an essential step to prevent data from being misused.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?
Working within the healthcare industry allows me the opportunity to have a direct and positive impact on patients. When it comes to data analytics, almost everything we do ties back to people, and it’s critical to remain thoughtful of that impact while you’re working. Being able to see our tools and technology benefit chronic care patients on long-term treatment plans is extremely rewarding.
When the pandemic started earlier this year, SonexusTM was in a unique position to help our clients understand the impact and, more importantly, how we could guide our industry by stepping up and helping impacted patients. I’m grateful every day that I work in an industry that keeps the patient at the center of what we do.
As you know, there are not that many women in your industry. Can you share 3 things that you would advise to other women in the AI space to thrive?
Find a mentor
Mentors can be extremely beneficial. Don’t look for someone who is exactly like you — you’ll learn more from people whose backgrounds and experiences are different from your own. Also, be sure to find someone who will give you honest feedback and be willing to listen to the feedback, both good and bad.
Volunteer for projects (and jobs) that you are uncomfortable with
The times when I’ve learned the most are when I’ve known the least. Taking on projects that are outside of your comfort zone builds your confidence in a way that staying comfortable doesn’t. It’s confidence-boosting to understand that your skills are transferable. Try to get involved in as many projects as possible, especially when you’re starting out in the industry. The breadth of exposure you get at those early years in your career can help accelerate your growth after you’ve become more established.
Market yourself in whatever role you are in
Make sure that your role and your importance is known to those around you, regardless of what project you are working on. You may be getting everything done behind the scenes, but if no one knows about your contributions, your value won’t be fully recognized. You also have to advocate for yourself and tell people about your career aspirations. If you’re bored in your current role, ask for a new project or a new focus. If you don’t tell people what you want, they may never knock on your door when a new opportunity arises.
Can you advise what is needed to engage more women into the AI industry?
We’re starting to see more and more women going into and excelling in the STEM fields. I’m fortunate to say that I haven’t run into many barriers as a woman in this field. I think it starts with parenting and encouraging girls and young women to develop STEM skills. I was lucky that my parents encouraged and supported my interest in math and science.
It’s also important to develop a sense of curiosity in our children. 60 Minutes is required television in my home and sometimes my kids challenge me with its relevance to their lives in an effort to claw back time for Fortnite or other pursuits. I respond that it may not be directly relevant to their lives today, but a story can provide a glimpse into a subject that you would never explore in your daily life and thereby expand your thinking about our world.
What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?
“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less” — Eric Shinseki
This has always been a favorite quote of mine. In one of my previous roles, I had to lead my team to make significant changes in the way that we operate and get them to think differently. I found this quote and hung it up on the back of my office door so that, after every conversation, my colleagues would see it before leaving the room. To me, it captures the essence of how important change is to the ongoing growth and success of an organization. Change is inevitable, especially in the evolving industry of data analytics and AI, and you can only avoid change for so long before you cross into irrelevance.
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 think the AI industry would benefit from some type of licensure exam and protocol in order to set ethical boundaries. Given the world is so much more dependent on data now, there is a significant risk that it could be misused, either intentionally or unintentionally. Licensing statisticians wouldn’t be an exhaustive solution and wouldn’t necessarily prevent anyone from malicious intent, but it would be a valuable way to provide education and establish guardrails for those working in the industry. It would also help produce thorough data collection and encourage more thoughtful analysis.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow me on LinkedIn.