You can’t tell by her name, but Dr. Mimi Kokoska is a Chinese-American from an immigrant family. Most first-generation children speak some of their native language, because they are the bridge between their parents and American society, but Mimi speaks Spanish better than Cantonese. She also cooks a mean pozole, a Mexican hominy soup. That’s because Mimi grew up in the predominantly Hispanic East L.A., where she was a minority among minorities. She learned Spanish to survive the inevitable bullying that comes from being different, and her family did what they could to assimilate into their community. One day when she and her brother were helping a neighbor trim some overgrown weeds, she was accidentally cut by the machete. In her family, a deep wound didn’t warrant a trip to the doctor to stitch her up. Nope. That kind of wound was only worth Chinese herbal medicine and a bandage.
Today, Dr. Kokoska is a board-certified otolaryngologist, a title only Spelling Bee champions can pronounce, spell and define with ease. For the rest of us, it means she’s an ear, nose and throat specialist, and she’s also a head and neck surgeon. As the senior vice president of strategic partnerships and innovation at Blue Shield of California, she is responsible for leading health and clinical innovation strategies, strengthening our partnership with thousands of physicians and clinicians, and driving innovation across the plan’s efforts to improve health and provide care for its more than 4 million members.
We sat down to talk about her journey from her days cleaning homes, working as a McDonald’s cashier to becoming a statistician paying her way through school, and ultimately, her experience as a head and neck surgeon working pro-bono on injuries of trauma patients, including domestic violence survivors.
Why did you want to become a doctor?
When I was 8 years old, my brother became acutely ill and had to be taken to the huge USC county hospital. I remember the fear of wondering if I’d see him again, and whether my family would be destitute paying for his care. I still remember the fear. When you grow up in East L.A., and your parents are uneducated, and you don’t have the resources or connections to help, those kinds of things become your concern. I developed an interest in biological sciences and wanted to be of service to my community. Becoming a physician, allowed me to integrate the two and serve individuals in their most vulnerable times of need in a deeply meaningful way.
How did a board-certified otolaryngologist reinvent herself to become the Senior Vice President of Strategic Partnerships and Innovation? Can you walk me through your career transition and what that was like?
It was gradual. I practiced most of my clinical career in academic medicine rather than a community-based hospital. I was a full professor with tenure and service line director at Indiana University School of Medicine with an interest in quality improvement and patient outcomes. I realized if I wanted to improve lives on a larger scale, I needed to work outside of just my specialty and be broader. I took on national roles on quality through medical associations and the Veterans Health Administration. Then, I was actively involved with the National Surgical Quality Improvement program, where I oversaw perioperative quality in seven systems across Michigan, Indiana and Southern Illinois. I decided to join Aurora Health Care as the senior vice president and chief medical officer of hospital-based specialties. This role opened-up a lot of opportunities, and I led the development of an entirely new lean green belt certification program. We were able to achieve greater patient access through zero emergency room diversion, decreased lengths of stay, and other operational efficiencies across the system. The improved results have been sustained even after my transition, which speaks to the high performing team members and it’s a legacy I’m proud of to this day.
Why did you make the leap from the patient and provider side to the health plan side?
I saw it as an opportunity to positively affect more lives. It was an opportunity to influence health systems and providers to move to better quality and affordability even faster. When it comes to health and well-being of individuals and our communities, I have a true sense of urgency.
What advice would you give to someone who’s looking to make a career change?
First, identify what you’re passionate about. Then, determine what scope would make you happy in your area of passion. Ask yourself, “what do you hope to accomplish?” Third, determine what skills sets, what training, or experiences are required to execute on that plan. Define the road map to your career goals.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your career and how did you overcome that?
Growing up with parents who weren’t educated, my biggest challenge in my career was really defining my road map. My parents didn’t make it to high school. They didn’t speak the language, and no one in my family was in healthcare, so I had to navigate it all on my own. I had to figure out what resources and skill sets I needed to execute on my road map. Once I defined how to put together my passion for service with health and science, and determined that medicine was the right path, I had to try and find the experts in the field who could help. I worked really hard through college. I’ve been working since I was 12 years old, from cleaning houses to being a McDonald’s cashier working across the street from the USC hospital where I eventually completed medical school rotations. The same hospital that saved my brother when I was just 8 years old. I’ve since been able to start a scholarship fund at Keck USC for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds pursuing a medical degree. They have enough challenges ahead of them, so it was our family vision for cost to be less of a barrier.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness and Domestic Violence Awareness Month. In that spirit, what is the best film or documentary you’ve watched that captures the honest experience of why it’s important to be informed about both of these issues?
I remember watching The Family Stone where the mother, who was the glue that held the family together, died of breast cancer. That movie shows how breast cancer affects the whole family and how they came together after her death. As for domestic violence, The Color Purple comes to mind. The majority of women have experienced domestic violence either directly or through family or friends. As a head and neck surgeon, I took care of patients with facial trauma that I suspect was the result of domestic violence, based on the pattern of injury. As a doctor, I can sequester a patient for privacy, but they rarely shared how they actually got their injury. I remember seeing the fear and how they wanted to protect their children. We provided a lot of services for free. One of my daughters also served and we donated to a center that housed survivors of domestic violence. The organization gave them a safe house and supplies to get back on their feet. Domestic violence is a lot more common than you think, and it’s important as a society that we talk about it and learn to recognize the signs.
Tell me about the Athena WISDOM Study where Blue Shield of California is one of the only insurance companies offering coverage for it, and why you think it’s important for women to participate in studies like this?
I’m proud Blue Shield of California is supporting studies and it demonstrates our commitment to women’s health and breast cancer screening. How else are we going to identify the best treatments and diagnostics if women don’t participate in these studies? They are very important to improving outcomes. This one is particularly important to determine if a personalized risk screening is as good as an annual mammogram.
What do you do to stay energized?
I exercise regularly and eat healthy. Growing up in East LA, I learned to make really good Mexican and Chinese food and I still enjoy cooking. I like to run, workout on the elliptical, bike, walk, and ski but what really energizes me is maintaining my friendships and helping others. One of my neighbors are a young couple with their first child. I realize how difficult it is for them not having family around, so I help in different ways and that energizes me. I also love spending time with my family, our pets and reading.
What are you currently reading?
I’m currently reading The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Carlton Abrams, which documents conversations between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Another book I just finished reading is the Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler.
Plotting a career road map is a lot easier for Dr. Mimi Kokoska these days, and she still has her scar from that machete accident long ago to remind her of where she came from and who she ultimately serves in her work. You can bet when Mimi is assessing programs and partnerships for Blue Shield of California, her commitment to access and affordable care will be personal.