How a Nearly Fatal Misdiagnosis Prompted Michele Courton Brown to Educate Hospitals on Cultural Competency

Perhaps no field has undergone as much transformation in recent years as the healthcare industry. Advanced technology has unlocked the ability to offer more effective, efficient, and personalized patient care, which has inspired industry leaders to further catalyze improvement in health care. While technology has ushered in a new era of health care, it takes brilliant people to ensure the combination of tech and health care results in revolutionary improvements. In our new blog series, “Meet the Female CEOs Who Are Driving Real Change in the Healthcare Industry”, you’ll hear candid insights from some of the most influential leaders in the healthcare industry. Each interviewee bears a unique story, but all are revolutionizing their respective fields for the better.

Last up in our series is Michele Courton Brown, CEO of Quality Interactions. Michele and her team are dedicated to providing the best learning experiences for a diverse, inclusive, and culturally competent healthcare workforce in the U.S.

As a former corporate executive responsible for managing multi-million dollar budgets, Michele is an experienced professional that describes herself as “assertive”. But when Michele went to the emergency room due to a stomach ache that wouldn’t go away, her competency and assertiveness were overlooked. Looked at as an African American woman instead of a successful professional, doctors didn’t take Michele’s claims seriously. This resulted in a misdiagnosis, which proved to be nearly fatal. Driven by her own experience with healthcare disparities, Michele has made it her mission to educate healthcare institutions on cultural competency and its importance in health outcomes. 

This is part 5 of 5 in our “Meet the Female CEOs Who Are Driving Real Change in the Healthcare Industry” series created in partnership with growth marketing agency Ideometry. Thanks to all of our interviewees for participating, and thanks to you for reading!


Tell us a bit about Quality Interactions?

Michele: Quality Interactions was founded in the late 1990s by three practicing physicians (Joseph Betancourt, Alexander Green, and Emilio Carillo), who identified cultural competency as a skill required to deliver person-centric care. Their work was really predicated on the notion that some of their patients would get better after treatment, and other patients would continue to suffer from their illnesses. They began to see some patterns in terms of the patients who weren’t healing and getting better. These patients included elderly people with chronic health diseases, people who didn’t speak English as a first language, and people who had low health literacy. 

They saw these populations, in particular, struggling to navigate the healthcare system and remain compliant with the standard medical protocol. As they dug deeper into these patterns, they ended up writing a seminal paper on cultural competency. This was largely about how clinicians and caregivers needed to have the ability to ask the right kind of questions to patients. Before they began prescribing treatment plans, they needed to learn about their particular patient’s situation and background. This meant developing communication skills around negotiating health care regiments that weren’t common practice at the time.

Their work lead to the start of a thriving consulting practice that worked with hospitals and health care institutions and essentially preaching the gospel of this notion. Eventually, the three physicians turned their attention towards scaling this notion and invested in eLearning in 2005 in order to distribute their findings among a wider population. That investment in eLearning catalyzed the founding of Quality Interactions.

My business partners, who are doctors, spent the next six years building out content based on customer demand. One of our first customers was Cigna, which is a global health service company that had different needs than the typical hospital. The interactions between the members of the health plan and the health plan professionals mainly occurred over the phone. That’s why we built content around that specific need.

What Quality Interactions offers is an educational platform. We currently have about 40 eLearning courses that are foundational in nature and teach people about the importance of cultural competency. We want others to understand that cultural competency is a business imperative. So much is lost to costly health disparities in the form of hospital readmissions and medical malpractice, which is why hospitals need to understand the risks that come with not acknowledging these disparities. 

We also offer extended learning courses, which are designed for anyone, not just people in the healthcare industry. One of our most popular courses is an Unconscious Bias course, which anyone could use to better understand the science of the brain and how humans think. The course also offers strategies that people can use to disrupt biases, and allows the learner to practice biased scenarios directly on their laptop. Some of our other courses touch on acknowledging disabilities, LGBTQ awareness,  and demystifying the multi-dimensional nature of the Latinx community. These are just some of our core cases, and we’re excited to expand our course portfolio and allow more doctors and caregivers to practice cultural competency.

We work with hospitals that want to be on the Vanguard of patient experience. We work with organizations that are seeing diverse patient populations and want to create a better patient experience and improve treatment plans. There are new reforms in the world of healthcare policy that are placing the responsibility on healthcare providers to improve health outcomes. The relationship between health care providers and their patients is changing because now, there’s a focus on patient engagement, patient satisfaction, and treatment evaluation. This focus changes the game in terms of the power skills associated with being culturally agile in dealing with patients.

What milestones has your company achieved so far?

Michele: We currently have 10 full-time employees, which includes the three founders and myself. We currently serve over a hundred customers, including Mayo Clinic, Mass General Hospital, Blue Cross Blue Shield, United Health Care, Aetna, New York Presbyterian Hospital, San Francisco Health, Nemours, and others. We’re pretty well established and recognized at this point, and are proud to work with cutting edge institutions who have chosen us as their vendor for delivering this content. 

We’ve raised 500,000 dollars, so we’ve largely bootstrapped. But we’re ready to take full advantage of the current market opportunity with a great portfolio of content and technology in order to provide an excellent learner experience.

What intrigued you about Quality Interactions?

Michele: I would describe my work with quality interactions as my third career. I started my career in banking and then in insurance, mostly as an executive running corporate foundations. I left my role at Bank of America and went on to run operations as the COO for a nationally recognized nonprofit before joining Quality Interactions.

What I think represents my career arc is that I’ve always been drawn to jobs where there was not only a social impact orientation or mission, but also a business imperative. I started working with Quality Interactions because their mission resonated deeply with me and my experiences. When I was in my mid-twenties, I had a stomach ache that just wouldn’t go away. I went to the emergency room, and I was wearing a sweatshirt and had my hair pulled back. In the emergency room, I was treated like an indigent. The medical staff looked at me and made an assessment based on the fact that I was an African American woman who looked a little disheveled. That might have had something to do with the fact that my temperature was 105°.

At the time, I was a corporate executive with a college degree who was managing multi-million dollar budgets, and they thought I wasn’t competent enough to tell them what was going on with my body. As a result, they misdiagnosed, and I had a ruptured appendix and was septic, and was hours from death before they figured it out. My thought was that if somebody who was fairly competent and assertive could be treated this poorly, what’s it like for people who feel less empowered and have fewer resources at their disposal? That experience stayed with me for many years, so when I met the co-founders of Quality Interactions, they helped me understand that my experience wasn’t a unique one. It’s one that many people face who try to navigate the healthcare system.

I got super excited about the notion that, if we found success, we would be improving the health outcomes of all Americans. All of us benefit from having informed inquiries from our doctors, just as we all benefit when our doctors abide by standard medical protocol. We’re all better off when healthcare communications are elevated.

How has the field of cultural competency evolved in the healthcare industry in recent years?

Michele: Quality Interactions has certainly benefited from the fact that our three co-founders, all of whom are highly respected and acclaimed physicians, are able to bring a depth of knowledge to our content. What we’ve seen as a result of recent healthcare reform is an opened gateway to health care that so many people were previously shut out of. Since the Affordable Care Act was introduced, doctors now need a new set of skills and permissions to meet the needs of this newly introduced population.

We’re certainly seeing more diversity and inclusion organizations trying to help with cultural competency training. What makes our content unique is that we’re focused on how healthcare professionals interact with patients and work to ensure good health outcomes. There are other companies out there that are taking a similar approach, but we don’t really view each other so much as competitors, but rather collaborators. Sometimes, a client will call on two companies to help address cultural competency, and they use us and the other company in different ways.

Back in the 1990s, there was a real push around patient safety. In some cases, people were getting the wrong arm amputated, so things were clearly not in a good place. There were a lot of protocols and practices put in place to make sure that botched procedures like that wouldn’t happen. 

What we’re seeing now is a movement toward making cultural competency a compliance requirement. Health disparities cost upwards of $337 billion, so I think that there’s going to be a real movement to get people to adhere to cultural competency practices. I think that this is our time to be a resource and a strategic partner in healthcare, which is why we’re doing the work that we’re doing. 

What advice do you have for people who are thinking about pursuing their entrepreneurial dreams but aren’t sure where to start? 

Michele: To be an entrepreneur and work long hours for a growing business, you need to be passionate about what it is you’re doing. It’s hard to sell something that you don’t fully believe which is why the work needs to be something you can spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week on.

I would also say that, while there are so many skills that I developed in my corporate career that are still useful today, I’ve had to develop a lot of new skills on the fly in this space. Working with limited resources and a flatter organizational structure are certainly adjustments that take some getting used to. But at the end of the day, I feel like the fruits of my labor are easily seen both in my employee engagement and in customer satisfaction. I find this line of work to be incredibly rewarding.

What’s it been like being part of the Venture Lane community?

Michele: The whole Venture Lane team has created a very unique environment that enables entrepreneurs to thrive. They’ve done an excellent job of curating a very interesting, diverse lineup of CEOs who embrace the collaborative culture of Venture Lane.

The other entrepreneurs’ willingness to lend a helping hand is really amazing as well. I recently spent a day with six angel investors who helped me refine my investor presentation, which turned out to be pure gold. Venture Lane understands where we are in our growth, and works to accelerate the success of the entire community. That’s a unique environment that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.

Anytime someone achieves a big goal, there’s a bell right in the middle of the office that you ring to let everyone know you’re moving in the right direction. I just love that. It contributes to the feeling that this community is built around supporting one another.

This is the final part of our series.

Ideometry is a Boston-based full-service marketing agency serving a global client base. With a full suite of creative, development, and strategic services, Ideometry helps growth-stage startups and Fortune 500 companies alike get the business results they’re looking for. If you’re doing something interesting, we’d love to hear from you. Get in touch with us at ideometry.com or email [email protected].

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