Since women make 80% of the healthcare decisions, we look to mothers to impact the health of families, neighborhoods, cities, states, countries and the globe. I created a non-profit called “Women’s Health Conversations” because women have the power to make change in this country for themselves and for everyone they touch. Yet I have found in my practice women often do not know the power they have for changing the health of this country, or don’t know how to start. I believe that if I can change the health of one woman, I will change the health of her family, her neighbors, her co-workers, and that one woman at a time we can change the health of her town, state and ultimately this country. By focusing on building healthy neighborhoods, harnessing technology and educating women and their 5th grade daughters, we can pivot the health of this country from disease care to true health and well being in one generation.
As a part of my interview series with leaders in healthcare, I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Vonda Wright, MD, MS. Dr. Wright is a board certified orthopedic surgeon and internationally recognized authority on active aging and mobility. She specializes in sports medicine and currently serves as the inaugural Chief of Sports Medicine for Northside Hospital System in Atlanta, is a match physician for the World Rugby 7’s, and provides medical leadership for select Atlanta Track Club races and the Atlanta Ballet. Northside Hospital Sports Medicine also serves as Official Team Physician of Georgia State University Athletics, Official Sports Medicine Provider of the Atlanta Hawks Talons esports team, and partners with Hi-Rez esports teams.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Dr. Wright! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My first career, when I was 23, was as a cancer nurse at a time when women had to stay in the hospital for one week every month until they were cured. Because of this we became very close to the patients and families we cared for. I learned life lessons that have influenced my entire healthcare career during that time, but one family in particular left a life changing mark on me. I had been caring for a patient and her family for more than six months and each day she was in the hospital her parents and sister would visit. Ultimately it was clear this woman had reached her last night in her battle with breast cancer. Early on her final morning with us her family once again came to visit her, but this time her sister was wearing her wedding dress. I will never forget that morning where I was at the bedside of a woman taking her last breaths — — at the end of her life journey — — holding hands with her sister in her wedding dress, about to go begin the next phase of her life journey. In that moment as a 23-year-old nurse, I realized the precious fragility of life and knew the rest of my life, even as I have progressed to becoming an orthopedic surgeon, would be spent empowering my patients. I vowed, through hands-on care, to educate and even help them believe in their own power to live more each day by investing in their health, because their lives and health are precious. I believe that if I change the health of one women, I will change the health of everyone she touches…her family, her friends, co-workers and eventually…one woman at a time I can change the health of one city, one state and ultimately the health of our nation.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company? One thing that makes me a leader is having out-of-the-box thinking. Thinking about the future in an innovative way.
Long before aging well was a national obsession, I wrote a book in 2008, Fitness After 40, dedicated to staying strong at any age. I was perhaps the first to focus attention on how to preserve musculoskeletal aging and longevity, not accepting the myth that aging is an inevitable decline from the vitality of youth to frailty in old age. Since then I have written multiple books on the topic of active aging, designed sporting goods products to move us to living more everyday and empower audiences world wide. Now that multiple social influences have reached 40, this message is everywhere. I’m founding director of the Performance and Research Initiative for Masters Athletes (PRIMA) and performed pioneering research in mobility and musculoskeletal aging that is changing the way we view and treat the aging process.
This year I was the first orthopedic surgeon and team doctor to partner with professional eSports teams to care for this new generation of sports challengers in the same way we care for traditional athletes. We partnered with Skillshot Media, who brought to Atlanta the 90 leading Palladins and Smite esports players in the world to create an esports medicine program. The training and research program treats pro gamers just like pro athletes in traditional sports — benefiting from nutrition, exercise, rest and best practices for optimizing performance and prolonging careers. This is the first program of its kind in the Southeast, and perhaps the US.
Can you tell our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the healthcare field?
Through a significant education and professional opportunities, coupled with a driving work ethic over many years, I have been able to create innovative programs that not only expand the field of orthopedic sports medicine but women’s health. Additionally, as one of only six percent of orthopedic surgeons who are women I have learned to navigate in this very traditional world by working harder, longer and continue learning. In addition to my expertise in active aging and hip arthroscopy, I have now turned my attention to the role of exponential technologies in sports medicine.
What makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Most of my competitors have been building their practices for 20–30 years. I am building a business within a hospital system. I’m an intrapreneur, meaning I build businesses within established systems.
I came to Atlanta to build an orthopedic surgery and sports medicine department for Northside health system. It truly is a “build from the ground up,” gathering faculty, resources, building the strategic vision for the next five to 10 years.
While building the business, I’m also building a culture of excellence not only via a driving vision, but most importantly by recruiting some of the best clinicians from around the country to build with me. Perhaps my greatest skill as a leader is to inspire, already excellent caregivers, towards an even higher level of excellence, all while remembering that our patients are the center of our universe. Building the “culture of excellence” within my staff will result in the best care of our patients.
An example of this is creating an environment where we care for our staff so they can care for our patients. One of my staff was afraid to tell me she is expecting, fearing that taking the time off would be looked down upon or damage her career. This has often been the case for female surgeons, however, being a mom-doc myself and having only taken a week off after I had my child out of fear of losing my position, I encouraged her to invest time in her newborn and take the time she needs. She and her family deserved that time. I believe the fact that I was completely supportive, in turn, motivates her to take better care of our patients.
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?
In medicine, we are going back to the future. You used to know your doctor. You used to get house calls. You had a profound trust in the process. We have lost the profound trust in the process because docs are no longer like our family members. They are strangers who may not remember you. Take a number. Because of the inefficiencies of the system, healthcare is run by administrators, not clinicians. Doctors have become workers, not healers.
Technology-driven healthcare, personalization, access to your doc, in a cohesive place is the only future that will work. We have to reconnect and be accessible and use technology to do that. I’m trying to get ahead of the current technology by studying the future, such as exponential technology where you can reach one billion users instantly, Artificial Intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, 3D printing, robotics, genomic sequencing and more.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Be willing to sacrifice your youth on the altar of training and success and learn to love delayed gratification. On average it takes 11 years of post-graduate education to become an orthopedic surgeon and so the other smart people going into finance or law start reaping financial rewards nearly a decade before doctors. My first real paycheck was at age 40.
- Learn how to code. I was in school when the first Mac came out. Medicine is technology so I would be able to harness the power of technology in a proactive way.
- Find a mentor, sponsor and champion for career advancement, but also for advice on how to be a great wife, mother and doctor. When I started there were no women role models, but that is changing. Great careers are often created by standing on the shoulders of giants. Find a giant.
- Become an expert at networking and build people connections. It’s who you know, not what you know. Looking back over my career I can trace all the major opportunities back to the networks of a couple generous connections.
- Learn how to play golf better. Seal a deal on hole 17.
Let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this study cited 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?
- We have a siloed fragmented system with very little coordinated care. It’s not unusual for hospitals to have several separate electronic medical records that do not talk to each other digitally. The records do not communicate, which is not only inefficient, but it results in loss of continuity.
- Insurance system is set up to pay for services. Doctor and hospital reimbursement is based on procedure codes and disease care instead of prevention and coordinated care. Insurance doesn’t pay to talk about prevention. Until the model flips, nothing will change.
- We are in the expensive phase, a tech ramp-up phase. As technologies become faster, healthcare costs will decrease. Exponential tech capacity doubles every two years and the cost cuts in half every two years.
- We live in a culture of take a pill, not prevent. We must build health into our communities via sidewalks, Tesla and 5th grade girls. By this I mean, build healthy communities with sidewalks and easy access to healthy food, health care, social outlets and harness the power of technology as the great unifier (as Nikola Tesla predicted in 1926). We must give access to healthcare to people previously under-cared for because of finances, location or physical strength. We can change the health of this country in one generation by teaching 5th graders to value health and to make the best choices….just as we taught a generation about recycling and sustainability. We can do so with health, starting with the 5th graders who are old enough to learn and not old enough to completely ignore the information.
- Change must come from individuals taking responsibility for their own health choices every day. With our paternal nature of healthcare, we have never considered our health to be our responsibility. It is. We are responsible for being an active participant in our health and those we care for. As you have a deductible with your health insurance, your real deductible — — what you are responsible for every minute of every day — — is your health. We have a choice in this country, so choose to be an active participant in your health, or it will be put upon you in the form of illness, disease and chronic conditions.
You are a “healthcare insider”. If you had the power to make a change, can you share 5 changes that need to be made to improve the overall US healthcare system? Please share a story or example for each.
- While I practice orthopedics and sports medicine, I have turned an eye towards the role of exponential technology for driving access to health care and providing personalized continuity of care across a lifespan. We live in a new age of medicine. Health systems must become interconnected with patients owning their own data. If we empower patients to be digital stewards of their own health records, it benefits everyone involved; patient, physician, insurer, hospital, health system. With real-time patient data at their fingertips, providers, patients and caregivers can work together to make fully informed care decisions. It ensures that patients receive appropriate tests and medications, while avoiding duplications or conflicts. Having access to your own records can help you to make more informed decisions and become more responsible for your own health. And this increase in efficiency will reduce costs in time and resources for patients and insurers by avoiding duplications, and for clinicians and admin staff by requiring fewer hours.
- Since women make 80% of the healthcare decisions, we look to mothers to impact the health of families, neighborhoods, cities, states, countries and the globe. I created a non-profit called “Women’s Health Conversations” because women have the power to make change in this country for themselves and for everyone they touch. Yet I have found in my practice women often do not know the power they have for changing the health of this country, or don’t know how to start. I believe that if I can change the health of one woman, I will change the health of her family, her neighbors, her co-workers, and that one woman at a time we can change the health of her town, state and ultimately this country. By focusing on building healthy neighborhoods, harnessing technology and educating women and their 5th grade daughters, we can pivot the health of this country from disease care to true health and well being in one generation.
- I’d like to see more funds being put into healthy living than in to disease research and drug trials. The business model for healthcare needs to pivot from “disease care” to true “health care” with providers and hospital systems being rewarded not only for procedures, but also patient health/wellness. Currently, the insurance system is set up to pay for services. Doctor and hospital reimbursement is based on procedure codes and disease care, instead of prevention and coordinated care. Until the model flips, nothing will change. But what could change in the nearer future is the use of health savings accounts to include wellness. We must move beyond just education and reward participants for taking action to be well.
4. Greater coordination needs to take place in our food system. In the same country where farmers are paid not to plant crops and restaurants/grocery stores waste tons of food there are significant food deserts and food insecurity in this country. We can never truly be a healthy country unless to seriously address access to healthy, non-processed foods for all. One of my favorite non-profits, Rescue 411, based out of Pittsburgh, is a technology-enabled food rescue system that harvests good food from restaurants and grocery stores and gives it to people with food insecurity. This is a great example of harnessing the power of technology for grass roots social change surrounding health.
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?
In the same way individual health is silo-ed due to market forces, separation of technology and current business practices, healthcare in general is not interconnected. The answer to better heath for our country will not come with more regulation. Change must come from individuals taking responsibility for their own health choices daily, health systems becoming interconnected with patients owning their own data and the business model for health pivoting from “disease care” to truly “health care” with providers and hospital systems being rewarded not only for procedures but also patient health.
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 subscribe to Master Class podcasts, Mental Resilience, Ted Talks, and read business books, such as Excellence Wins by Horst Schulze, Good to Great by Jim Collins and all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books. l also attend as many exponential technology conferences that I can to see where healthcare is heading and try to be at the forefront.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!