Sofia Yuen is a motivated generator of information and an unbelievably hard worker. She holds an MD and MBA and works within New York University’s hospital system as an Assistant Director, Clinical Quality & Effectiveness. Her work focuses on improving patient care, outcomes, and overall experience. Her mission is to make the healthcare system more understandable for all participants. She has a lot of work cut out but is very driven in this goal.
Growing up in Taiwan with traditional Chinese parents, Sofia’s life was very structured, and had high expectations to follow a certain path. Both of Sofia’s parents are in healthcare, the dad being the orthopedic surgeon and her mother was a nurse and later moved to be director of the local hospital. Throughout her childhood, her parents had always coached Sofia and her sister to be physicians due to the stability of the field. In Taiwan, her parents are owners of a community hospital. This 6-floor, 30-bed institution was a pivot point around which all their lives revolved. Not only did she see her parents working as owners and physicians, but she also could see what those lives looked like and why it was a significant career. “What I love about my mother is that she is more open-minded than most traditional Asian parents. She was the anchor for our family and ran the business ends of things for the hospital. What I love about my father is that he is brilliant and hard-working. He also has a good temper (considering that he has to deal with both my mother and myself, who are both ambitious).”
However, one unique aspect of Sofia’s life was how much her mother worked. Her mother (Sofia’s grandmother) also had a job and was running a single-parent household (she was married but lived separately from her husband). So Sofia’s mother saw firsthand her mother telling her not to depend on a man, to work and build a career for herself. So Sofia’s mother was trained to be a nurse and had always worked before she was married and after, especially running the hospital and being the face of the hospital to the community and other business partners, practically unheard of in Taiwan at the time. But a champion to show what was possible for the next generation.
Sofia always had a temper that was ambitious and also wanted to do things her way as much as she could. When she was in 5th grade in Taiwan, she described herself as one of the more “rebellious” girls in the classroom. “I would always speak my mind and challenge anything I don’t necessarily agree with. That becomes a huge problem in a traditional Asian society. My 5th-grade teacher and I would always argue about how I was wrong (in his opinion). He would tell my parents that I play basketball in my uniform (a dress), which is unacceptable behavior. He would not like it when I find shortcuts to solve a math problem. I went from straight A to straight C because he was trying to train me to solve problems his way.”
In the conversations about their future, Sofia’s parents wanted the best for their children. That meant they had to ensure they learned English and would attend medical school outside of Asia. It was always the plan to rely on family and send the children to the United States. At first, it was just Sofia’s older sister who was going to go, but Sofia knew that it would be better for her academics if she left sooner, so she asked her parents if she could go earlier, and they agreed.
“Coming to the US was a challenge on its own because of the language gap and cultural differences, but we made it together.” Sofia and her sister moved to Southern California, where they attended the local public elementary school. Sofia promised herself that only she would go to California, but she would become fluent in English within the first year of living there. Can you imagine that devotion to your education at just 11 years old?
She was put into a mainstream classroom at first but then was allowed to attend a particular class to help with English language acquisition. Within that year, Sofia could return to the regular classroom because her English was at grade level with her peers.
As she was finishing middle school in the USA, she had an opportunity to go to Toronto for high school. Sofia and her sister applied themselves so much to their academics that they took more than a full load all the years they attended. Not only could they finish high school, but because of the unique program, they could also take college-level courses. They both skipped grades and were able to graduate from university at ages 19 and 20.
So back to the part of Sofia’s life story and not learning about careers and thinking about other possible futures, Sofia only knew that medicine was ahead of her. Her undergrad was focused on biology, and even when she took other topics that she found interesting, she never thought outside of the medical profession.
“After college, I start to question myself.” She attended graduate school in New York, School, and part-time work in a private practice with Dr Anthony Starpoli. She could sense that she still liked healthcare, but she also began loving the administration aspect.
At that point, she went on to Medical School. “I thought it was the only way to advance my medical career.”
During her clinical rotations (3rd and 4th year of med-school), I noticed a lot of gaps in the healthcare system, and there wasn’t any education during her years of schooling that would solve those gaps.
“I started questioning why I wanted to go into medicine when I was so much more concerned about broader pictures than individual care.” What was the purpose for her if she did not love the practice side as much as some others? “At the time when all my peers were applying for residency, I knew that becoming a practicing physician was not my goal anymore.”
She had put so much into this; she knew her family relied on her to become a doctor after all they had done for her. Her sister was also in her residency program to become a family medicine physician. And really, she did not want to disappoint herself in that she had studied medicine either. After all, she left her family in Taiwan and threw herself into her studies for years. But to become a doctor did not feel like the right step forward on her path. She felt like she still wanted to be around medicine but not necessarily do the day-to-day work of being a doctor.
“I called my mentor, Dr. Starpoli, whom I had known for years. He was shocked when I told him about my struggle and how unhappy I was. Throughout my life, I’ve always told myself to do my best on anything I worked on. I felt like a failure then. This is when my mentor opened my eyes to more possibilities.”
He mentioned that she would be exceptional at healthcare management and that maybe she could consider doing an MBA in healthcare. Taking a professional path to what her mother had done. Getting into healthcare meant being a physician to her and her family; there was never this other path until now.
“After we got off the phone, even though I was skeptical, I started researching what an MBA meant for me after so much schooling. Suddenly everything came to light for me. The MBA courses prepared me for the job I’d always considered since I worked at that clinic in grad school.”
At that time, her medical school was offering a scholarship to graduates of Med-School to do an MBA as well. At the same time as doing her MBA, she also worked at Lenox Hill Hospital as a researcher to work with a world-renowned physician Dr. Gregory Haber who has become a second mentor for Sofia.
“I researched to keep my options open if I want to return to residency. This was my plan B, but it was helpful for Plan A.”
During her MBA, she fell in love with the program. It answered many of my questions that had come up for her when she was studying healthcare. It broadened my horizon. During my MBA, Dr. Haber was recruited to work for NYU, and he brought her with him as the core of his team to build the program he envisioned.
Due to her prior private practice experience as well as her current work as an MBA student, she had the opportunity to assist him in setting up the practice from the beginning. Sofia worked as the acting manager for the department being created at NYU.
Sofia had a friend who worked in healthcare administration who told her about a potential new opportunity to do an administration fellowship that might be a good fit for her. This brought about a long consultation with Dr. Haber.
“At the close of graduating with my MBA, I spoke with Dr. Haber and told him about my possible plan for fellowship. Dr. Haber and I had lengthy conversations about his goals and visions and mine. To my surprise, our visions aligned with the program he was building. He had indicated that he would love to move me from research to administration to help him build the program. I then worked to build the Advanced Endoscopy Program at NYU with Dr. Haber. We built the fellowship together. We host our annual live endoscopy conference (NYSGE), the third-largest conference in the US. As the program expands, my job responsibility expands. It empowered me! And then that got me to be known by NYU leadership and connected me to all of NYC’s world-renowned GI doctors.”
In August of 2022, Sofia took on new work with a promotion within NYU after years of devotion to growing this program. The leadership team of NYU noticed her talent. Her current title and work revolve around the success of the total patient experience. She delves into the work to improve quality care within the hospital. She gets into the work of understanding insurance claims and billing to help the patient experience in the hospital better. She works with the entire hospital system to help all the staff understand these systems better and works to improve it for everyone. And she is constantly thinking of and working with people around the entire system to deliver better care.
When asked about her past and what she would tell her younger self – she would want her to know that the hard work is worth it. And for the future, she wants to be part of the change to make health care not only more accessible but within reach and more understandable for the masses. “I want to teach people about the healthcare industry so more people can understand it so they can help others understand it as well.”