As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Romilla Batra, M.D., MBA.
Dr. Batra is the chief medical officer at SCAN Health Plan, where she provides physician oversight of clinical programs, ambulatory and complex case management and helps design clinical initiatives that support healthy, independent aging.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Dr. Batra! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
There have been a few defining moments that have brought me to the healthcare field, but the primary one is while growing up in India, I saw many children and families in need of basic healthcare, especially in smaller cities. I was astounded by the high child and maternal mortality rate in India at that time and felt that I could make an impact on their lives through the pursuit of a career in health.
After ten years serving as a primary clinician, teaching and mentoring the next generation of physicians, the inspiration to serve the senior population led me to my current role. During my time as a primary, seniors accounted for the largest population of the clinic population I managed, and I wanted to make a bigger impact on their health and well-being. When the opportunity with SCAN opened up, I was drawn to the organization’s grassroots history and singular mission to keep seniors healthy and independent. I felt like this was where I could truly make an impact at the population level, with the individual at the center of it all.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
There was a senior that we worked with through SCAN’s community service branch, Independence at Home, who had multiple health issues, including Parkinson’s, that made it hard for him to feed himself. As a result, he was reluctant to go out and was left feeling very isolated. One of our social workers sat down with this man to find out his priorities. It turns out his biggest wish was to go out to dinner with his family without being embarrassed or hindered by his disability. This wasn’t a medical intervention — instead, we gave him a special spoon and hand brace that enabled him to get food to his mouth smoothly. That’s all it took to improve his outlook on life. We have a number of stories like this, which illustrate the power of caring for the person, not simply treating their diseases.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I certainly didn’t find it funny at the time, but I’ll always remember when I was working at a health center for underserved communities and I told an older patient from Mexico to cut down on the pasta in her diet. She gave me a funny look and said, “I don’t eat that.” I quickly realized in some areas you can do really well, while in others you’ll have blind spots. This patient pointed out what should have been obvious: before you give advice to a patient, understand who you’re speaking with. And use that insight to tailor your recommendations so they’re relatable and relevant. Not all patients with diabetes eat the same foods or face the same challenges! I make it a point to share this with all my students.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
SCAN’s emphasis on the aging journey and senior wellbeing is unlike any other organization I know. As a not-for-profit, we’re committed to understanding the challenges seniors face as they age and focused on addressing the barriers to independence that come along the way. In addition to addressing the needs of our health plan members, SCAN also has robust community services for seniors and caregivers regardless of plan membership. This harkens back to SCAN’s founding in 1977 as a social services “hub” for seniors, designed to improve access to the care and services they needed to remain healthy and independent. I’ve heard many personal stories about SCAN over the years. But the one that I think is most telling is the fact that our founding CEO is now a SCAN member himself, as is his wife.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
My team and I are working on an exciting project that unites virtual reality and aging experience.
By 2040, 20% of the total U.S. population will be ages 65 and older, amounting to more than 81 million people! This population boom presents a unique challenge to understand the needs, experiences and perspectives of older adults. We believe that the easiest way to understand and accept another person is to walk in their shoes. Over a dozen years ago, SCAN developed an interactive senior sensitivity workshop called Trading Ages®, where people get the chance to “experience” aging challenges, such as loss of vision or hearing. But we’ve taken it a step further. Now through the use of virtual reality, the experience has become completely immersive, allowing us to bring the aging experience to life more authentically than ever before. This first-hand experience of the physical, social and emotional aspects of aging builds greater empathy and understanding, which is beneficial for everyone, including family members, caregivers, and community partners.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
As a leader it’s important to recruit the right people, empower them, engage them and hold them accountable — but don’t micro-manage. I read in a book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink, that most of the time, to be successful people need the four T’s — team, time, technology and tools. Give people the tools and the things they are responsible for but let them figure it out themselves. This can be difficult as a female leader because you may instinctively want to step into the role as a mom, friend, etc., but that’s not what your employees need from you. They need you to push them to succeed in their position with the skills they’ve developed and the resources they’ve been given.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
I would tell them to be visionary: give direction, hold people accountable, set milestones, have an open-door policy, and let your employees lead the way they want to lead. Essentially, empower your staff to do what you know they’re capable of — which is to successfully drive their divisions and lead their respective teams.
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?
I attribute my success to two very important people in my life: my mother and my husband.
Starting at an early age, I was very inspired by my mother. She was nurturing and caring, always willing to help others and serve as a pillar of support for her kids. Growing up, my father was in the army, so we travelled a lot, mostly to smaller towns and villages that lacked access to good education. However, my mother wasn’t going to let that get in the way of our advancement, so she stepped up and took on the role of teacher, mentor and guide during my formative years. I distinctly remember her first learning the curriculum herself and then teaching me. I am very grateful for her commitment to my academic education, as well as her emphasis on the importance of staying well-rounded and informed on current events.
I met my husband when I was young, and he’s been essential in furthering my career ever since. He’s taken care of the kids, acted as my professional mentor, and supported me on a personal level.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I was raised in India, where there is an ingrained difference between men and women. A large population of women are not supported by their families and therefore not educated. It’s a vicious cycle. I truly believe in supporting women through education and empowerment, so I participate in a few organizations to mentor young women in high school who are interested in healthcare, management roles or volunteering. That’s how I see myself giving back to society.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Practicing evidence-based, high-quality medicine alone won’t improve outcomes. When I trained to be a clinician, it did not occur to me that improving outcomes means acknowledging and addressing patient’s medical, behavioral and social needs.
- Train in a multidisciplinary way. I understand now it takes an entire team — clinicians, pharmacists, social workers and the like — to move the needle. One example is from our Connecting Provider to Home program. We were able to serve a homeless patient with multiple medical issues, ranging from cancer to depression, and improve his overall quality of life through relatively minor interventions, such as accompanying him to an appointment with his primary care physician and to the Social Security office to apply for SSI. As a result, this patient has not been admitted to the hospital or visited the ER since his enrollment in the program. He’s begun to actively engage in his care and follow through with his treatment plan.
- Put the patients’ goals before medical goals. Doing best for an individual means practicing person-centered and person-driven care. Here’s a great example: After many failed attempts to get a patient onboard with a treatment plan, a nurse made an in-home visit and asked the patient about his goals. He wanted to go to church on Sunday mornings but couldn’t — his heart failure caused his feet to swell so badly he couldn’t get shoes on. Knowing this, our team was able to connect the importance of regularly taking his water pills to being able to go to church. Helping him reach his goals helped us reach ours.
- I wish someone had told me how hard it would be to have a family, build a career and live by example. I cannot tell patients to exercise and eat healthy if I do not create time to do so myself — and that requires maintaining a balance. I’ve seen first-hand that many people live and thrive with chronic conditions, meaning there is no excuse for someone like myself, who does not deal with a chronic condition, not to do the same.
- Understanding human behavior, how and why we do things, is one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of what we do. Going into this field, I thought patients would listen to my advice just because I am a doctor. It took time for me to understand that each person is dealing with and approaching life being shaped by what’s going on around them. We all bring our own beliefs and values to the table as well, which can be difficult to integrate into something as “black and white” as medicine.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂
A movement I’m most passionate about is empowering women in third world countries to get educated and stand on their own feet. It can take generations to come out of poverty, so I also aim to help them not just survive, but to grow and eventually thrive. It’s essential we take proactive steps to ensure women all over the world are given the tools necessary to sustain healthy and positive lives that, in turn, empower the next generation.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of the quotes I always go back to is, “Be the best at getting better, but you first have to give it your best.” I’ve learned that no matter how big the obstacle, how small the task, or how many people are in the audience, give it your absolute best and then learn from it. That is how we each get better.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I would love to have a private meal with the Dalai Lama. With age comes wisdom, and I’m at a point in my life where I want to learn about compassion and empathy. These are virtues he spreads in all of his messages. To me, these are traits we can always work to improve.