A Conversation with Optum’s Chief of the Office for Provider Advancement Dr. Amy Nguyen Howell


Optum is a Champion Sponsor of the 2020-2021 PCP Student Action Network and PCP Leadership Summit. In our interview with Dr. Amy Nguyen Howell, Optum’s Senior National Medical Director, Chief of the Office for Provider Advancement (OPA), she explains how she’s leading the advancement of Optum’s clinical priorities around experience, physician partnership, and provider development in pursuit of the quadruple aim.

As Optum’s Chief of the Office for Provider Advancement (OPA), what does a typical day look like for you? What does the OPA set out to accomplish?

There is no typical day at Optum, especially in the OPA. My focus areas as Chief of the Office for Provider Advancement are to elevate the human experience; support clinical outcomes research and innovation; enhance the partnership experience for our physicians; implement the priorities from our clinical governance (Physician Executive Council [PEC]) and lead the Clinical Leadership Congress to deliver on the quadruple aim; and anchor all our work on the foundation of an equitable responsible culture. So — my day to day revolves around setting strategy and vision while supporting my team and removing obstacles as they do the hard work in each of these work priorities. And, now, while we’re still building our team, I spend a lot of time on hiring and interviewing, to make sure we’re bringing on teammates who can champion these ideas in an effective way consistent with OurUnitedCulture and Optum Care community. I also prioritize speaking with our practicing clinicians and providers — when they reach out to connect, ask for help, or give feedback I always make time in my schedule to connect, hear their message, and share what we’re doing to help. Connecting peers within our community is essential to foster belonging and well-being, along with career fulfillment and provider experience.

You’ve been very involved in so many aspects of healthcare, from serving on a CMS Technical Expert Panel to the America’s Physician Groups (APG) and even blockchain technology (just to name a few). Why is it so important that you are an active participant in so many different areas?

When I see all the exciting work being done, I can’t help but get involved! We have such a compelling opportunity in healthcare generally, and within Optum — to do the essential, meaningful work of caring for other human beings and helping them live healthier lives, while also creating a fulfilling place to practice medicine for our physicians and teams. But we’re only going to realize that potential if we learn from each other and all the great work that is happening. When I was CMO at APG I helped create Case Studies in Excellence to highlight some of these bright spots, and I do similar work in Optum — helping our medical groups share best practices to encourage a learning community. I believe being involved helps us stay alert and be nimble, which makes our own organization more effective — and, plus, it’s more fun that way.

COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on all parts of our personal and professional lives. What is the biggest disruption or concern caused by COVID-19 that keeps you up at night?

I’m most concerned about the additional burden placed on our physicians, patients, and providers. This pandemic has made it more difficult to connect personally with the people on your care team, and with your patients. We’ve done incredible work to increase the use of telemedicine so that we can provide safe effective care to our patients remotely; now — as digital becomes a prevalent and accepted part of healthcare — we need to help our physicians, providers, care teams, and patients manage the additional complexity we’ve placed on them so that they aren’t shouldering an even heavier administrative and logistical burden than before.

Would you say that COVID-19 has catalyzed any positive changes in healthcare?

Yes — in two areas. First, I think the shift to digital health and some of the regulatory changes have been positives for the industry. Second, and more importantly, I think the recognition by the healthcare system that rapid, positive change is possible is crucial as we tackle the big problems ahead, including continuing to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m also proud that Optum is leading the way. Dr. Po Tu at The Everett Clinic, part of Optum Care, created a self-testing innovation that improved how millions of tests nationally were done. Dave Wichmann, UnitedHealthGroup’s (UHG) CEO, has affirmed our commitment to learn and advance workplace inclusion and diversity. All throughout our company, UHG and Optum are looking at ways to make create a culture of inclusion. It’s exciting to see our organization leading the country as not only the biggest, national ambulatory medical group, yet also one of the most competitive in clinical performance, research and innovation. We are doing great things to make it the place to work for physicians and clinicians.

What are some ways that you’ve stayed connected to your colleagues, patients, family, and friends in this time of physical distancing?

This has been challenging! I spend most of my time these days on Zoom or Webex, rather than in-person meetings. So — I work to make them meaningful and fun by making time to connect or share something personal. Recently my team all had a chia-pet contest to keep things interesting. I try to use video in my meetings, so I can be face-to-face with colleagues, even when we’re far apart. Lastly, I try to be kind and give grace to the people I’m working with — since we’re all dealing with a lot of change, including remote school for many families — so I intentionally remember that as I go through my day.

We’ve noticed connecting virtually is a challenge for our providers and care teams, so my team has published a toolkit of ideas to help. We’ve made it available on our Optum Care website in case it’s helpful for anyone outside our organization.

You have nearly two decades leadership experience in healthcare. Has there been a seminal moment, conversation, or experience during your career that left a lasting impression on you? How would you say that shaped or shifted your approach to care delivery?

I’m not sure I have a single moment to share as much an overarching mission: to help physicians and providers have joy and fulfillment in their career. That’s been my “why” for a long time, and I’ve learned a lot while pursuing it — that physician leadership is essential, that value-based payment models work, and that we can learn from each other to make positive change. Those lessons lead me to believe that Optum — and my OPA team — has a compelling opportunity to advance that mission in the years to come.

PCP is grateful that Optum was once again a Champion-level sponsor of the PCP Leadership Summit and our Student Action Network. What advice do you have for the next generation of healthcare?

My advice, to your last question, is to keep cultivating and nurturing your mission over time, keep learning (especially from those around you!) more about how to advance it, and you’ll make a positive difference. One of my hobbies is gardening, which has taught me that progress takes time and consistent action. When I started in Family Medicine 20 years ago, I knew I wanted to make an impact in the specialty and use my skills to enhance the experience for the patient and their families, while also advancing the relationships and experiences for the physician/provider and their care teams — ultimately reimagining the human experience in American healthcare that doesn’t cost much to take care of people with grace, dignity and humility. At Optum and in the OPA, we practice servant leadership, delivering on the quadruple aim and making Optum Care the best place to work and take care of each other. Join us, and together, we will make history!

Dr. Nguyen brings great passion and depth of experience to the pursuit of the quadruple aim, most recently serving as the chief medical officer at America’s Physician Groups (APG). During her tenure there, she led the clinical and educational pillars, offering guidance and strategy around advocacy, innovation, quality performance and technology for value-based care. She has also built strategic partnerships between medical groups, hospitals, health plan partners, external vendors and marketing, especially in the areas of care coordination, quality improvement, health equity and social determinants/drivers of health. In addition, Dr. Nguyen is a practicing family physician and adjunct faculty at the University of Southern California (USC) in the Sol Price School of Public Policy, teaching quality of care for the Master’s in Health Administration (MHA) program.

Primary Care Progress

Founded in 2010, Primary Care Progress is a national organization committed to building stronger primary care teams. Working with current and future healthcare professionals from across disciplines and career stages – from students and faculty to providers and health systems leaders – we offer leadership development and support that emphasizes relational skills, individual resiliency, and advocacy. By providing the resources and community necessary to excel, we’re strengthening the teams at the heart of primary care, ultimately leading to sustainable models of care and better health for all.

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