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The Business of Healthcare: Karina Cabanillas’ Strategic, Patient-Centered Approach

For Karina Cabanillas, senior advisor on the Retail Pharmacy Product Innovation team at CVS Health, professional fulfillment has meant aligning with those who share her mission and values, including her desire to help underserved and underrepresented groups. That’s why, when she decided to transition in her career, The Consortium was a natural fit.

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From a young age, Cabanillas knew she wanted to work in healthcare. In high school, she volunteered as an EMT for her local ambulance corps and enjoyed the experience of treating patients. This motivated her to focus on pre-medical studies with a focus on child development as an undergraduate student at Tufts University. “It really excited me for what could be next if I were to choose that career path,” Cabanillas says.

Following graduation, she took a position as a research assistant on a public health research study at Boston Children’s Hospital, where she not only worked directly with patients but on health policy and strategy as well. This aspect of her role was focused on designing the patient survey, maintaining patient engagement throughout the longitudinal study and developing materials that were bilingual and culturally sensitive.

“I quickly realized that I really excelled on the strategic side,” Cabanillas says. “While I enjoyed my days in the clinic interacting with patients, I felt that I was more excited and passionate about the work I was doing inside, thinking about the implications for health policy and what that could mean for the broader healthcare system. That got me thinking that perhaps the clinical path wasn’t the right fit for me.”

So she decided to change direction — a decision that brought her back to her hometown of New York, where she accepted a position working for global health strategy firm Rabin Martin. Cabanillas used her time there as an opportunity to learn as much about healthcare as possible, to not only expand her skill set but also help her home in on the area of healthcare she wanted to dive more deeply into.

“I had the opportunity to work with clients across various sectors of healthcare, really tackling everything from very therapeutic-focused challenges to thinking about market entry to how to build strategic cross-industry partnerships,” she says. “But in consultancies, you’re working on really defined timelines and projects, marching toward [specific] goals and deliverables, and as soon as you deliver, you’re on to the next project. … You’re not involved in the implementation. So, that’s the part that I was really missing from my experience.”

That is when she decided that business school would provide the best opportunity to pivot in her career, allowing her to actually see her strategies and ideas come to fruition.

“I had developed a valuable set of skills in my consulting experience and wanted to continue flexing them in diverse settings,” says Cabanillas. “I thought that business school was just the opportunity to do that — to explore, to collaborate, to learn from peers in a really different setting — and I knew that coming out of that, I would have a better understanding of what my strengths were, where my areas of opportunity might be and what the next chapter in my healthcare career could look like.”

Through networking, she heard about The Consortium and was impressed with the organization’s passion for and focus on supporting diverse talent — not just in getting into high-caliber MBA programs but in also helping them progress throughout their careers. “That was just an incredibly attractive offering for me and was so aligned with the work that I had been doing in public health and the trajectory I knew my career was heading,” says Cabanillas.

Having spent all her life in the Northeast, she was specifically looking for a business school outside that region. However, Cabanillas’ other criteria were the ability to take healthcare classes in addition to those in the MBA program and whether healthcare companies recruited on campus. But, ultimately, her decision to attend the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business had more to do with the school culture and the people.

“The fact that everyone was so friendly, everyone was so eager to share, to take the time out of their incredibly busy schedules to meet with me … spoke volumes,” Cabanillas says. “That really helped to differentiate the Ross experience.”

Once there, she was able to take healthcare classes in the School of Public Health that were business and strategy focused. “It was a good reminder that there are a variety of perspectives, and people are coming to these discussions from very different experiences — but, ultimately, to try to solve the same issues,” says Cabanillas.

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Cabanillas connected with CVS Health early on in her MBA experience through The Consortium’s annual conference, the OP. From there, she interviewed and was offered an internship with the company, working as a member of the Opportunity Assessment Team within Enterprise Product Innovation.

“I knew that I wanted to focus my internship recruiting process on healthcare, and I approached my time at OP as an opportunity to explore pharma, providers and everything in between,” Cabanillas says. “CVS was one of the first companies I connected with, and what intrigued me about them from very early on was that due to the various business units within CVS, there is no box that it neatly fits into as a company. It really touches many different parts of the healthcare system, and that, for me, was incredibly attractive.”

This broad focus by CVS has allowed Cabanillas to explore and learn a lot about different aspects of the healthcare industry — and is ultimately helping her determine the direction she wants to go in her career. In her first full-time position with the company on the Retail Pharmacy Product Innovation team, she worked on the creation of a chronic disease management platform, before moving into a promotional position. In this new role now for six months, Cabanillas is part of a product team focused on improving medication adherence for patients.

“It has really challenged me to develop my management skills and think about the type of leader I want to be. How do you inspire, how do you motivate and then how do you achieve that while pushing toward business targets and growth?” says Cabanillas. “It’s always a very delicate balance, and it has been a fun journey to be on with my team.”

CVS’ recent acquisition of Aetna, she says, opens up even more opportunities and resources to ensure the company is “continuing to address challenges and pain points that different types of patient groups face across the country.”

Beyond being able to take products from ideation to implementation for all patient populations, working at CVS has allowed Cabanillas to also maintain a focus on underserved and underrepresented populations. As a Consortium corporate partner, CVS Health works to both recruit and promote diverse talent — an effort Cabanillas has been a part of.

“We have a diversity work group within Retail Product Development that is thinking about all of these things: How do we develop our pipeline? How do we develop resources for our hiring leaders to encourage them to think about diversity in hiring practices — not just for hiring but also for promotions and for developing talent within the department?” she says.

Cabanillas has also used her membership in The Consortium network to recruit MBAs to CVS — a company that she says has afforded her so many opportunities.

“CVS is a massive healthcare company that is well-positioned to positively impact our healthcare system as we know it, and there is so much that I still have yet to learn,” she says. “I will never know it all, and I love that part of this experience as it pushes me outside of my comfort zone to navigate uncertainty. I love tha,t every day, I’m learning something new, every day we’re tackling a new challenge.”

While Cabanillas is still in the process of determining which healthcare path is right for her, her mission remains focused on one thing: the patients.

“The how or which part of the healthcare process I want to focus on is what I’m trying to figure out right now, but it’s ultimately leading to the goal of ensuring that patients are empowered to live their best and healthiest possible life,” she says. “People in all communities, no matter where they come from, no matter what languages they speak, no matter what level of education they have, should be able to access products and services that will help them remain healthy.”

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