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From her early calling as a doctor to assuming critical leadership roles at the front lines of the world’s most pressing population health issues, Julie Gerberding, this year's Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association Woman of the Year, has remained steadfast in her life’s mission-help the many, help the one.
Unwavering Purpose: Pharm Exec profiles Merck & Co.’s Julie Gerberding, this year’swinner of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association Womanof the Year award, who, from her early calling as a doctor toassuming critical leadership roles at the front lines of theworld’s most pressing population health issues, has remainedsteadfast in her life’s mission-help the many, help the one.
Spend just a few minutes talking with Merck & Co.’s Chief Patient Officer Dr. Julie Gerberding about her life, and it is easy to see how her clear purpose and global action help make the world a better place for patients. Throughout her career, first as a doctor, then as the first female director of the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention (CDC), where she led some 40 emergency responses, and now at Merck-where she also serves as executive vice president of communications, global policy, and population health-Gerberding has never lost the sense of who she is and what she is here to do.
Born at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, she moved to and was raised in a small, close-knit prairie town in South Dakota, where she understood that one couldn’t survive without a strong sense of community and how to function as a network.
“We had our share of blizzards and floods and ice storms and I learned very early on about the interdependence that people have on one another to solve problems,” says Gerberding. “When we had a crisis, we did not call FEMA-we called each other. I grew up with a very strong sense of the importance of working collaboratively with other people and to be independent at the same time.”
Early on, Gerberding told Pharm Exec, she realized her calling. “When I was four, Santa Claus brought me a doctor’s kit for Christmas, and from that moment forward, I knew that my goal in life was to be a physician.” Gerberding remembers setting up a little intensive care unit for her dolls and rescuing animals. “At one point,” she recalls, “we had several rabbits that needed to be fed with an eye dropper every two hours.”
Gerberding’s story and commitment to patients reinforces why the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA) selected her as the 2018 Women of the Year. “I was surprised, and of course humbled,” she says about finding out she was selected for the honor. “Immediately, I wanted to think about what I could do in this period of recognition that would create more meaning.”
It’s an instinct that is well honed from a life spent working with others to forge progress in health-whether that is for individual patients, supporting fellow women in the health industry, or some of the most at-risk populations on the planet.
During her tenure at Merck, Gerberding has been able to fuel her passion for helping others by combining her health and business expertise and collaborating with others. She joined Merck in 2010 as president of Merck Vaccines, where she worked with other leaders inside and outside Merck to help globalize the business and deliver life-saving vaccines to people in some of the neediest countries around the world.
She saw the need for this work. Gerberding shared a story when she was with the CDC and working in a
hospital in Vietnam to help battle a SARS outbreak. She saw a little boy in a bed surrounded by his family and others from his village. The boy caught her attention-he was paralyzed, unable to breathe on his own. People were taking turns pumping air into his lungs around the clock by using a hand-held manual ventilator, which was all that was available.
It turned out the boy had tetanus-a life-threatening disease that is preventable by a vaccine.
“They are pumping air into his lungs to make sure he is staying alive, while a tetanus shot costs about two cents,” says Gerberding. “Due to the lack of a few pennies, this boy was on the brink of death and had to suffer dreadfully. I was incredibly frightened for him.”
That was one of the moments that inspired her to take a position with Merck and improve access to vaccines. Her dream job, she says, is to catalyze the elimination of life-threatening illnesses, such as HPV and related cancers, an aspiration that’s possible with tools that already exist today.
Gerberding took the helm of the CDC in the middle of chaos-not so much within the agency, but in the world. It was September 2001, and the agency needed to retool itself to protect public health in the post 9/11 era. Gerberding needed to lead through an unprecedented sequence of public health emergencies, from anthrax and SARS, to avian influenza, and a number of devastating natural disasters, like hurricanes.
Even in this constant barrage of public emergencies, Gerberding prioritized her purpose-patients-and structured the agency to manage crises while keeping goals like reducing the obesity epidemic on track.
She knew the work to prepare the nation for a public health emergency couldn’t be done by the CDC alone. “You have to build a network, and you have to understand that managing a horizontal network is very
different from managing a vertical hierarchy,” says Gerberding. “You have to understand what other people are prioritizing, what their capabilities are, what kind of solutions make sense to them, and then lead through influence, negotiation, shared goal creation, and shared resource allocation, rather than through the more traditional mechanisms like power or money.”
She adds: “For me, the personal lesson is that the hard problems that we have to solve as a pharmaceutical industry, or really in any organization in today’s complex global world, are problems that can only be solved through networks. It’s too complicated and too fraught with multiple agendas to expect any one organization or sector to be able to create effective solutions.”
Those long days and plethora of public health emergencies while at the CDC also taught Gerberding a lot about self-care, as well as the well-being of her employees.
“During the most difficult of emergencies, I would lose track of time and realize I hadn’t eaten a single thing all day,” she says. “At one point, it became clear to me that everyone else was also staying all day and night, and I was setting the wrong example. Leaders need to be aware and mindful that people need a mental health balance.”
The foundation of Gerberding’s career was built on the lessons she learned from patients at the University of California, San Francisco, where she arrived for her medical residency at the same time the AIDS epidemic was emerging. She saw the evolving dynamic between patients and the medical community-which in many ways started the movement of patient empowerment as we know it today.
“We couldn’t really do much in terms of saving lives because we didn’t have medicines then,” she recalls. “The conversation was about how our patients wanted to live their lives, how they wanted to die, and their participation in the medical process. I became shaped by the force of that epidemic in San Francisco and the powerful engagement with our patients.”
Through her work, Gerberding sought to break down the silos of the hospital that had responsibility for treating people with AIDS. She then became a hospital epidemiologist, charged with understanding and preventing the spread of all infectious diseases at San Francisco General Hospital, a step on her path to recognition as a national and global expert in infectious disease and antimicrobial stewardship.
As chief patient officer at Merck, Gerberding feels as if her career has come full circle in such a way, as she states, “combines the discipline of scientific inquiry with the art and wonder of human relationships.”
As a successful business leader, Gerberding is always getting questions about how to achieve professional success. A lot of these questions come from talking with college students who are plotting out their careers and are faced with what, at the time, may seem like life-altering decisions, such as, “should I take this fellowship?” or “should I get a medical degree?”
For Gerberding, working with young women, in particular, is something that has become increasingly important to her. She is involved with a number of diverse programs that support this cause not only within Merck, as the
executive sponsor of the Merck Women’s Network, but also with outside organizations.
She told Pharm Exec that she always replies to these inquires with the same answer: “Put more tools in your tool box because you never know when they will come in handy. Typically, the people with the best and most relevant tools are the ones who are in demand.”
Beyond that, Gerberding’s call is for aspiring individual talents and leaders alike to recognize that we all have to step up and apply our knowledge.
“To not know what to do is terrible-but to not do what you know is absolutely tragic,” she says. “We have a collective responsibility to learn what we don’t know, but also to actively and aggressively implement the things we already do know. Sometimes ‘doing the right thing’ takes moral courage, sometimes it takes financial risk-taking, and sometimes it means you have to exert your own influence and authority in ways that may not create popularity, but hopefully create the right outcome for the people you serve.”
Michelle Maskaly is Pharm Exec’s Senior Editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @mmaskaly