A Long and Circuitous Route to Strategy and Innovation

Sumbul Desai, MD (clinical assistant professor, general medical disciplines) took a road less traveled on her way from an undergraduate degree in computer science to her latest venture, vice chair of strategy and innovation for the Department of Medicine. Some of the people who nudged her in various directions along the way were Peter Jennings, host of ABC-TV’s World News Tonight; Michael Eisner, CEO of The Walt Disney Company; her mother and her mother’s physicians; and Bob Harrington, Chair of the Department of Medicine.

With that degree in computer science (“I always have loved technology,” Desai says simply) and a minor in communications, she ended up satisfying both sides of her brain by working at IBM during the day and ABC-TV on the night shift. The latter job won out as she became Peter Jennings’ researcher and was eventually promoted, transitioning to working days. Goodbye IBM.

But it turned out that the luster of television journalism faded. Desai explains: “I realized that so much of television news is actually based on print media; that’s where the real journalism is happening. We were just repackaging stuff.”

In addition, she missed the analytical side of things and “started asking why we made some of the choices we were making. Eventually I talked with the strategy folks at ABC, and they connected me with the strategy folks at Disney [ABC’s parent company]. Then I interviewed for a job on the strategy side and got transferred to Disney in Los Angeles.”

In addition to helping Desai come to grips with some of the options she did not want to pursue, her time at ABC was valuable. “I learned some great skills, such as interacting with different levels of people. I enjoyed that part of it.”

At Disney, “my particular area was focused on strategy for the movie studio business. I worked pretty closely with senior leadership. We had a lot of input on the overall growth of the company, such as the new things we should develop and what acquisitions we should make. It was a really great experience. I ended up doing that for about six years and I liked it.”

“But for some reason there was always something missing.” The something that was missing was about to become clearer.

“When 9/11 happened, my Mom was in a hospital in New York City after having had a stroke in mid-August. She was moved out of the ICU and into a rehabilitation place much faster than usual because the hospital expected to get a huge number of injured patients from the Twin Towers. But that didn’t happen.”

“That is where my drive to become a physician started. Because I was my mother’s primary caregiver, I took a leave from Disney for a year. I was interacting with the healthcare system on my Mom’s behalf, and I developed a good rapport with some of her physicians. A couple of them suggested that I should think about going into medicine.”

“After a year I went back to Disney and took post-baccalaureate classes in the evening. Two things happened: A, I loved my classes and B, Disney was not as appealing for me. So I applied to medical school, never thinking that I would get in. Meanwhile, my husband, whom I had met at ABC, was in business school at Stanford. So I went to medical school in Virginia, living a cross-country marriage for a number of years. Then when I was applying for residency, I put Stanford as my number 1 choice because I really liked it and I wanted to be back in the Bay Area near my husband.”

After finishing her training at Stanford, Desai searched for opportunities “to meld my previous life with my new clinical life. The Chief Medical Officer at Stanford Hospital at the time created a strategic initiatives position where I was 50% a strategist and 50% a hospitalist. A lot of the work we ended up doing at the time was telemedicine and innovative initiatives: how do you deliver care differently? We launched telemedicine for the hospital.”

“One of the things that I’m really proud of is that we launched a virtual primary care clinic. We hired physicians solely to do this telemedicine clinic virtually, with extended hours. It includes virtual wellness coaches who have video appointments with all the patients. There is no fee, and every patient gets a wellness coach. The wellness coaches are personal trainers and nutritionists and we also trained them as medical assistants. Their role is to help patients take care of their health, whether by losing weight if that’s the patient’s health goal for the year or training for a marathon or anything in between.”

Over time the work became increasingly administrative, lacking the academic opportunities Desai had become interested in. “I wanted to start looking at some outcomes and writing papers. Talking with Bob Harrington, he suggested I come work with colleagues in the Department and bridge the work I had been doing in the Hospital. My passion is really at the intersection of strategy and innovation, focusing on out-of-the-box ways for departments and institutions to grow.”

The Departmental role is evolving. “I’m meeting currently with Bob with each division and thinking through what are new ways to grow the business? What are ways to grow clinical practice that would feed the research mission and the education mission?”

A few nascent ideas include launching new multidisciplinary strategic initiatives for the Department of Medicine; developing an innovation infrastructure for DOM faculty to enable collaboration and new program development; and connecting the Department’s mission with Stanford Healthcare’s mission.

Desai provides this last thought: “I think this new job with the Department of Medicine will give physicians an opportunity to lead a lot of the cutting-edge innovation using mobile apps and other tools to help their patients reach their goals.”