A Moment with Aarthi Rao is part of our interview series featuring thought leaders in research and healthcare. Each interview includes 7 short and stimulating questions.
Aarthi Rao is passionate about applying innovation tools like design thinking, behavioral science, and experiments to listen closely to people, discover hidden opportunities and needs, test quickly, and scale programs to improve lives. She is currently the Head of Behavioral Insights & Program Design at Cityblock Health. For more from Aarthi, find her on LinkedIn.
1. Tell us something we don’t know. (Anything!)
One of my earliest aspirations in life was to be a novelist. That path definitely didn’t come together, but I’ve found that interest in writing and storytelling has impacted my career and approach in ways I never could have predicted.
2. Which fiction book would you recommend to researchers and innovators in healthcare, and why?
One of my favorite novels is “Disgrace” by J.M. Coetzee. Although the plot is dark, the storytelling is effective and crisp. The book forces you into the mind space of someone that you dislike, whose actions you want to stop, but whose thought process and rationale you come to understand. As the book twists and turns through power dynamics and relationships — between student and teacher, father and daughter, victim and criminal — you appreciate how perception is so strongly linked to your frame of reference. I think understanding that is a building block of empathy, which is a critical muscle for researchers and innovators alike as they try to problem solve for people who may be very far from their own personal frame of reference.
3. What are you working on right now that you’re excited about?
Finding ways to build trust with people and communities that have had a lot stacked against them to create better healthcare experiences and outcomes. It’s simple to say, but complex to unpack, and I’m thrilled to get to learn and test my way through it.
4. Who’s doing something that you admire in healthcare today, and why is it so cool?
Cityblock! No seriously, I joined Cityblock recently because of how much I admire its mission and the talent and resources the organization is galvanizing to radically improve healthcare for communities that are often overlooked. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how inequality is entrenched in the healthcare system (which of course many people already knew) and that small piecemeal steps to address it won’t be enough. The whole approach has to change. It’s a bold and high-risk mission, but one that I am thrilled to be a part of.
5. What’s the biggest barrier to getting things done in your line of work?
Trying to get stakeholders to speak the same language. Often people have the same goals and approaches in mind, but a lack of shared understanding puts up a barrier that can slow down progress.
6. Imagine you win an award for impacting healthcare. What did you do?
Creating experiences for communities that have traditionally been under-invested in that not only improve health but that people enjoy engaging with.
7. What advice would you give innovators in healthcare?
Be intentionally interdisciplinary and partner with curiosity across fields and areas of functional expertise. I think it’s easy to get wrapped up in a single framework or tool and to shy away from different approaches. But in practice no one discipline is the answer to every problem, and everything–behavioral science, design thinking, experiments, data science, implementation science, social marketing, etc. are all tools in a toolkit that must be blended and used together based on the problem at hand. If you focus on who you’re solving for you can pull in the right tool at the right time and find others who might be solving for that same person in other ways. It’s inspiring what you can learn at the margins of an unfamiliar field as an outsider and the ideas that can unlock for your own work. And of course, it’s also fun!
About Aarthi Rao
Aarthi is passionate about applying innovation tools like design thinking, behavioral science, and experiments to listen closely to people, discover hidden opportunities and needs, test quickly, and scale programs to improve lives. She is currently the Head of Behavioral Insights & Program Design at Cityblock Health.
Prior to Cityblock she was the founding Director of the Design & Innovation Lab at CVS Health where she led an innovation team to unlock new commercial innovation roadmaps and directly incubate new revenue-generating business opportunities through prototyping, piloting, and product development/scale. The Lab launched the pharmacy’s double bottom line social determinants of health strategy, unlocked new channels to engage patients such as video and augmented reality, led to substantial gains in medication adherence for patients managing chronic disease, and increased uptake of flu and COVID-19 vaccinations.
Aarthi began her career in global health with the Results for Development Institute leading a number of projects in Washington, D.C. and New Delhi to strengthen policies and funding strategies around accelerating the development of new global health technologies, education and skills development, and ministerial capacity. She continues to partner with global health researchers at UC Berkeley and UCSF to leverage tools like design thinking to develop patient-centric services that can be rigorously tested for impact. Most recently, this work has focused on driving medication adherence for HIV treatment and encouraging the uptake of HIV self-testing in rural Tanzania.
Aarthi has an MBA from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and a BA in Public Health from Johns Hopkins University. Although Aarthi lives in Boston, she is always plotting moves to warmer locations. She loves (non-pandemic) travel, rock climbing, and trying to keep up with her newborn son and her dog Van (who is almost always up to no good).