Foreword: The following is an abbreviated and edited transcript from the latest Medtech Trailblazers, the real stories behind the Innovators, Fogarty Innovation’s series of in-depth conversations aimed at getting to know the people who are forging, disrupting or changing our industry. To view part 1 of the videocast, click here; to listen to part 1 of the podcast, click here.
This month’s MedTech Trailblazers episode features Sam Conaway, a seasoned, innovative medtech leader passionate about health equity, who turned early obstacles into opportunity.
Sam currently serves as president of U.S. Cardiology sales for Boston Scientific and spearheads the company’s Close the Gap program, which was founded with the mission of eliminating treatment disparities in underserved populations at high risk of cardiovascular disease-. He started his career at Devices for Vascular Intervention (DVI) and later progressed through numerous positions at Guidant Corporation, Abbott Vascular, and Boston Scientific, where he is today.
During his tenure at Boston Scientific, Sam has been recognized by SAVOY Magazine as one of the Most Influential Black Executives in Corporate America and was the first recipient of the Cardiovascular Research Foundation’s Inaugural Pulse-Setter Leader Award for embodiment of an elevated standard of excellence and demonstration of unwavering commitment to advancing health equity. Most recently, he was recognized by BlackDoctor.org as one of fourteen Top Blacks in Healthcare.
Andrew Cleeland (AC) had the pleasure of chatting with Sam (SC) to learn more about how he overcame inequities and created his own opportunities to launch a successful career and how and why he is determined to make a difference in the field today. Following is an excerpt of the interview.
Q. Tell us about your upbringing and your parents.
A. I was fortunate to have a strong family dynamic growing up in Baltimore when the civil rights movement was at its peak. I believe I get my work ethic from my dad – he always worked very hard, often holding numerous jobs simultaneously. My mom was a gospel singer and an author, which is where I think I got my love of speaking to groups and engaging with people.
We lived in a pretty rough neighborhood, but my mom and dad were positive influences which helped keep me on the right track — my father always emphasized the importance of us sticking together to weather trials and tribulations.
Another thing that helped transcend my neighborhood’s environment was sports. During that time, I saw a lot of my friends destroy themselves with drugs and crime, but because I was a baseball player, I got a “pass,” meaning I didn’t experience the peer pressure that others did to rob a store or steal a car or something similar.
While baseball was a huge positive force and taught me how to compete, I tore my rotator cuff when I was 17. This was devastating as I thought the sport would help me get out of the neighborhood. Instead, I was cut from the team and went back to where I grew up. I did a lot of things that I’m not very proud of at that time; it was definitely a setback, but it was something I had to break through.
One thing that helped me get through it was taking a job in the laundry of Washington Hospital Center.
Q. Tell us more about that experience and how it helped shape your career.
A. One of my tasks was to take the laundry up to the cardiac cath lab, the heart station and the nuclear lab. I was always on time and took my role seriously, making sure to put the lab coats in the right slots for the physicians. One day one of the physicians asked me what a nice kid like me was doing working in the laundry.
The physician, who I later learned was Dr. Augusto D. Pichard, then asked me to become an orderly in the cardiac cath lab, and that’s where my career started. It was a fascinating environment for me, especially seeing the transition from surgery to minimally invasive techniques. I listened to the technicians as they talked to patients, and I got a few books on the topic. When I transported patients, I talked to them about their upcoming procedures, so by the time they arrived at the lab, they knew what was next. Intrigued, the doctors asked how they learned abouttheir upcoming procedure, and they pointed to me.
This showed me the power of being curious and educating yourself. Based on my explanations, patients felt more confident. The ability to educate patients, and the expectation that I would, became a big source of pride for me.
And that’s how I got noticed; at 19 years old, I was invited to attend the cardiovascular school at the Washington Hospital Center School of Nursing. Most of the students in the program were college graduates or had at least an associate’s degree. I had nothing. This was a transformational opportunity – I really buckled down as I knew, as an African American teenager without higher education, that I was an anomaly. I graduated at the top of my class.
Q. How were you able to use that achievement for your next step?
A. When you put your best foot forward, you stand out and get noticed. I saw very early on that I had an aptitude for the work and I found it very satisfying to be able to scrub in and prepare everything in advance of the surgery for the physicians. It gave me a lot of confidence as one of the few African-Americans in the hospital setting at the time. I was barely 20 years old, carrying a pager and helping save lives – it was just incredible.
I was working at the cath lab at Washington Hospital Center, doing a number of different jobs, and I happened to be there at a very special time for innovation, as the likes of John Simpson and Marty Leonwere coming to our lab. And I was particularly gratified when John Simpson and a few others mistook me for a fellow instead of a technician. This acknowledgement of my skills helped me get noticed and recruited, and I eventually got my first job in the field with Allan Will at Devices for Vascular Intervention (DVI).
Q. What was it like working at DVI?
A. It was the best thing I ever did. Working with people like Allan, Hank Plain and others who were leaders in the medical device community was incomparable, and they truly helped shape who I am today as a professional. I was at DVI when it was acquired by Guidant and stayed with the company. After excelling as a salesperson, I rose to regional manager and from there I was asked to move into the cardiac pacemaker division, which terrified me initially since it was a very specialized field.
Q. Tell us about this period of transition and how it ultimately helped you build your career.
A. This was a challenging transition for me. It included relocating to Richmond, Virginia, which wasn’t a diverse town at the time and I experienced a lot of racism. But, my competitive side and my previous accomplishments gave me confidence to forge ahead. The training to sell pacemakers was very difficult, but I’m proud to say that I not only finished at the top of my class, but I learned the procedure for pacing and defibrillation. In 1997, I won Guidant Cardiac Rhythm ’s Rookie of the Year award, for increasing sales from hundreds of thousands of dollars the first year to $5.2 million the following year.
That’s when I fell in love with the possibility of accomplishing something you’ve never done before – going into an environment and figuring out how to get accepted, both personally and professionally. I accomplished this by having a strong work ethic, working smarter, making sure I was clinically competent and putting myself in an environment where I could be an expert. And that’s how I’ve really done everything since then.
I had several successful years after that, taking the business to $15 million, which was a lot for a rural city like Richmond. As a result, I started getting more recruiting calls, but my stumbling block was that I had never pursued a college degree. I decided to go back to school at the University of Phoenix, which allowed me to complete my degree on my own time. I got my associate’s degree, and that’s when Guidant gave me my first regional manager job, where I eventually grew the market from $50 to $60 million.
Q. What happened from there at Guidant?
A. I was then promoted to area director for the Southeast. It was a tough start as many of our sales people were being recruited away, but I met with them individually and convinced the majority to come back under my leadership. It was an incredible learning experience for me in terms of people management and understanding the value of empathy, listening, being invested in each individual and, finally, the importance of delivering on promises you make.
Q. Tell us about your plans to address inequity in healthcare.
A. Believe it or not, we started a health equity program 20 years ago at Guidant. We had noticed a definite disparity in care with fewer Black patients getting pacemakers and defibrillators. There were a lot of obstacles in our way, including the mistrust African-American patients and people of color had toward physicians. There were a myriad of issues regarding insurance, racism and biases, even if it may have been an unconscious bias. Regardless, we forged ahead, and that was the start of health equity as my life’s work.
Today, I am the chair of Close the Gap, which is partnering with hospitals all over the United States, helping share best practices and building programs to address health inequity. We hold community events to educate people that heart disease is the No. 1 killer. We are doing clinical trials that involve women and people of color. The hospitals I’m working with now are creating robust programs to touch this community in a different way and provide the care they need. With Boston Scientific leading the way, it’s exciting to see so many other companies and the FDA now joining in to address this inequity.
Q. Any words of wisdom for young members of audience?
A. Work on and invest in yourself. Be very deliberate about developing skills. Write down what works and repeat it. Do the job you’re in well and stop thinking about what you could be doing instead. Lastly, always have high ethical standards – how you conduct business is critical and will be part of your legacy.