Creative Careers: Charlotte Yeh, MD, FACEP

Dr. Charlotte Yeh’s day-to-day work as the CMO of AARP Services, Inc. is a bit like emergency medicine, she says: “Every day is different with a different set of circumstances and range of problems to be solved.” When she took the role in 2008, it was a newly created job tasked with expanding AARP’s approach to making health products and services available to its members from third party companies. Because it was a new position, Dr. Yeh viewed it as an “incredible opportunity” to focus on the needs she felt were most pressing for adults aged 50 and older. AARP Services is a taxable subsidiary of AARP that manages relationships for a variety of products and services that carry the AARP name and are made available to AARP members by third party companies.

One of the primary areas of focus for Dr. Yeh is to lead the health care transformation initiative, which is a collaboration between AARP Services and third-party companies who make health-related products and services available to AARP members. When she took the job, Dr. Yeh was asked to work across AARP to examine what matters most to AARP members and how those learnings could inform a renewed perspective for healthcare innovation.

“We’ve learned a lot about people, about aging and the perception of aging. Some people do really, really well as they age, and other people don’t,” Dr. Yeh said. This observation has served as a catalyst for Dr. Yeh to work with organizations to analyze the “secret sauce of the ‘thrivers,’” and some key trends are emerging. “We are starting to understand the importance of what we now call personal determinants – having a sense of purpose, social connections, optimism, a positive view of aging – and how these personal determinants can help drive better health outcomes.”

A big part of her role is to help support AARP’s mission to improve the quality of life for people as they age by identifying how the organization can be of value to the 50+ population. “Almost all of my work is in this space of understanding what it is that the consumer needs and wants and how can that be delivered to them.” It’s easier said than done, she said. It can be a challenge to build a business case around improving health care for older adults when many of the key contributors to geriatric health – loneliness, for example – are not easy fixes.   

As a result of her work with AARP, Dr. Yeh says that she’s also continued to think about age and ageism – and is passionate about aging as an equity imperative and a component of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. “Aging is one thing that we all have in common,” notes Dr. Yeh.

Dr. Yeh started out in surgery but fell in love with emergency medicine when she rotated through the ED. She loved creating order out of chaos and being able to see and work with a cross-section of society. As Dr. Yeh notes, “(The emergency department) is a phenomenal view of humanity.”

Dr. Yeh’s career has always been driven by her commitment and passion to affect change, and as Dr. Yeh moved on from the ED, she learned that being able to “go upstream” as part of her career path created a new vantage point for her to address health care challenges. Dr. Yeh’s experience includes working as carrier medical director for a Medicare payment contractor for five years. She then took a role with CMS during the stand-up for Medicare Part D, where she learned more about the regulatory, oversight and audience pieces of the puzzle. As her career path unfolded, she also became involved with ACEP and the American Hospital Association. While her ED experience continues to serve as a catalyst for her work, Dr. Yeh says that all of these experiences have helped her embrace the art of consensus-building and how it can be put to work across an organization to create change.

Dr. Yeh believes emergency physicians have core skills that allow them to flex their EM muscles in careers outside the ED. “We are very systems-oriented, and we can hone in on problems. If you think about it, we know how to deal with people in their worst stage, under stress and fear, and we know how to create that calm. We also become extraordinary listeners and observers of people,” notes Dr. Yeh. “This intersection between AARP’s older adult population and Emergency Medicine’s insights into healthcare delivery has been for me such a profound underpinning of the opportunity in my current position as CMO. If we can apply the best learnings from the consumer, family and caregivers with the data driven healthcare delivery system insights, could we not improve health outcomes, experience of care and affordability? As you acquire those skills, you realize that while there are many challenges to overcome, there is also great opportunity. It’s this perspective that those of us who begin our careers in EM can bring to bear outside of the ED. We know that when it comes to meeting the needs of a patient, there’s almost nothing you can’t try.”