As a young girl in India, Dr. Madhavi Rajulapalli scuffled with several boys because they wouldn’t let her sit in the front row of her school’s classroom. When her family asked why, she explained it was the only way for her to see the teacher’s educational puppet show clearly.
Worried about what was causing her eyesight to falter, Rajulapalli’s father took her to a nearby city for a multi-day round of medical tests. Eventually the diagnosis was ordinary: “She needs glasses.” But Rajulapalli’s experience was special. The physician made an impression on her that would help set her on a remarkable career path.
“Doctors are smart,” she recalls thinking. “I want to be a doctor.”
Today Rajulapalli serves as Chief Medical Officer for Aetna Better Health of Louisiana. She shared her journey and her philosophy on leadership recently with of the Office of Public Health Leadership Development Institute at the Success Labs office recently.
The Business of Medicine
In her Baton Rouge-based position at Aetna, Rajulapalli reports to the CEO and helps plan, manage and provide direction to a wide range of key functions across the business. Prior to Joining Aetna she served in a leadership position for Christus Health in Texas. She has also worked in private practice, as the chief medical officer for a community health center in Wichita Falls, Texas, as well as a VA facility in Fort Worth.
Rajulapalli earned a degree in medicine and surgery from Kurnool Medical College in India, and completed her internal medicine residency at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. She also earned an MBA from Texas Woman’s University and recently completed the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School.
Although she was clearly drawn to the medical field, Rajulapalli says she was also always fascinated by the inner workings of business. As an 8-year-old, she was charged with calculating and collecting the electricity bills on several small shops owned by her grandfather. Every month, she would make the rounds, check the sub-meters and collect the money, even investigating if a bill was suspiciously low.
“I think I had that in me, and that’s why I was so curious when I went into my practice,” she says. “When I went into the VA I wanted to understand why are we doing this test, how much does this test cost?”
Rajulapalli says stereotypical leadership qualities such as charisma or assertiveness are less important to her than clearly understanding what she wants to do and how she can make it happen.
First, she says effective leaders should dig deeper to understand what they really want to accomplish. Next, they need to determine whether they have the capabilities and skills to make those goals happen. Finally, she says leaders should be sure they are passionate about achieving those goals. “When you have those three combined, and you’re doing it in the right way, people will follow you,” she says.
As a physician working on the business side of a healthcare company, Rajulapalli says navigating between the operational and medial sides of the organization can be a “balance and a dance.” She says it’s important to understand your audience and their needs when communicating to different stakeholders.
“If go to a physicians group and talk about financials and cost effectiveness, it doesn’t work,” she says. “You have to talk about how you’re going to make the patient experience better, how this cost-effective method is better and how it will impact the whole picture for them.”
She also keeps in mind that healthcare professionals are often motivated by different dynamics than business people in other professions. “I believe that everybody who does healthcare has a heart to do service,” she says.
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