By Victoria Willingham • May 30, 2020•Writers in Residence, Careers, Politics and Government, Issues, Mentoring and Networking
There is no question that technology is shaping the future of healthcare, especially now. I recently had the opportunity to sit down (virtually) with Damika W. Barr, Head of Public Policy and Government Relations at Verily Life Sciences. Wearing many titles, Damika is a wife, mother, attorney, thought leader, and healthcare champion. Throughout the course of our discussion, Damika shared great insight into her career path and how she navigates a role uniquely positioned at the intersection of healthcare, law, and technology. I enjoyed every moment of this interview, and I hope the same for you.
VW: Let’s get right to it! Will you please share your education background and your journey to becoming an attorney?
DWB: I loved science as a little girl. I went to undergrad as a biology major. In the classes that I was taking, I gravitated toward population health, big global movements, and discussions about pandemics and [their] impacts on the globe. That shifted my career to the healthcare space.
I was living in the DC area, and I finished a graduate certificate in public health. In D.C. if you’re thinking, “How am I going to make a change? I want to impact healthcare,” [the answer] is law and policy. I made a decision to go to law school. So, I went to law school. I also made a decision that life is short and I’m going to go to law school in San Diego. So, I went to a small school in San Diego.
VW: You mentioned how your desire to make a change fueled your decision to go to law school. Would you say you decided to go after you discovered how you wanted to make an impact?
DWB: In my family, we had generations of college graduates – four-year degrees. Graduate degrees are new [to my family]. Growing up it was: “You’re going to get a four-year degree, and you’re going to get it in four years.” In undergrad, I remember having classmates and friends who were like, “I’m going to get a Masters,” or “I’m going to be a doctor.” And I was still thinking, “I’m going to graduate in four years.” That was the goal. It was later that I decided to go to law school, and I went to law school at age 26 – not immediately after undergrad. I worked within the healthcare space doing research for 4 years. I worked at the National Academy of Medicine, and I worked for a clinical research organization.
VW: Having previously worked in research spaces and then attending law school, when you graduated, how did you navigate finding the types of roles that most interested you?
DWB: I graduated during a recession from a lesser known law school. After graduation, it was difficult. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do, but I knew that I had my personal mission statement. I knew the work that I wanted to do. I want[ed] to be a champion for healthcare access. So, I had to take a temporary job after law school. I worked retail for a company that I enjoyed. While I was doing that, I had the opportunity to look for opportunities.
My first [legal] job after graduating from law school was with a small, affordable housing nonprofit law firm in New Jersey. Affordable housing is not healthcare, but if you have better housing, it improves health outcomes, so it was true to my mission. I was able to learn a lot about legislation. I was in the original home of lobbying, Trenton, lobbying for affordable housing. I was traveling [throughout] New Jersey working with the NAACP, Habitat for Humanity, [and] other great groups really engaging and talking about housing opportunities.
While that was taking place, the law school at Temple University had a Public Health Research Law Center that just kicked off in 2009. I contacted the director of the program, Scott Burruss, multiple times saying, “Do you have any openings? Let me tell you about myself. I have a graduate certificate in public health, and I can combine my public health experience with my law experience.” When there was an opening for a law fellow, I was in!
I didn’t get the job that I would have said was perfect for my background first, but I still had employment that met my personal mission and I can look back and see how what I learned in that role has carried me to today.
VW: You mentioned your mission and staying true to that. How would you advise someone on how to find their mission? I know that is something that a lot of people have a difficult time doing.
DWB: There are plenty of books on how to find your mission. For me, it’s something that was in my gut, in my spirit. It resonated with me from undergrad. This is the type of work that I want, and I want to make a difference in this space. I think most people have that [feeling], but there’s a fear that their mission may not pay the bills or that there are not as many jobs in that space.
The space that I am in is pretty narrow. It is scary. It is scary to know what your personal mission is and to keep driving towards it.
VW: How would you describe your current role?
DWB: I currently lead public policy and government relations at Verily Life Sciences. Verily is an Alphabet company, fondly described as a sister company to Google. The organization spun out in 2015 to focus on healthcare and life sciences. The organization is unique. It’s filled with experts in the clinical space, data science, as well as physical science and hardware. Together, we’re trying to improve health outcomes by integrating technology.
For me, that means I am assessing the policy landscape for the types of technologies that we want to integrate into healthcare. It’s [about] understanding what the law is today and understanding where the law could use tweaks or improvements so that a technology can be reimbursed and entered into the flow of the healthcare system...understanding where privacy protections exist in healthcare and how those privacy protections consider insertion of technology...or [determining whether] technology sit[s] in a new space and we need to be thought leaders and help our policymakers understand where the data lies when technology is entered into the stream of healthcare. A lot of my role is engaging with government leaders, introducing them to the company, helping them understand what our goals are, the mission of the organization and working with trade associations. Traditional trade associations that have long histories are now adding in digital healthcare companies. Newer trade associations are thinking about innovation.
VW: You mentioned thought leadership. How does that play out for you when using some of the skills you learned through your legal training or your healthcare experience?
DWB: The strength of a legal background in [this] policy and government relations role is the ability to know how the law functions today, working closely with product counsel, and understanding the history of the law and how it functions today. Then I get to think about how the law should function if we were to add this technology into the flow. What would need to change? Do we need a safe harbor? Has the reimbursement strategy not considered technology? Where the law says that you need to talk to a person, should it now say that you can have a relationship via telehealth first and still get reimbursed? I like that my role is to understand the law as it stands and to think about ways that we can make improvements or tweaks to the law so that the technology can be integrated to ultimately improve health outcomes.
VW: How would you describe your experience interacting with product counsel and the product itself as it related to understanding the tech portion of your work?
DWB: In order for a tech company to be successful, there are a lot of cross-functional partnerships. The engineering team building the software tool [must] meet clinical requirements with the clinical team. Product counsel advises how the product is put together. I have to be able to understand the product so that I can have conversations externally that are not overly technical...similar to having a conversation with a friend. If I can’t explain the technology to my friend, it’s not going to resonate well with a policy maker. It’s not going to resonate well with the public who is going to use the product. I love getting into the nitty gritty of the technical side of things. As it moves along, you really are telling a simple story in order for the product to be successful.
VW: You work at the intersection of law, health, and technology, how has the current global health crisis impacted your work?
DWB: In early March, the governor of California asked Verily Life Sciences and other companies in the state of California how they could help with the global crisis. What we’ve seen is the global pandemic forcing technology and traditional healthcare to come together quickly. Verily Life Sciences, working with the state of California, has built an end-to-end solution where [people] can sign up for tests, get scheduled for an appointment, and get their test results. It has increased my work.
The world is focused on COVID-19, so all levels of government are looking at COVID-19 efforts. As a company that has activities to support flattening the curve, government stakeholders at all levels are interested. They’re curious. They’re asking questions. They want to understand how the technology is going to support their community.
VW: Speaking of community, you founded and lead your company’s employee resource group that is focused on diversity. Why are diversity and inclusion efforts in tech and legal important to you? What was your impetus for starting the group?
DWB: It goes back to my personal mission. To successfully disrupt or to integrate the healthcare system, we need to consider all of those who will be impacted – which is all of us. To me, that means that if you are a company that is working in this space, you should be representing all diverse backgrounds – race, ethnicity, values...in order to ensure that your products are going to extend as far and as wide as they can. I’ve had positive experiences with employment resource groups. I worked with another person who is very passionate about diversity, inclusion and equity. It took a while, but we were able to found a group at Verily that has cross functional members of all backgrounds, values and races. [It is] a space where we can celebrate diversity – a space where we can have conversations about difficult subjects and issues. External activities impact your work. Having an employee resource group [is having] a place to say, “Hey. This is impacting my mental health right now. Let’s talk about it. Let’s figure out how we can be better allies together and not feel alone.”
VW: What is your experience with mentorship? Have you had any mentorship relationships that have helped shape your career?
DWB: Mentorships are amazing opportunities to learn from the experiences of someone else. Being a mentor allows for some reflection as you’re advising someone who is growing in their career. I enjoy being a mentor because I learn so much from mentees. I have amazing mentees who have achieved such great success, and I am reaching a point in my career where I have a story to tell. More than ten years after graduating from law school, I can talk about bumps or hurdles or things that I would do better.
After I graduated from law school, if you would have said, “In ten years you’re going to be in this space,” I would have not believed you. I can now look back and have that conversation about: How did you get to that space? Where you started was discouraging. How were you able to do that? I think I can look back and offer that advice or that encouragement to others with that tenured look.
VW: What advice would you give to a young attorney who is trying to navigate their career path?
DWB: Don’t forget your peer network. That’s probably your strongest network that you have. It doesn’t matter what law school you went to. Reach out to them first because that might be the most comfortable networking space. Think about the people who are just in your peer group or just slightly ahead.
Mentorship doesn’t have to be formal, and it doesn’t have to be a conversation that you have with one person every two weeks. As a working mother and wife, if you’re keeping up with me on an annual basis, I consider that consistent.
Find your personal mission. Have that carry you through the decisions that you make with your career. Be comfortable with those decisions. The position may not be the one that is going to get you the most money immediately. It might scare you because you have student loans to pay. It might scare you because the field itself is narrow. You don’t want to be unemployed or you’re trying to reach this level of success as soon as possible. Just know that you’re going to be ultimately happier if you’re able to live your personal mission. If you keep moving forward with a personal mission, you’re going to get to a place that you never dreamed you would get.
I can’t thank Damika enough for this wonderful insight into her experiences in the healthcare technology space. Her journey is truly inspiring. Would you ever consider a role in healthcare technology? Let me know your thoughts.
photo: Courtesy of Damika W. Barr