Karin Larson-Pollock

Chief Quality Officer, Providence Health & Services, Puget Sound Region

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your professional background.

After earning my undergraduate degree in business with a German minor, I applied to the Peace Corps. I was deployed to Kenya in East Africa and my first spot was working at a maternal and child health center outside of Nairobi. That was my first introduction to the economics of medicine, the impact of economics on health care choices, and the impact of your community on your trust or distrust of the health care system.

I ended up being a small business advisor in another city as well, where I also did a lot of HIV/AIDS education. It was really then that I fell in love with the economics of medicine and the merging of those two—how can you help manage health and manage people in a different way.

I always knew I wanted to do a dual MD/MBA degree even during undergrad, so I did night MBA classes at Kellogg School of Management during my first year of med school at Northwestern to get the credits that I would need to be able to fast-track the dual degree.

I moved to Houston Methodist to focus on the business of medicine, and ultimately became their VP of operations. I then accepted a role as consultant for Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, where I pulled together their analytics in a way that was understandable to the leaders, frontline folks, and medical staff. I think that was one of the first times they saw if you can pull the data together in a digestible way, you can really move the dial. They created a full-time executive director of analytics role for me, and I ultimately became the chief quality and analytics officer there.

What made you choose the Harvard Business Analytics Program?

I had been in the chief quality and analytics officer role a little more than  18 months when a colleague of mine texted me a link and said, “this program sounds so much like you.” It was the HBAP program. I had not even been looking for it, but it fit my development plan. While I seem to be pretty good at analytics strategy and bringing analysts and non-analysts together, I don’t have a coding background. I didn’t know R; I hadn’t done statistics since undergrad. I really wanted to build up fundamental coding skills and understand machine learning and artificial intelligence.

What I loved about the HBAP program is that it’s a mix of all those areas. It’s got those ground fundamentals like Python, and SQL, and R and coding, while also focusing on organizational culture and leadership, plus looking at how machine learning models and AI can change your business models and, for my industry, how we can deliver care. I loved the progression of the coursework and how it was not just health care—I did an MBA, not an MHA, for that reason—and I feel like health care can really learn from the business world and other industries.

I loved the mix of building blocks with strategy and the higher levels of what’s coming down the pike from analytics, but also the different use cases from different industries.

How well did the online program fit within your work and life?

When I started the program, work was absolutely crazy. I’m a mom of 2 kids. My husband’s a surgeon. I have a full-time executive job, and we just figured out a way to make it work. The curriculum was amazing, the peer groups were amazing, the teachers were absolutely incredible.

I was promoted recently, so now I’m overseeing clinical quality and analytics for my region’s eight hospitals, one of which was the medical center I was already at. This hospital treated the first covid patient in the United States, and has since seen eight or nine additional waves. Adding the complexity of COVID into the normal operations of your job and then trying to figure out time to do the program was interesting. But HBAP was great about supporting its students whose jobs were impacted by COVID and accommodating us in any way, including when I had to attend a press conference instead of class.

The curriculum was amazing, the peer groups were amazing, the teachers were absolutely incredible.

Tell us about your classmates. What was it like to build relationships in an online environment?

We had a great cohort. I found a really good group that we called “the breakfast club.” It was a Sunday morning peer session that met consistently, and we got very close. It was so neat to have a peer group to go through it with. Even after graduation, we still text and we still talk and do meet and greets. One of my Breakfast Club friends just came to Seattle for work, so we met up and I toured her all around Seattle.

We know so much about each other. We’re all 18-monthers, so our conversations would be personal: “How are things going? How are the kids? How’s the family?” My dad actually got diagnosed with lung cancer while I was in the program, and I was flying back and forth from the Midwest until he passed away pretty rapidly. The breakfast club sent flowers to his funeral, which was so unexpected and thoughtful.

It was so neat that we were so connected that they just took it upon themselves to send flowers. They didn’t even know where the funeral was taking place; they just knew his name and tracked him down. We’ve really been there for each other during really challenging times, but also really great times.

How do you stay in touch with your peers?

Folks will ping on Slack all the time with questions like “Hey, I have this problem. Does anyone have experience on this?” A nice part about how the program is designed is that you get exposure not just to your own cohort, but other cohorts—you learn a lot of things from different cohorts and different industries. People are in different industries at different levels in different areas of the world, so it’s a very wide net that isn’t just niched to one specific area.

I’ve also connected some of the folks in that group to different areas of health care. For instance, one of my classmates is an analyst with Forester. She wanted to talk about telehealth, so I connected her with one of our telehealth folks in our system. Other times the conversation is “Who’s going to go to this lecture?” or “I saw this great article,” so it’s a mix of what we learned in HBAP and how we connected as people through that program.

What has been your experience learning from faculty?

I was blown away by every single professor. What I loved about them was that they were so knowledgeable in their fields and could bring the material together in a way that would make so much sense. Their ability to bring these concepts down to really tangible areas and to the absolute weeds where people weren’t lost was outstanding. Whatever training those professors go through in terms of how to teach … top notch.

They were always available. The fact that the chairs and these big names who you’ve heard about or read about take time out of their schedules to teach these classes so we can have access to their brains and teaching abilities is just amazing.

I was blown away by every single professor. What I loved about them was that they were so knowledgeable in their fields and could bring the material together in a way that would make so much sense.

The TAs were amazing too. Every single class I tapped into the TA sessions as data resources, and they would sometimes do extra learning.

What are the most valuable things you took away from the program?

For me, the ROI boils down to a few things. First, being able to access course materials and content online is great. Second, the professors are so accessible. I think it’s unparalleled that you get that caliber of teaching in such a Harvard way. Finally, I really felt like I wasn’t just in a course; I was part of a group. They built the community intentionally around HBAP—so once you’re done with the program, you’re not done. You’re an HBAPer for life.

Once you’re done with the program, you’re not done. You’re an HBAPer for life.