Premera Perspectives: Satya Sarma, VP of Medical Management and Population Health

Premera Perspectives Satya Sarma Wednesday, March 30, 2022

As Premera’s Vice President of Medical Management and Population Health, Satya Sarma oversees health plan approvals, known as utilization management, and care management—services to help people navigate the healthcare system. She also has a role in population health, acknowledging that the way healthcare is provided doesn’t work for everyone, and identifying ways to help address the needs of specific communities.
Satya finds her role rewarding and meaningful, but says that some of the most rewarding work she has done of late isn’t part of her job. In the early days of the COVID pandemic, Arizona’s Maricopa County, where Sarma lives part-time, experienced a surge of infections.

“This was in the stages before vaccines,” she recalls. “Lots of people needed help accessing food, medication, and supplies because they had to isolate.”
Together with the CEO of the local federally qualified health center, she partnered with a community based organization to help people who were in isolation by delivering boxes of food and other supplies and connecting them with local, state and federal government support programs. The project proved successful and was eventually funded by the Center for Disease Control’s Office of Minority Health and Health Equity.
It’s not a surprise that Satya dedicated time outside of work to create a successful community support system. Her dedication to helping people is why she got into healthcare in the first place.
We sat down with Satya to learn what drove her interest in a healthcare career, what brought her to healthcare administration, and how her experience supporting others influences her as a leader. We also discussed the lack of women in healthcare administration, and what she thinks can be done to change that. Here’s what she shared with us:

Q: Why did you decide to pursue a career healthcare?
A: I was born in India and grew up in India and Africa because my parents traveled for work. I think growing up in those settings, probably mixed in with the idealism of youth and the desire to help, led me to feel a real calling to be a physician at a very young age. I was six or seven when I announced to my family that I was going to be a doctor. My parents were also very encouraging. My father set a sense of limitless possibilities and potential to impact the world.Satya Sarma Family

Q: You were a practitioner before you became an administrator, is that right?
A: Yes. I loved being a clinician. There are very few circumstances in which doing your job results in people loving you, and that’s what I experienced as a physician. There is a real intimacy that you develop when you see people in the healthcare setting. It’s a huge privilege and extremely rewarding to be able to connect with people one at a time, particularly in our fragmented healthcare system. Yet while I was helping people one at a time, I wasn’t sure I was really affecting the system, so eventually I transitioned into healthcare administration.

Q: Please tell us a bit more about your role at Premera.
A: I am the Vice President of Medical Management and Population Health. Medical management includes two areas: utilization management and care management. In utilization management, I oversee a team of nurses and doctors who are responsible for reviewing and applying evidence-based principles to health plan approval requests. In care management, I oversee a team of nurses, behavioral health specialists, and social workers who help people navigate the healthcare system—things like how to use your benefits, and how to communicate with your doctor and make better decisions about your health. Population health is about figuring out how we as a health plan identify places in the healthcare system that might be adapted to meet the needs of subsets of the population. For example, the average 20-minute doctor check-up might be fine for a generally healthy person, but for people with chronic illnesses, 20 minutes is not enough to address their needs. In Population Health Solutions, we create solutions such as new ways of delivering services to improve care for these members.

Q: Do you think it is important for healthcare administrators to have clinical experience?
A: I think having administrators with real world experience is key to improving our healthcare system. I bring a lot of the perspective and experience of having practiced as a physician to my role as an administrator. It’s important for people with a clinical background to be a voice in how we administer healthcare, whether that’s a job at a place like Premera, a job in public health, or a job in the legislature.  It's also really helpful to have people with that clinical heart in those roles. Working in healthcare, it’s important to be driven by heart.

Q: Do you think it is a problem that there are so few women in healthcare administration?
A: Yes. Women have heart and real world experience in abundance. And if those are the key to improving our healthcare system, then the lack of women in these leadership positions is detrimental to society.
Women also tend to be much more attuned to relationships. That’s a huge strength in healthcare. Connection and collaboration are driving forces throughout healthcare—they’re the things we need more of. 

Q: What do you think can be done to get more women into positions in healthcare administration?
A: Some of it is internal. In my career I have had to be deliberate about seeing myself as someone who could be influential and take on the mantle of leadership. It can be uncomfortable at first, because we tend to see ourselves in a support role—the ones who coax a project along. But when we see ourselves that way, we miss out on opportunities to contribute at a higher level. And you have to ask yourself, as you gain qualities and skills, isn’t it right that those skills should be used to serve the world at the maximum level possible? Why would you not use your skill and expertise to benefit the most people possible? 
It's not all internal, though. There is also a real need for intentional mentorship and sponsorship of women through the stages of leadership positions. And it’s not just up to women to help other women. It is up to every healthcare entity to very deliberately and intentionally mentor and sponsor women leaders. Sponsorship is especially important—putting people up for leadership positions when you see an opportunity, or promoting women, or calling a leader on the other end and saying, “you need to bet on this person.”

Q: What advice would you give to someone looking to move to the next step in their career?
A: I once got advice from a colleague to build your own personal board of directors—a network of people who you know you can go to for advice and guidance on your finances, your career, your personal life, your spiritual life. Intentionally building that network of support has been very helpful for me. A lot of times, those are the people who have started me on a new path or a new opportunity. 
I would also advise women that you don’t have to be perfect. I saw a TED Talk once about how we groom girls to be perfect and not fail. And I think that is very dangerous. I think we ought to be ok with failing. We need to give ourselves permission to fail and make sure that others give us permission to fail. 
I also tell women not to be afraid to succeed. We need to listen to what others tell us about the value we bring and say to ourselves, “of course you should be here!”

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