Karen Cassidy, MD, MPH

Karen Cassidy, MD, MPH

Chief Medical Officer, Mid-South Region

UnitedHealthcare


Growing up in Northeastern Pennsylvania with parents who were both biochemists, it's not surprising Karen Cassidy was exposed to science early and often. "My mom can make a science project out of any conversation," she said with a laugh.

By middle school, Cassidy was sure she wanted to be a physician ... and by high school that her focus would be internal medicine and pediatrics. A strong student and athlete, she was recruited by several schools in the Northeast to play basketball. Her mother, a graduate of the University of Florida, suggested applying to her alma mater where Cassidy played three years for the women's basketball team before being sidelined by a hip injury and desire to graduate on time to begin medical school. "It was an amazing opportunity to play in the SEC," she said of the experience.

She continued her education at the University of Florida College of Medicine followed by a master's in public health from Harvard. Cassidy first arrived in Nashville to complete training at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. After a brief stint in private practice in Florida, she returned to Middle Tennessee to accept a faculty appointment at Vanderbilt.

During her tenure at VUMC, she became the founding director of pediatric palliative care consult services and was also a team medical director for Alive Hospice. "I have always felt medicine was a relationship business," she said of caring for families. "Doing hospice and palliative care work was a calling for me. Specifically, end-of-life care for children was a place I felt pulled to provide service."

While she loved her work, Cassidy recognized the need to take a break after seven years to recharge emotionally and spiritually. Accepting a position with UnitedHealthcare, she readily admits working for an insurance company wasn't what she envisioned in medical school but was quick to note the work is both challenging and meaningful. "There are many issues in healthcare right now and working to improve quality and efficiency in our healthcare system is important work," she said, adding she enjoys the population health focus. Cassidy continued, "At UHC, I have an opportunity to impact many patients and with the goal of helping all UHC patients in Tennessee live healthier lives."

She continued, "Healthcare is complicated and getting to dig deep with providers to understand their individual issues and barriers is an experience that has enriched my understanding of the healthcare delivery system in our state."

That knowledge is critical as Tennessee works to address a variety of barriers to optimal health including obesity, inactivity and opioid misuse. "These issues cannot be solved by one person or one business entity and will require providers, facilities, local governments, professional societies and insurance carriers to work together to find solutions," Cassidy said. UHC, she added, has a number of initiatives in place to foster lifestyle changes and to educate providers on pain management best practices mirroring CDC guidelines. Equally important, she added, is the collaborative work UHC is doing to ensure there are connections to behavioral health supports and access to treatment, particularly for those dealing with addiction.

She is keenly aware strong support systems are critical for everyone ... including providers. "Don't put yourself last on the list," she counsels. "Your physical and emotional health are important to your ability to take care of others - sleep, eat well, take time for friends, exercise, pet the dog ... make sure your emotional bucket gets filled regularly."

For Cassidy, spending time outdoors and traveling with her children are two of her favorite ways to recharge. "My kids are teenagers, which makes more adventurous travel possible," she said, adding they have some great family plans for summer. "My oldest is a junior in high school and looking at colleges ... I'm trying to cherish this time when I still have both my kids at home."

Daughter Sara Anne, who has accompanied her mother on several mission trips to Nicaragua, is leaning towards pre-med as she prepares for college. Son Frederich is just finishing up his freshman year at Ravenwood where both he and his sister play rugby and are involved in a number of other clubs and sports.

As she prepares to launch two teens into adulthood, Cassidy said her hope is that they will be strong, caring, difference makers in the world around them. It's the same goal she has for herself as she works to optimize the delivery of care in Tennessee.