From Curiosity to Impact: My Journey in Advancing Quality in Health Care Part 1
THCQ Consulting President & CEO Norris Turner reflects on pivotal moments that inspired shifts in his career — working with clinical trial subjects with serious and persistent mental illness who had recent criminal justice system involvement, delving into health policy, and the enactment of the Affordable Care Act.
Nurturing Curiosity and a Passion for Helping Others
I am the oldest of three children from a loving and close family with my mom and late father from Northwest Detroit. From my earliest years as a child in the 1970s, I always remembered being inquisitive, sometimes to the point of driving my parents and some of their friends crazy.
“How does that work?”
“How deep is the water in that lake?”
“What kind of fish can we catch with worms?”
“Wait a minute, how can Santa Claus deliver gifts to every house in the world in one night?”
“I dug a 3-foot hole in our backyard. How long do you think it will take me to dig from Detroit to China?”
There was really no end to the questions that I had or the things that I wondered about. As the questions above reflect, they started out with innocent childlike curiosity of the world around me and my role in it. As I got a little older, the questions began to have more weight.
“Why is it that kids aren’t really listened to?”
“Mom and Dad, how is it that when you would visit your family in the south in the 50’s and early 60’s, you just accepted going to the back of the bus and getting food from the back door versus being able to sit at the lunch counter?”
“Can I really be whatever I want to be with God’s help if I work hard enough and put my mind to it?”
What my unending questions welled up inside revealed to me over time was that I had the mind of a budding scientist. I always loved science and was quite good at it. Also, I was drawn to the idea of helping people. So, with my dad’s oldest brother being an OB-GYN and my mom being a nurse, I was inspired by their love of helping people to one day in the future do something in the healthcare profession.
It was my questions about wanting to understand how the human body worked, the science underneath the body’s functioning, and eventually to wonder how these small pills that we call medications can have such dramatic changes for good (most of the time) in our bodies to help make us healthier that led me to pharmacy, both the clinical and scientific sides of the profession.
Building a Foundation through Clinical Pharmacy and Scientific Training
Fast forward many years later to the 1990s. I am trained as a clinical pharmacist and a pharmaceutical research scientist. Over my 12 years of pharmacy, graduate school, and postdoctoral studies, I gained a strong clinical and scientific foundation of understanding to many of the basic areas of curiosity that budded in me as a young child about how the body worked, how drugs worked, and the science underlying it all.
While I was in my PhD and postdoctoral studies, I did, very fortuitously, work part-time for 8 years as a community pharmacist at a Walgreens in the Castro District in San Francisco at the time the AIDS epidemic was still raging. It was an incredibly rewarding and transformative experience for me. This was not, however, what I wanted to do for my long-term career.
During my time working part-time at Walgreens, I was studying to become a bench research scientist. So, I was still searching for what all this knowledge was for. I was still trying to figure out where I understood God was leading me to apply this knowledge over the long-term.
I knew I wanted to pursue a professional direction that took advantage of both my clinical and scientific training and I wanted to pursue a career where I worked collaboratively with others to play a role in improving human health. Those were my criteria at the time.
At this stage in the late 1990s, my wife, who I met when she was a third-year medical student, had finished her training, was practicing as a pediatrician and we had two young children. It was time for me to figure out what I wanted to do professionally with my life. At the time, I was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University in Molecular Pharmacology.
After 2 years in that fellowship, I decided to leave bench science to pursue a career that would clinically and scientifically impact larger populations of patients. Most importantly, I wanted to help large numbers of people in tangible and focused ways. I did not feel I was accomplishing those things in bench science. I felt that I was being called to something different.
The Quest for Purpose: Transitioning from Bench Science to Clinical Trials
To make a long story short, I was blessed to be directed to amazing opportunities to pursue a career direction in clinical trials. If you ever see me in person and have a few minutes, ask me to tell you the amazing story of how I discovered the Pfizer Postdoctoral Clinical Fellowship program and was awarded that position.
This was the launching of my 20-year career across three pharmaceutical companies, of which 15 years I had roles of increasing responsibility in clinical trials. Many of my career dreams were fulfilled through my jobs in clinical trials, such as:
• The positions I held significantly drew on my clinical and scientific background and training;
• I got to see and learn about the application of science and clinical medicine in the context of a business (i.e., pharmaceutical companies), which always fascinated me;
• Worked with people across many job functions (e.g., medical writers, data management programmers, statisticians, clinical research associates, project managers, etc.) to design and conduct the trials;
• I worked directly with top doctors from across the country and world who were treating patients every day that were enrolling subjects in the clinical trials;
• And we were helping bring innovative new treatments to improve patients’ lives.
Inspiring Mid-Life Shift: Exploring Social Justice Issues in Health Care
Early on in my 12-year tenure at Johnson & Johnson (J&J), I was asked to help launch a groundbreaking schizophrenia clinical study that included patients with recent involvement in the criminal justice system. This study profoundly challenged me personally, as well as professionally, to rethink my career and broaden my perspectives around:
• health policy,
• social and racial justice issues,
• and clinical practice.
This was the first of three experiences that inspired me to change directions in healthcare.
This is another place, where if you ever see me in person, ask me to tell you the backstory of how this unique study ignited my passion for social justice issues in health care and society, and the incredible things we learned from conducting this study.
Broadening Perspectives: Health Policy Education and Insights
Johnson & Johnson, several years later, partnered with Thomas Jefferson University (TJU) to offer a 2-year health policy certificate program to its employees. Along with 20 others, I participated in the program. My main goal was to deepen my understanding of the healthcare landscape worldwide. I sought insights to inform how I could strategically partner with my colleagues at Johnson & Johnson and those in healthcare outside of J&J.
I wanted to gain a better understanding of issues facing patients and the broader healthcare system, particularly issues impacting people of color from marginalized communities such as:
• underrepresentation of people of color in clinical trials;
• systemic racial inequities in access, care, and outcomes; and
• intersystem (e.g., criminal justice, social services, educational, etc.) dynamics on health of vulnerable populations of color
Specific to my job at J&J at the time, I wanted to gain insights and perspectives on the role pharmaceutical companies (like J&J) should play in the disruption and evolution of healthcare in the areas I outlined above as well as on the U.S. healthcare system in general.
The health policy program played a critical role in these formative years. It helped ground me in knowledge and insights that informed my thoughts on how to approach the challenges I mention above. This educational experience was the second of the three experiences that inspired me to evolve my career direction in healthcare.
The ACA and the Path to Value-Based Care: Embracing a Changing Healthcare Landscape
The third inspirational event for me was the March 2010 enactment of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare. The ACA was being deliberated on and was passed during the time I was in the TJU Health Policy program, which couldn’t have been better timing for me. There was no way that I was orchestrating all of this!
I anticipated that the ACA would become the fabric of the rapidly evolving U.S. healthcare system, especially in relation to value-based care and payment, which could dramatically impact how this country approaches policy for health care access, care delivery, and improving patient outcomes.
My childlike curiosity and passion for learning and bringing impact to our society was piqued again!
Fostering System-Wide Change: Advocating for Advancements in Health Care Quality
Not long after completing the TJU health policy program, J&J created a new team within the Strategic Customer Group (SCG) that focused on health care quality and value-based care. I was incredibly fortunate and blessed to have become a part of that group from its beginning.
While it was evident that the areas of quality measurement, population health, and value-based care were going to directly impact and hold great strategic importance for providers (e.g., like my wife’s pediatric practice in the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia system, etc.), hospitals, and payers, it was not at all clear how these new health policies and paradigm shifts in our healthcare ecosystem should be strategically considered when it comes to biopharmaceutical companies (like where I was at J&J).
This was exactly the role of our new Health Care Quality Group in SCG to figure out, or at least to demystify, and practically translate the importance.
In 2014, I was selected as one of the four directors who would be, as a group, managing health care quality strategy for the entire J&J pharmaceutical portfolio. I held direct responsibility for helping J&J understand how to strategically evolve, commercially in market access, as a function of the evolving value-based healthcare landscape for the Janssen Neuroscience and Infectious Diseases portfolios. I served in this amazing role for four years.
In that innovative new job function in the pharmaceutical industry, I usually tell people that it was my team’s responsibility to help J&J understand key provider, health system, payer customers and policy stakeholders through how value-based care and payment impacted them and then translate the strategic and tactical importance to our internal business partners in the functional areas of evidence generation, market access, policy, and patient advocacy. This is also what we do today at THCQ Consulting to help life science companies who can benefit from these strategic areas of support.
This fascinating area of work stimulated my passion for system-wide change in healthcare. And this was essentially a reinvigorated career beginning for me to help play a new-level role in helping advance the quality of health care in the U.S. and the world around us.
Interested in hearing your thoughts,
Norris Turner, PharmD, PhD
President & CEO, THCQ Consulting, Inc.
Part 2 Preview: Leaving the Corporate World and Embracing Entrepreneurialism
Thanks for reading! In Part 2 of My Personal Journey and Story of Inspiration, I share about furthering my purpose by leaving the corporate world and the impact of losing my father, all leading me to step out into entrepreneurialism to help in advancing quality in health care.
As I reflect on my personal journey, I am filled with gratitude for the experiences that have shaped me into who I am today—a passionate advocate for advancing quality in health care. From my early years of unending curiosity to my clinical and scientific training, every step has led me closer to my purpose.
These pivotal moments inspired me to shift my career direction—working with clinical trial subjects involved in the criminal justice system, delving into health policy, and witnessing the enactment of the Affordable Care Act. I appreciate having a unique perspective when it comes to the challenges facing our healthcare system and the opportunities for transformative change.
In Part 2, I will share the memory of my late father, whose legacy motivates me to make a meaningful impact.
Reflection Questions for You:
Have you ever experienced a moment in your life that sparked a significant shift in your career or personal trajectory? What was it, and how did it impact your journey?
What inspires you to make a difference in your chosen profession or area of interest? How do you stay motivated and focused on your goals, even in the face of challenges?
How have personal experiences or interactions with the healthcare system influenced your perception of quality care? What changes would you like to see implemented to enhance patient experiences and outcomes?
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