Stand and Deliver: Helping the Underserved Patient with Susan Bratton
by Lisa Gable · 13 Mar 2023 · 16 min read
My Stand and Deliver series features women who lead through inspiration and aspiration. Today’s article highlights how a Wall Street player re-focused her energy and intellect to support patients who live with cancer.
I chose to interview Susan Bratton because she is a pioneer in a growing field called “Food As Medicine”, an evolving scientific field where food and nutritional interventions are used like medicine to address chronic conditions, correct nutritional deficiencies or in some cases food can actually train the immune system to prevent disease or reduce the negative side effects of treatments.
Susan is also an outspoken and tireless advocate for cancer patients receiving proper nutrition and nutrition support before, during, and after treatment. She is an innovator using artificial intelligence (AI) to build cutting-edge solutions that ensure all patients have access to the nutritional interventions and support they need in order to manage their symptoms to optimize their outcomes and to feel better while undergoing treatment.
After the death of a close friend due to cancer, Susan left a successful career on Wall Street to research the scientific literature regarding the symptoms and side effects experienced by cancer patients. She found that nutritional strategies are effective in managing the symptoms of cancer and cancer treatment and represent an effective lever to improve outcomes and lower cost of care. She created an AI-based virtual Dietitian-on-Demand chatbox, Ina, who provides personalized strategies for nutritional management 24/7. Ina answers such questions as “What are foods that won’t irritate my mouth sores? What are foods that can reduce my nausea?”
In 2019, I had the opportunity to meet Susan when I was CEO of FARE, the largest NGO funding food allergy research. Over the last few years, we have continued our friendship and collaboration around creating nutritional solutions that meet the personal health profile needs of patients.
Susan, please introduce yourself. Tell us a little bit about your career and what excites you about your current stage of life.
I started my career in investment banking in the early nineties, focusing exclusively on healthcare services companies like hospitals, physician practice roll-ups, and healthcare technology. I was attracted to healthcare because it combines my love of science (I’m a biology and math geek) and inherent desire to help others. Over my twenty years on Wall Street, I learned the business and, to a lesser degree, the regulatory underpinnings of the healthcare industry. Looking back, it was great training for starting and building a healthcare technology company. I loved the mergers and acquisition transactions because they enabled me to think creatively and strategically about my clients’ businesses and how a merger or divestiture could improve their strategic, competitive, financial position in the market. While great “brain candy,” investment banking was not tapping into the side of me that desires to help others. Helping companies make money and succeed often comes at the expense of the patients these companies serve. I was looking for my next move when my close friend was diagnosed, and five months later died of, a deadly gliolastoma brain tumor. I was struck by the fact that he was told nutrition doesn’t matter and to eat whatever he wanted when the scientific literature strongly supports nutrition interventions to help manage side effects during cancer treatment. Like all cancer patients, he and his family were looking for actions that they could take to help him survive and to feel better. Their desire to have agency in the treatment journey and a feeling of independence and control is something that I have continued to witness during my ten years in oncology nutrition as CEO of Savor Health. Nutrition is one of the only things you can control when everything else in your world spins out of control after a cancer diagnosis. In addition to the tremendous clinical impact that nutrition has on clinical outcomes, such as improving response to treatment and preventing ER visits and inpatient admissions, there is a significant psychological boost to being able to exert control and take action. I thought that if this was happening in a city like NYC with its state-of-the-art medical facilities and world renowned medical professionals, the situation in rural and underserved communities must be much worse. So I started Savor Health to help people like my friend and his family.
What excites me about this stage in my life is that I am able to do something for work that I truly love and that is tremendously fulfilling. Today, I am combining my vocation with my avocation, something that very few people over the course of their lives are fortunate enough to do. I am also thrilled that Food Is Medicine/Nutrition Is Intervention [using food to boost or retrain the immune system] is increasingly being accepted and adopted in healthcare after all of the hard work my team and I have devoted to it as early pioneers in the sector. As you know, Savor Health was the first provider of medically tailored meal delivery to cancer patients in the US. We launched ten years ago at a time when Medicare didn’t reimburse such services, so the market was largely for the affluent. I not only wanted to bring nutrition to the forefront of medicine, but I wanted to make sure that it was accessible to all, often saying (somewhat crudely), “I didn’t start Savor Health to only feed rich people with cancer.” This remains an important part of our mission, and by developing a technology that can affordably and effectively provide access to the underserved, we are reaching and supporting cancer patients across the socioeconomic and geographic continuum. Hearing from patients and caregivers that we have helped them at a time when they were so vulnerable is rewarding. I receive inspiration every single day from the patients, the medical professionals, and families who are courageous and strong. All of them inspire me to keep pushing and keep improving. It is also a reality check on how fortunate I am and how the people we serve would do anything they could to have my good health. Lastly, I am excited that I continue to learn every single day. Things are changing at warp speed, so I need to stay abreast of developments in healthcare, technology, and AI.
Tell us about what’s unique about you, your personal history, and your brand.
In many respects, I am a combination of polar opposites, which ironically are my mother and my father. I am creative and visionary in my thinking, believing in the “art of the possible,” unbounded and unconstrained by convention and other obstacles and barriers. At the same time, I am very pragmatic and rational with my “feet firmly on the ground.” To me, these are not mutually exclusive, although to many people they are. The creativity and vision develop into the mission and end goal or the “big idea” while pragmatism and rationality are the “how.” I don’t like leaving things up to chance and am a planner and a worrier. I dot my i’s and cross my t’s, which is my approach to ensuring that I achieve my mission and goal. I also believe that this approach helps convert naysayers to believers, because the “how” is more from their world of minimizing risk, thinking through all the ways they can go wrong. I am also a combination of “tough as nails” and “soft as the Pillsbury Dough Boy.” I am a no-BS sort of a person, which is probably due to my upbringing in rural Colorado, granddaughter of a cattle rancher and a railroad man. My maternal grandfather was a “no whining” sort of a man who was known for saying “quit your bellyaching and get on with it.” As such, my work style is to get to it, don’t complain, and let’s get it done. I expect this of others. At the same time, like my paternal grandmother, who was a social worker, I am quite sensitive and compassionate to others. This is why I created Savor Health and am so committed to making sure that we support both the fortunate as well as the underserved communities, because I see how inequities in our system disproportionately affect many people.
What are the three top tips you have for a woman trying to assert her influence and ideas?
How do you help unleash leadership at all levels?
Seek to understand, respect, and then empower. One important element of leadership (in an organization or group) is to understand another person’s objectives, priorities, and skills and to respect them. This enables you to help them achieve these objectives, in a way that fits their priorities and using their skills. The more a leader can tap into these things, the more they can help others achieve their potential. At the same time, I think it is important to help frame and paint a picture for them of things that aren’t on their “list” and help build their skills.
Be honest and direct. I have found that people can deal with certainty (even “bad” certainty) far better than uncertainty. COVID was a very difficult time for me and for our company, and I made a decision to tell the entire team what was going on and how business had completely dried up, what I foresaw as the various scenarios and outcomes, and what I was doing about it. My team had not ever been through an economic downturn, and I had to help them deal with it and understand what other ones had been like. The team held together and worked to keep the ball rolling forward and we made it and, in fact, achieved some big “wins.”
Tell our readers about a major transition in your life and what you learned from the process?
A very major transition in my life was leaving my lucrative, predictable, and stable career on Wall Street to enter the world of entrepreneurship and start Savor Health. One would think that working in business for twenty years would prepare someone for this new world, but it doesn’t. I went from a world where I had many resources at my disposal to one of very few. While financial resources are part of this equation, as we have been perpetually underfunded, I am also referring to human resources and my own resources. Simply said, I had to create my own resources and, in fact, be resourceful. In the case of money, I had to figure out how to do things on a shoestring budget while not cutting corners and sacrificing quality or patient safety. Personally, I have taken no salary so I, too, have learned to live my life on a lot less. In terms of human resources in the business, I not only had to learn how to do things in a high quality manner, but I had to teach my team to do the same. They, too, come from a more well-resourced work environment and had to “do with less.” It is a process—and not an easy one. I found that leading by example, rolling up my shirtsleeves, and getting into the nitty gritty is important in changing mindsets and effectively leading people through a world of few resources. I have learned that as hard as one thinks it will be, it is much much harder. The startup experience is one of very high highs and very low lows, not just in a single month but in a single week and even day. It is life on a roller coaster and not for the faint of heart. I have learned to manage my own and my team’s expectations and to moderate the highs and lows. Again, I have learned that leading by example is very helpful with this. Because one feels like they are constantly living on the edge of the cliff, it is important to protect the team from this as much as possible in terms of showing emotion while at the same time being very honest. As mentioned previously, COVID was a big challenge, and I learned that in times of uncertainty it is essential to communicate frequently and to trust your team. To me, this is a matter of respect for the team.
Who inspires you today and why?
My mom and dad. My dad has taught me about hard work, perseverance, resourcefulness, honesty, integrity, and never giving up. He has taught me that when you face a wall, get a ladder to go over it, dig a tunnel to go under it, or find a sledgehammer to break through it to get to the other side. He inspires me to shoot for the stars and to think of obstacles not as the end but as a bump in the road to be navigated and a challenge to make me better. My mom inspires me with her grace, humor, and stiff upper lip. She is quite ill with a degenerative illness that has stripped her of her sight and ability to move very well, which prevents her from doing what she loves, which is reading, cooking, and gardening. She continues to amaze me on a daily basis with her gratitude, dry sense of humor, and patience with herself and her situation. An independent woman who now has to depend on others for everything in her life, my mom is accepting her reality and exhibiting grace toward herself and to others. They give me inspiration every day.
How do you want to be remembered?
I would like to be remembered as someone who was committed to and succeeded at helping others and was willing to leave a successful career and risk it all, professionally and financially, to make a difference in others’ lives. I want to be remembered as someone of impeccable integrity who operated with honesty and truthfulness and respect for others. And I want to be remembered as one of the pioneers in the Food Is Medicine sector, who helped to create the sector and who was successful in developing and validating nutrition interventions so that they could become part of treatment guidelines as standard of care for all medical conditions.
My Key Takeaways
Whenever we speak, I am struck by Susan’s ability to balance her type-A Wall Street instincts with compassion and understanding of the human toll of cancer. She describes herself as believing in the “art of the possible” while keeping her feet on the ground. That is the trait of successful entrepreneurs.
Because of this trait, my favorite quote from Susan’s interview is: “The creativity and vision develop into the mission and end goal or the “big idea” while pragmatism and rationality are the “how.”
My favorite Susan quote:
I believe each of us is an expert at doing something well that can be done to help someone else.
In Susan’s case, she did not wake up one moment and decide “I want to be an entrepreneur.” However, she recognized that she had the skill set that could transform her passion to best meet the needs of individuals with cancer by leveraging market principles. Her big idea was to build a company to support cancer patients’ needs by helping them manage their symptoms through nutritional intake so they could feel better as during treatment cycles.
Her business model aims at making good nutrition more affordable and available to a wider variety of cancer patients—not just the wealthy. Susan not only saw a need to mitigate impact on a patient through more informed decisions, but her early investment in AI technology combined with creating astute business partnerships increases available solutions while simultaneously decreasing cost of delivering those solutions to the patient. She is able to meet the patient where they are at in their moment of pain. The Savor AI suggests actions the patient can take to make themselves feel better.
In my recent CEOWORLD article, “It’s Time for Critical Thinking About Critical Health,” I discuss that an exhausted patient only understands a fraction of what they are being told following treatment in a medical setting. When they get home, patients make decisions based on incomplete knowledge. We have all been there. Think about this: How many times have you sat in a hospital, madly taking notes when the doctor does their rounds? You try to ask all your questions but you forget some. You get home and all of a sudden you don’t feel well. Reaching a medical professional to answer your question is hard. The system is overwhelmed. Innovative solutions like Savor’s AI, Ina, provides a just-in-time solution.
Solving complex health challenges requires resources and resources require money. Philanthropy can only go so far. Smart business people like those at Savor Health aspire to transform existing healthcare models through the use of technology. They identify gaps in patient care and deliver products and services to fill those gaps. They place the voice of the patient at the center of the solutions they are creating and focus on alleviating misery (mouth sores, severe weight loss, nausea).
Innovative leaders, like Susan, are helping patients improve how they feel by using nutrition to bolster the immune system. They seek to not only extend life but are focused on helping people live well by returning some control to the patient while improving health outcomes.
“Longevity is something we all desire, but it’s good health we need and crave.” [an excerpt from Lisa Gable, It’s Time for Critical Treatment for Critical Health, CEOWORLD, Dec 19, 2022]
What lessons did you learn from Susan’s interview? Let me know what inspired you by connecting with me on Instagram or LinkedIn. You can also sign up for my newsletter and buy my book, Turnaround: How to Change Course When Things Are Going South, at www.lisagable.com.