As a part of my interview series with leaders in healthcare, I had the pleasure to interview Sylvie Stacy. Sylvie is a board-certified preventive medicine physician and founder of Look for Zebras, an online community and resource aimed at ensuring that physicians and other medical professionals have fulfilling careers. Her interests include physician burnout prevention, correctional healthcare, addiction medicine, public health. She serves on her county’s Board of Health and on the Board of Directors for the National Commission on Correctional Healthcare.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve always loved the science of medicine, but realized early on in my training that having a traditional medical practice would leave me unfulfilled and susceptible to burnout. Since completing residency, I’ve done part-time clinical medicine as well as nonclinical work in managed care administration and medical communications. I’ve worked as a full-time employee and as a consultant. I’ve pursued side hustles, pro bono opportunities, and consulting gigs. I “wear several hats” and “have my hand in a few pots,” as they say. I’ve found balance in this variety and I enjoy life outside of medicine.
And yet, I had numerous colleagues and acquaintances who felt stuck in positions that weren’t a good fit, who wanted a career change but didn’t know where to start, or who wanted to quit medicine altogether. I felt that I had some important information to share with them from my own experiences and exploration. That’s what prompted the start of an online community for physicians seeking to get the most out of their medical careers.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Look for Zebras started out as nothing more than a blog and a few resources for readers. But many readers were seeking a new job or contracted work to do on the side. They wanted tangible opportunities, not just information.
Likewise, employers, recruiters, and hiring managers looking for physicians often struggle to find candidates that are a great fit. And companies seeking consulting services that require medical expertise don’t always know where to turn.
So, while I didn’t launch Look for Zebras with the intent of being an employment marketplace, that’s where it’s been able to meet the greatest need.
Can you tell our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the healthcare field?
Physicians are experiencing a high rate of burnout. But much of the available resources on this topic aim to combat burnout that has already set in. As a preventive medicine specialist, I feel strongly that prevention is crucial. Preventing burnout before it ever sets in means that your job, your relationships, and your wellbeing are never in jeopardy.
My company is providing physicians an avenue to take their careers and professional lives down a path that is uniquely perfect for their own interests and situations.
In medicine, there is a common saying: “When you hear hoofbeats, look for horses, not for zebras.” It means that a patient is more likely to have a common diagnosis than a rare one, so you typically shouldn’t waste time and resources working them up for an uncommon disease. Conversely, I tell physicians that, when it comes to your career, you need to look for zebras. This means look for the unconventional, exceptional opportunities that align with your own goals.
What makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There are plenty of places to look for job opportunities online. There are big players like Indeed and Glassdoor, as well as many smaller marketplaces specifically for physicians. What makes Look for Zebras stand out amidst these is its focus on unconventional opportunities. We specialize in jobs and consulting gigs that are nonclinical, remote, flexible, part-time, or otherwise atypical.
Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to and/or see in the healthcare industry? How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo? Which “pain point” is this trying to address?
There’s a recent interest in combating burnout by medical societies, hospital systems, and other organizations that employ or interface with physicians. With this has come a new level of acceptance of innovative ways to practice medicine and to carry out a career as a physician. But that innovation is still in its infancy. I envision Look for Zebras helping to make traditionally unconventional careers for physicians more acceptable. I’d love to see that any work benefiting from the competence and experience of a physician is viewed as contributory to our population’s health — whether it’s done from a clinic, a hospital, a lab, a co-working space, a home office, or a San Francisco startup.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I don’t want to stop at simply matching employers with the best physician candidates. I want to help ensure that physicians will thrive in their new positions. The next exciting project at Look for Zebras is developing services to assist physicians in exactly this.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started”?
1. There’s no rule that you have to “do your time” in an unpleasant position in which you’re overworked and underpaid before you can have a job that’s truly satisfying and rewarding.
2. Medical training leaves you well-equipped to do much more than treat patients in a hospital or clinic.
3. Nobody else will consistently monitor to ensure your life is balanced, make sure you get a timely raise, or wholly have your best interest in mind.
4. Strategically changing jobs is not the same as job-hopping.
5. Don’t go with your gut. Use your gut reaction to guide your research and diligence. Then go with what the evidence and data support.
Let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this studycited by Newsweek, the US healthcare system is ranked as the worst among high income nations. This seems shocking. Can you share with us 3–5 reasons why you think the US is ranked so poorly?
Some reasons are similar to the factors that contribute to physician burnout.
Preventive care is insufficient and there are high rates of chronic disease. Closely related is frequent poor lifestyle choices are the part of individuals and communities.
There are some inefficiencies in our healthcare system, including at a macro level and in how healthcare delivery operates in settings such as hospitals.
Rates of medical errors are high, and we haven’t yet put the necessary structural changes into place to substantially improve this.
Care is fragmented. This is closely related to both inefficiencies and medical error rates, but really is a separate factor. It leads to poor communication and flow of information, among other things.
You are a “healthcare insider”. If you had the power to make a change, can you share a change that is needed to be made to improve the overall US healthcare system? Please share a story or example.
Effectively utilizing the skills and knowledge of physicians is important. They are, along with other providers, the ones who are diagnosing, selecting treatments, and performing procedures. They are not always compensated for the value they provide. And they are not always incentivized to improve patient outcomes and overall health.
I regularly hear from physicians who feel stifled in some way from contributing what they are truly able to. This might be due to organizational culture, policies and regulation, the aforementioned burnout, or other factors.
I feel that true improvement in this regard requires changes on a number of levels, including in the medical education system, at the federal and state level, and within organizations.
Thank you! It’s great to suggest changes, but what specific steps would need to be taken to implement your ideas? What can individuals, corporations, communities and leaders do to help?
Medical schools and postgraduate training programs need to include aspects of business, finance, information technology, regulatory science, and other topics in their curriculums that will help trainees make the most appropriate choices for their career paths and to most effectively use their strengths to improve the population’s health and the delivery of healthcare in the US.
Corporations need to more productively utilize physicians and create cultures in which they are engaged, involved, and suitably incentivized.
The medical community needs to resist shaming physicians who choose to spend their long days doing something other than diagnosing and treating individual patients. There are many ways for physicians to contribute to improving the health of our population.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better healthcare leader? Can you explain why you like them?
I’m a sucker for a good TED talk. That said, though, while resources such as books and podcasts are great sources of ideas, I feel that the best inspiration comes from real life mentors.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!