We took our Bad Ass Women in Health Tech series on the road to interview Dr. Vonda Wright at Health:Further in Nashville, Tennessee. She's the Medical Director for UPMC's Lemieux Sports Center, a pioneer sports medicine researcher, and lauded public speaker. Beyond that, Dr. Wright is one of the few female orthopedic surgeons in the country—and has authored five books as well.
We were excited to speak with such an accomplished woman, and her insights and stories provided an interesting look into the history and background of how Dr. Wright became a bad ass woman in health. Read the interview below.
[Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.]
George: I always like to start with the origin story, especially with someone like you who started as a physician and later became a high-power entrepreneur. Where did you grow up and how did you set off onto the path of medicine?
Vonda Wright: I was born in Chicago to graduate students, and we inherited the family farm. So early in my life, we all shipped off to Kansas where I learned all kinds of mad skills—farming, butchering, etc.—and through those skills, I became really, really great with my hands.
When I grew up I moved back to Chicago for all my education. I got a masters degree in cancer nursing and it was a long, long time ago before we had some of the really modern drugs we have today. So people with cancer would come to the hospital once a month for an entire week for treatment what would last six months, and it was during a time when one nurse took care of a particular patient for the entire six months. So that was the environment where I first took care of people, and I learned at a really young age, from 23-25, how to care for people one on one and why it matters to have a really high-touch practice.
When I was 28, I decided to go back to medical school, and in medical school, you divide out really quickly in the way you think—you’ve got the medicine people who like to process data. And then there’s surgeons who like to gather data, make decisions, and go to the OR. Clearly, I went out into that pathway, and then twelve years later, I get into orthopedic surgery and here I am today.
Was there anyone else in your family who worked in medicine?
No, not really. When I was growing up, the smart kids just went into medicine. There was no coding, or technology, or programming, so smart kids went straight to medicine. But interestingly, it was long enough ago that it was when women didn’t become doctors—they became teachers and nurses. I did part of that first (nursing), got a little liberated, and then went back to medical school and chose to practice in a man’s world. 97% of my profession (orthopedic surgery) are all men.
That’s changing a little bit now, right?
It’s about 7% women now.
Oof. But getting into that space—can you talk a little bit about how you made the decision to commit to such a male-dominated part of medicine?
I was raised by a mother, who like so many other mothers, always said, “Vonda, you can do anything you want”. And coming from my mother, it truly was an added message because her family is all from Hong Kong and her parents immigrated to British Guiana, which is on the top of South America, and it was a communist totalitarian society when they arrived. And so living in that world, my mother decides at 16 that she’s getting out—she took a vocational course and earned enough money to immigrate to California to go to college. So when my mother says to me, “you can do anything you want”, she’s speaking from a place of truth.
When I decided to do orthopedic surgery, it didn’t really phase me that it was all men, actually. And it’s true—you can do anything you want, but what I’ve found in the last 12 years as an attending surgeon is that sometimes the opportunities are different. So it’s a mission of mine as I train the next generation of orthopedic surgeons—and women in particular—that getting to do everything you want is not enough—you have to negotiate the same way, you must socialize the same way, network the same way, and ask for opportunities in the same way that we teach our young boys they can but don’t necessarily teach our girls.
That’s fantastic. I’m going to jump around a little bit—you founded Women’s Health Conversations. Can you explain why you chose to do this?
Ohhh, yes I can. So, I have come to terms with the fact that I’m an entrepreneur at heart and have the gift of gab, so I speak all over the place. When I go and speak at traditional women’s conferences—and some of them are huge, 15,000 women filling a convention center—largely the conversations are about some vague notion of empowerment or they’re about tweeting about how to get ahead in business. All of those things are important, but I’m usually the only health speaker and I’m not usually talking about heavy topics in health. But the fact is women make 80% of all the healthcare decisions in this country, both for themselves and everyone they touch—whether it’s their immediate family, their work family, or the neighbors who just corrals them and says, “hey, who do you see for this?”. If the rest of the families in the country are anything like my family, the only time my boys and my husband go to the doctor is if I make the appointment—
—or they can’t play golf, or something else major like that. So, it puts women in an incredibly powerful position to change the health of this country. And one of the things I say repeatedly in Women’s Health Conversations is that I believe if I can change the health of one woman, I’m going to change the health of her family, the town she lives in, and ultimately, this country.
I founded Women’s Health Conversations 5 years ago. We’ve held 4 conferences that—and I hate the word empower—aim to equip, entertain, and educate women on how to be that healthcare CMO. Because the truth is that if women can’t take care of themselves first and make the right decisions for themselves, they can’t help everybody else, because one of the main excuses we hear from women is that they’re too busy taking care of everybody else.
So, WHC was meant to start a conversation that really wasn’t happening at the time, and it’s worked—its grown from live events to podcasts, and we try our best to get out there socially with our blog and social media. The thing that spun off of WHC is the recognition of a target audience and really defining who we want to engage with.
I looked at the demographics from these events and I was capturing 40-60 year old professional women, most of them were highly educated, at least bachelor's degree or higher, and I realized that if I really wanted to change the health in this country, I needed to reach the Millennials. I have 5 Millennial children, and I know that they think differently than I did growing up and they’re capable of lots of different things. Most importantly, I know that they think about their health differently. So I did a qualitative study—we called them Action Takes, because Millennials don’t just wanna sit around, they want to take action—where I brought women together that were in a group called Premium Millennial (I didn’t make that term up so don’t slap me across the face). But these Premium Millennials, unlike my generation where everyone got married at 23 right out of college, are finishing their degrees and going right into the workforce. They may be in relationships but they’re not settling into the picket fence house and they’re not having families until they’re almost 30. These decisions give Premium Millennials ten years of choices and experiences that my generation never had.
So I asked these Premium Millennial a lot of questions around their health and seven trends came out of it—and one was that health is the wrong word. It’s become so much more than that—it’s an expansive concept about how we live, it’s mind, body, spirit, happiness. I asked them to think about a new word to encompass what they think of when they think of “health” so that we’re all actually talking about the same thing.
The second concept is that sex is not just pleasure, its policy, so when we’re talking about birth control, it’s not just about going out and having fun, it’s about what it means in the workplace and how that relates to work policy. we’re one of the main industrialized countries in the world yet we get 7 weeks of maternity leave and many countries get years. So a lot of how Premium Millennials think about health revolves around health policy.
The last thing I’ll mention is that the Premium Millennials acknowledged that health costs a lot of money. They said that they’re willing to spend 25% of their disposable income—above health insurance costs—to live this way, whether investing in organic foods or activities or massage, whatever it takes to live in a way they never saw their parents live (which is axe to the grindstone). I think this gives us valuable insight on how to prepare healthcare for the future by listening to the people who are going to be the most powerful generation—more powerful than the Baby Boomers.
So did you come up with a new term for health?
Well, actually, I had a conference with these Premium Millennials almost a year ago, and what did was I asked the audience to text me an answer… so I haven’t even gone through it. I have 104 texts of these words and I have to sort through the data [laughs].
I ask because from our perspective, one of our guiding principles is "healthcare doesn’t have to be boring"—and healthcare thought of in the traditional sense generally is.
Right! It can be interactive, and interesting, and fun. Health doesn’t have to be boring.
So, I’m kind of bouncing around here again, but you’re one of the foremost speakers on the fact that we don’t have to just get old and have our bodies shut off. I mean, when I was growing up, I just thought getting old and having your body malfunction was inevitable, but now there’s all this exciting research about how what you eat and what kind of exercise you do changes how your body ages, and even how you can restart your health later in life.
What was the moment when you were like, “holy crap, the whole world has this idea of aging health completely wrong”?
So, this is how it came about—my dad has run everyday that I’ve ever remembered, and when I was six, he took me to a race in town. (It was still in a world where you could take your kid to a race and say, “stay on this corner, I’ll be back in 35 minutes when I’m done with this race”). There was this lady in that race named Millie, who was as old as the hills, but she’s just doing her shuffle down the road at some extraordinary age. That really struck me.
At first it was novelty, but then in my residency I began to study masters athletes. There’s this phenomena in this country called the Senior Olympics, and I started studying these people and found that they’re healthy, vital, active, joyful, and they’re game for anything—and they are shredded! But all of them across the board, by staying so active, maintained their bone density and their lean muscle mass. I did studies on them to examine the retention of lean muscle mass where I ended up taking an MRI picture of a 40 year old triathlete who has gorgeous muscle, I aligned that with a picture of a 75 year old sedentary person, whose muscle was all fatty and filtrated…. the muscle didn’t look like muscle. And then I juxtaposed the picture of the 40 year old triathlete with a picture of a 75 year old triathlete, the two pictures are nearly identical.
That picture was downloaded from the internet 100k times (probably by triathletes trying to convince their families they weren’t insane).
So we studied bone density, lean muscle mass, and injury. It took me 5 years to complete a different study on cognitive function and I found that people who are chronically active maintained their executive function far better than those who are sedentary. And when I started this study, it wasn’t as common knowledge as it is now—there’s so much good work now about trying to identify what is it about mobility that’s keeping us so young.
So for the more scientifically inclined out there, what's something about aging that we might not know?
Well, there’s a protein called klotho, which is called the longevity protein, and it’s known to affect every organ in our body—the heart, lungs, brain, everything. In a klotho knockout mouse (which means they are unable to produce this protein), the mouse ages rapidly and dies very young. (An old mouse is about two and a half years old, a klotho mouse dies in its infancy). People studied klotho and started to discover that it’s stimulated to be transcribed from gene to protein by contraction of skeletal muscle. So mobility doctors hear this and thinks, “oh my god, I’ve got a gold mine!”
When I heard this, I took all my lean muscle mass people I studied and all my cognitive brain function people and did a venn diagram of who did both studies. I measured the klotho in those people and found that the levels in the oldest exercisers was higher than in the youngest sedentary people.
I know. So, that line of work really flies in the face of “we’re destined to go from the vitality of youth to the fragility of old age”. I say, “we choose that.”
So just curious—who’s pushing this preventive aging research? Is it athletes who just don’t want to see this end to their ability to compete and keep moving? Or is just from a general desire to understand the human body?
It’s the masters athletes. It’s no mystery that we know how to prevent the ravages of chronic disease. All the health studies in this country are done—the data is there, it’s not a mystery: get off our freaking butts and move, or be concerned with what you’re eating. It’s not rocket science, honestly, yet we cannot motivate our entire population to do it. As you can see, I get pretty worked up about it, because it’s in our control, so I think, why wouldn’t we grasp this? I think there’s a lot of reasons, but foremost is that a lot of people seem not to care.
There’s this concept in banking called temporal disconnect. The banking concept is, they want you to save your money for 20 years from now, but we don’t save because all we know are the needs of today. We can’t even fathom what our lives are going to be like in 20 years—and we don’t care, so I’m going to do what’s good for me today and buy what I need. That happens in banking, and that’s what happens in health, too—the sugar donuts taste good right now, so who cares if in 20 years they’re gonna give me heart disease. For me, I think that’s one of the big motivators—we can’t fathom our future, so we ignore it.
So then, from our space, we work with a lot of technology companies trying to bring new solutions to healthcare. So my question to you is: do you think this advent of different software and wearable devices and all this stuff—do you believe it’s going to improve things? Or is it a lot of noise?
I don’t think one more pedometer or siloed app is going to help. I don’t think we need any more segmented apps until we figure out a way to bring them all together, because who’s going to go to 12 apps on your phone to figure out your health? No one’s going to do that, right? You know, when I recommend physical therapy places and gyms to my patients, I know that unless it’s within ten minutes of their house, they’re not going.
As a physician, you’re still providing services at UPMC. So when you have all this new information in the care setting, how do you want to interact with it? There’s so much data, how do you deal with it all?
Honestly, it’s too much data. So the deficit in EHRs—and we have Epic and Cerner—is that a) nothing talks to each other and b) EHRs force doctors to turn their backs and interact with a computer instead of a patient. Maybe it’s great for billing, it’s bad for patient care and doesn’t provide me with a lot of the data I need. A real revolution in providers using data would be to harness that data and have a tech solution say, “your patient is at risk for these things based on their data”. Truthfully, I don’t have the time—I only have about 20 minutes with a patient, and I’m not going to spend it sorting through a chart. But, I would take the recommendations of a research-proven algorithm that says, “your patient is at 42% risk and the national standard is 30%. Here’s how you help them.”
We’ve covered a lot of ground here, and the one thing I wanted to end with is—if you had a final thing to tell folks out there, what would you like to leave them with?
We’re in control of 70% of our health and aging, and even the 30% that we inherit genetically is completely modifiable via epigenetics. So it puts us in a very hopeful and controlled environment, and I know sometimes people think “yeah, but I’m too far gone and I haven’t payed attention for 50 years”, but the fact is our bodies are a dynamic, living, changing organ. As an orthopedic surgeon, our bones replace themselves every ten years, so there’s never an age or a skill level or a deficit where you can’t profoundly change your health—if you grab hold of the control that we all have.
Dr. Wright, this has been fantastic. Thank you so much.
Dr. Wright is an internationally recognized authority on sports medicine and aging health. If you'd like to learn more about her career and who she is, please check out her website by clicking here.
Health tech is a rapidly growing field, and we're passionate about featuring the female perspective in this industry. If you'd like to read about more bad ass women in health tech, be sure to check out a few past installments of this series by clicking here, here, and here.
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