ALBANY — An Altamont native took over as chief medical officer of CDPHP this month, continuing her transition from caring for one person at a time to boosting the health of an entire population.
Dr. Elizabeth Warner is the first woman to serve as CMO of the Albany-based health insurer, and she is also now one of its executive vice presidents. She previously held lower-ranking positions with CDPHP and before that was a surgeon for 10 years in Bennington, Vermont.
“I was one of those kids who wanted to be a doctor from 5 years old,” said Warner, 48.
Her career at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington was rewarding, she said: “It was a wonderful little hospital, still is.”
The problem that arose was the work-life balance that she and her husband, also a surgeon, were unable to maintain. Their two children are teenagers now, but when they were little, there weren’t enough hours in the day to do everything. McDonald’s started becoming their go-to dinner option.
“It wasn’t easy being part of a two-surgeon household with two little kids,” Warner said. “We tried to make that work.”
Various iterations were tested, including reduced hours, but none solved the problem.
“It was hard to be a part-time general surgeon because your patients need you,” she said.
Switching from general surgery to breast surgery also didn’t work.
“It was hard to grow my practice and continue growing my skillset part-time,” Warner said.
She took a second part-time job as a medical director at CDPHP. Unable to continue doing both, she stepped away from daily medical practice in 2015.
“There are things I do miss about it,” she said. “As far as being the doctor, giving one-on-one care, they’re just different jobs.”
Being a surgeon, she said, “can be immensely rewarding but it can also take a lot out of you.
“So now I’m making patient-care decisions, but for our whole population.”
As chief medical officer, Warner is sometimes involved with individual patient care via programs such as Hospital to Home, through which members with severe or unique medical needs are assigned a care manager with training in medicine or social work.
The manager can turn to the chief medical officer or other physicians on the CDPHP management team for guidance.
But more often, Warner looks at the larger picture: trends or issues that broadly affect the insurer’s 400,000 members.
COVID is at the root of that discussion now.
“COVID does not appear to be over yet and rates are ticking up,” she said. “I think the other big need right now is behavioral health.”
The number of people with psychiatric problems has expanded at the same time as the number of mental health providers has diminished — both due in part to the pandemic.
As an insurer, CDPHP must work to ensure treatment is available for members, and that’s part of her role as chief medical officer. Telemedicine, which gained widespread use during the social distancing of the pandemic, will be part of the solution, Warner said.
There is also, she said, a need to make the entire healthcare system easier to use.
CDPHP is taking steps to make the process more integrated and seamless by operating its own pharmacies, by co-locating with healthcare providers and by forming a management partnership with Community Care Physicians, the largest independent physician group in the region.
But beyond that circle, Warner said she sometimes has trouble navigating the system on behalf of her own family — even as a doctor married to a surgeon and helping run an HMO.
“If I can’t make things happen with the snap of a finger I don’t know how anyone can,” she said.
“I think the American healthcare system has largely not been built with the patient at the center.”