Sarah Mills: HCAN CEO and designer of change (Part 1)
As the CEO of Health Care Access Now (HCAN), Sarah Mills wants to achieve one important goal, which is to “have as many Community Health Workers [CHWs] in the field as necessary to address systemic barriers to health care equity.” She says her job is “in some ways, really simple: to expand [the work of HCAN] and make sure we have the funding to do it.”
A complete redesign
Mills began her career as a designer. A graduate from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP), she spent many years working in that industry. “But I wanted to help solve a big [societal] problem,” she says, and that meant changing careers.
With the help of a former mentor, she moved into the health care field as a research assistant. A move and an administrative job at University of Missouri – Kansas City later, she began to put the pieces together. “I realized I could apply what I knew about design and problem-solving as a health care administrator,” she says. She got her Master’s Degree in Public Administration (MPA) and found work at a children’s psychiatric hospital.
That job turned out to be a turning point in her career. A challenging leadership position was thrust on her less than a year after she began work there. “It shaped who I am as a leader: someone who really values the contribution of the whole team,” she says.
Mills’ final project for her MPA was about “the equity, effectiveness, and efficiency of the health care system in Cincinnati.” She “looked at the landscape of providers, read community health needs assessments, and realized there were gaps in the system because everything was siloed.” It was then that she became familiar with HCAN’s work and with CHWs. “I got really excited about it. I thought, ‘That’s it! That’s the answer.’”
When her husband was transferred back to Cincinnati, she applied to be HCAN’s Director of Operations, and was hired as CEO when Judith Warren retired in 2019. “To take this incredible idea that already had a solid foundation and expand and offer it to as many people as possible in the community: It’s such an opportunity.”
The everyday and the big picture
Throughout her career, Mills has learned that while it’s important to have overarching ambitions, it is equally important to “do the work that’s in front of you.” She believes that the work she and the HCAN staff do every day accumulates to help reach the objective of eliminating health disparities in the Cincinnati community.
“Every time the CHWs share a positive outcome, every time I see the number of healthy babies delivered, any changes we’re able to make, make me proud,” she says. The data collected through the Pathways Community HUB (Hub) demonstrates the impression HCAN makes: “The number of completed visits – thousands of those happen every year. All the touchpoints, all the pieces of support: They let me know we’re out there doing the work.”
Just before Christmas, HCAN’s CHWs were able to secure permanent housing for a pregnant mother and her family, who had been living in a car. That’s just one example of how HCAN is working to close gaps. “We helped give stability to that family.”
Day by day, Mills and the team at HCAN make a difference. Her ultimate goal of bringing the Cincinnati region to a state of health equity will require growth and perseverance. Part 2 will discuss how she plans to get it done.