Emerging Health Leaders: Ellen Beckjord, Ph.D., M.P.H., of UPMC Health Plan

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MHE Publication, MHE October 2021, Volume 3, Issue 10

Ellen Beckjord is one of 13 up-and-coming health leaders featured in this annual Managed Healthcare Executive series.

Ellen Beckjord, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate vice president of population health and clinical transformation at UPMC Health Plan in Pittsburgh

I grew up in Pittsburgh and returned in 2007 after completing my undergraduate studies at Pennsylvania State University’s Schreyer Honors College and my graduate training in clinical psychology at the University of Vermont. I earned an M.P.H. in epidemiology and biostatistics at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and completed my postdoctoral work at the National Cancer Institute.

At UPMC Health Plan, I’ve led our first digital translation of our telephonic health behavior change services into mobile just-in-time adaptive interventions. I also published “Oncology Informatics: Using Health Information Technology to Improve Processes and Outcomes in Cancer”(Hesse, Ahern and Beckjord), which received the PROSE Award in Clinical Medicine from the Association of American Publishers in 2017. I hosted UPMC Health Plan’s inaugural podcast focused on social determinants of health, “Good Health, Better World.”

Who has had the greatest influence on your life?

My mother. She modeled and instilled in me a guiding principle of grit and grace that shapes much of how I navigate the world, both professionally and personally.

Why did you pursue a career in healthcare?

My overarching goal is to be of service to people who are vulnerable. The instance of vulnerability I’m most drawn to is the vulnerability associated with threats to health and well-being. American culture is extremely hostile toward health, particularly for people of color. I’m interested in empowering people and populations to fight back.

Which career accomplishment has given you the greatest satisfaction?

I successfully transitioned from academia, where I spent the initial years of my career, into a business environment. I’m grateful to work for an organization that values my academic training and love applying rigorous methods of inquiry to solve problems.

What has your organization’s role been in the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines?

UPMC Health Plan has worked closely with our healthcare delivery system to make COVID-19 vaccination broadly accessible within the communities we serve and has made a concerted effort to make vaccination readily available to vulnerable populations.

What would be the best way to reduce healthcare inequities in the U.S.?

Within the confines of the existing American healthcare system, the single best way to reduce healthcare inequities in the U.S. will be to dramatically increase the amount of community-based, digitally enabled care available, particularly in vulnerable communities.

Name a book or article that everyone in healthcare should read.

“Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much”by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. The authors describe the negative and compounding consequences of scarcity of time, resources and support. Engaging with the American healthcare system requires large amounts
of time and resources, often accompanied with little support. Since reading this book, I’ve continuously challenged myself and my teams to think about ways we might minimize the time and resources required for receipt of healthcare while maximizing the amount
of support we provide.