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Improving Communication for Patients, Family Members, and Stakeholders

As she studied political science at Indiana University Bloomington, Annie Whitesel ’18 knew that the policy issue she held closest to her heart was healthcare.

Despite her interest in politics, however, she didn’t have her sights set on launching a government career in Washington, D.C. Instead, she was looking for other ways to make a difference in the private sector.

It was during a communications and PR internship that she realized she could blend her interests in healthcare and politics—and explored healthcare management consulting as a way to do it.

After graduation, Whitesel joined a boutique healthcare consulting firm in Chicago, where she spent nearly six years working with health insurers and providers to focus on new market entries and strategic execution.

During this time, she noticed something unique: a coming together of providers and payers. “Just a decade earlier, the industry had seen quite the opposite,” she explains. “I wanted to broaden my understanding of how that realm of the industry works. What do providers focus on? What do hospitals think about?”

Pursuing a graduate program had always been part of her long-term plan; after spending a few years in healthcare, she knew she wanted a degree to complement her career niche. As Whitesel explored the options, she discovered Northwestern’s MS in Health Communication program.

“I wanted to be in healthcare and knew that’s where I would stay after grad school,” she explains. “I felt like I had a good understanding of cost and quality from the insurer’s side, but this program could blend those topics with health system knowledge and the patient experience. Knowing that there could also be clinicians in my cohort to provide a whole different perspective seemed very valuable.”

The program’s accelerated, one-year approach was also appealing. Although Whitesel was motivated to earn a graduate degree, she didn’t want to leave the workforce for two years in order to do so.

Right away, the courses on healthcare communication and medical information communication among patients, family members, and stakeholders struck a chord. A light-bulb moment for Whitesel was when a guest speaker discussed medical mistakes and malpractice suits. During the presentation, they shared several case studies that demonstrated positive outcomes when providers were able to communicate with families about specifics surrounding medical errors.

“Now I’m always thinking about communication when I’m looking at insurance documents, explanations of benefits, and how we connect with our members and patients,” says Whitesel. “I had eye-opening experiences during classes where I realized there’s a lot of opportunity to do things better. There’s so much room for improvement in how physicians and insurers communicate complex medical information and decision-making.”

In addition to learning skills she could directly apply at work, Whitesel says she also gained a fantastic professional network. “I was excited about being part of the Northwestern community. You really get to know the people in your cohort extremely well. I now know and keep in touch with people in research and at tech startups, and even doctors and nurses. That has already been rewarding for me, and I think it will continue to be.”

Now working in Minneapolis, Whitesel serves as UnitedHealthcare’s director of financial accountability in its Medicare & Retirement division. “By working at the largest insurer in the country and applying what I’ve learned, there’s a big opportunity to make an impact across the full healthcare spectrum. I’ve hit my stride here. With how quickly things are changing in healthcare, I’m confident that there will continue to be opportunities in roles that exist today—and in roles that haven’t yet been created.”