Molly Joel Coye, the UCLA Health System's new innovation officer, was getting her master's degree in Chinese history when she had the epiphany that led her to become a medical doctor.
A class in modern Chinese history included stories about post-WWII public health campaigns, such as one community's victory against a terrible liver disease by the simple and seemingly unrelated step of scraping river banks. The scraping removed nutrients that attracted parasites carrying the disease, making it safe to use the water again.
Molly Joel Coye.
"When I studied China, one of the most impressive accomplishments was how they used community organizing and community health campaigns to eliminate some of the most terrible infectious diseases," Coye said. "That got me interested in community health and preventive health."
On top of her bachelor's degree in political science from UC Berkeley and master's in Asian studies from Stanford, she next earned her M.D. and a master's in public health from Johns Hopkins, where she also worked as a physician, taught and ran the preventive medicine residency. With academics, medicine and administration under her belt, she went on to head two different state health departments, first in New Jersey and later as director of the California Department of Health Services. In 1999, she started her own company, the groundbreaking Health Technology Center, which helped hospitals nationwide analyze medical innovations coming down the pipeline and predict how they would change health care.
All her experience makes the 63-year-old Coye a perfect fit to lead UCLA's new UCLA Innovates HealthCare initiative, said A. Eugene Washington, vice chancellor of UCLA Health Sciences and dean of the David Geffen School of Medicine.
"Dr. Coye's remarkable background makes her just the right person," Washington said. "She will work with the leadership of the Health System and with national leaders focusing on the transformation of health services and on national and state health reform."
The UCLA Innovates HealthCare initiative will encourage innovation at UCLA, from projects already underway to ideas that are just a twinkle in a doctor's eye. More than supporting innovation at UCLA, the initiative will also focus on sharing UCLA's best practices with other hospitals.
"UCLA's strength in research could be enhanced and built upon in order to tackle some of the toughest problems in the region," Coye said. Innovative programs that are already underway include UCLA's telestroke program, which uses teleconferencing to provide distant diagnosis and treatment plans to stroke patients, she said.
Coye also has a history with UC, from interning at UC San Francisco to teaching at UC Davis and UCLA in the early '90s, when she was director of the state's Department of Health Services. Although she has stayed and worked in Los Angeles intermittently, she had never moved here until now, Coye said.
"So far it's been wonderful," she said. She recently moved from the car-clogged Bay Area in Northern California to West Hollywood. "I probably have the best commute in Los Angeles, right along Sunset Boulevard," said Coye, unfazed by the L.A. traffic. "It's spectacular, with all the green plantings and gorgeous buildings."
Friends and colleagues are already sharing traffic tips, as well as introducing her to good jazz clubs, one of Coye's passions. Also a scuba fan, she dove right in off the coast of Catalina when she arrived in August. It may be next summer until she makes it back out, though – the innovation initiative is keeping her busy, Coye said.
"I'm really excited about this opportunity," she said. "Everyone in health care understands that there are huge opportunities in front of us to improve care. … Reluctance to change is well-founded to some extent because we are dealing with patients' lives. But at the same time, most clinicians can identify aspects in their specialty that could be improved if only some part of the organization would take the lead."
She praised the team of faculty leaders who are on the working group for the UCLA Innovates HealthCare initiative, including the group's chairman, Dr. Neil A. Martin, who chairs the neurosurgery department. Though Coye just started at UCLA a month ago, Martin has known her for years, largely through the Health Technology Center she founded.
"It's great to have somebody on board who's a nationally recognized figure in health care and in the areas of health technology and innovation," Martin said. "I think she's terrific and a great fit for UCLA. She's highly knowledgeable and experienced, she's very well-connected and she's a great collaborator."
As head of the innovation initiative, Coye will also interact with UC's systemwide initiative, the UC Center for Health Quality and Innovation. Funding for the center will be provided by each of the five UC medical centers, which will contribute $1 million each. The UC program will then fund innovative projects at each of the five UC hospitals and promote the spread of successful projects across the UC system, state and nation.
"It makes sense to support learning across the campuses and seed important innovations with funding," Coye said. "But we think there's far more already going on at UCLA – and there will be even more as a result of the UCLA innovation initiative."