Alumni Profiles Series: Aikya Soni
Aikya Soni is on the Provider Operations team at Stellar Health, a healthcare startup based in New York that assists healthcare providers with value-based care (VBC). He trains primary care providers (PCPs) and their staff to use Stellar’s platform, which helps PCPs keep track of VBC quality measures all in one place. He received his M.S. in Population Health Sciences from Duke University, where his interests lay at the intersection of population health and provider enablement, especially during the emerging COVID-19 pandemic.
How did you decide to pursue a master’s degree in population health?
My dad is a primary care provider, and I always thought I wanted to be a doctor. As an undergraduate at Duke I was pre-med, but I took some courses in medical sociology and really loved it. I ended up minoring in it along with my major in biology and minor in chemistry. I also worked with teens with chronic illness through an undergrad mentorship program called ATLAS. Once I graduated, I took a gap year while I was applying to medical schools and worked with the Division of Child and Family Mental Health at Duke under the Department of Psychiatry, which houses the ATLAS program. During my time at Duke, I was exposed to people doing all kinds of things like starting their own companies. They were doing things I never realized I wanted to do or thought I could do.
At the Duke Department of Psychiatry, I worked with Dr. Gary Maslow who is a child and adolescent psychiatrist. I was exposed to value-based care (VBC) and population health as they intersected with Duke Psychiatry, Primary Care, Pediatrics and the Duke Cancer Center. While I was there, I realized I wanted to do something more or other than practice medicine. I found out about the Duke Population Health Sciences Department (DPHS) through my network, applied to their master’s program, and was admitted! I then quickly had to decide whether to take my offer to go to medical school or the DPHS offer. I went with the latter because I realized I was more passionate about learning about health systems and health care rather than practicing medicine.
How did your graduate education lead to your current position?
I came into the program knowing I didn’t want to end up in research or academia as a career. I really wanted to go into industry, which is what ended up happening. I worked full time during my first year at DPHS at Duke Psychiatry, and I worked at SAS for my summer internship. My second year was when COVID hit, so having a lot more time on my hands, I was able to work part-time for both SAS and Duke.
Having worked at exceptionally large organizations like Duke and SAS, I realized I wanted to do something innovative in the healthcare arena and be a little more hands-on. That drove my job search toward a lot of start-up companies as well as teams within larger corporations that were working on innovative healthcare topics. It was thanks to my network that I found out about my current position.
Where do you work now?
I work at a healthcare start-up in New York called Stellar Health that provides a VBC platform for primary care providers. There’s been a big push for insurance companies and provider organizations to use a value-based approach as opposed to a fee-for-service model to improve the quality and cost of patient care. Some issues with changing systems are that every insurance company does VBC differently, and it is difficult for providers to know how they’re doing with different quality metrics. There’s a large administrative burden on providers in moving towards VBC, since they care for patients with all types of insurance.
What we do at Stellar Health is provide a platform for primary care providers to use across different kinds of insurance (e.g., Medicare, Medicaid, and commercial insurance) that helps them know what services each patient needs, so that providers can meet these needs and VBC quality criteria. Rather than waiting until the end of the year or contract term for providers to see their earnings based on these quality improvements and health outcomes, Stellar Health’s platform can pay providers along the way. It uses concepts from behavioral economics by providing accessible information about patient needs, and then rewarding providers based on how they use that information to improve quality metrics and health outcomes.
Tell me more about your role at Stellar Health.
I am on the Provider Operations team, so I train providers to use our platform so that they can manage their populations’ health based on criteria from different insurance payers. I really enjoy working with providers, which is something that I realized while working at Duke Psychiatry, so I knew joining the Provider Operations team at Stellar Health would be a good fit. I especially enjoy getting to work with medical assistants and other clinical staff, as they are often driving the value-based care performance in the primary care setting.
The most surprising thing about my current job is how difficult it can be for providers and their staff to run the operations of their practice. I understood this in a superficial way because my dad is a medical provider, but I came to see it in a different light through my current position. It’s really rewarding, then, that what I do at Stellar Health makes one process easier for them and helps them get more just compensation for the work that they’re doing. We can take some of the load off these providers and office managers, since they usually have more pressing issues to address. We get to work out at least some kinks in their system.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
I think I got really caught up in how to get the best offer, benefits, and salary during my job search; but the best advice I got was that early on, it didn’t really matter where I went. It mattered more where I would get the best experience, even if that meant taking a job offer that was less ‘impressive’ than another. Where am I going to get the best experience that will pay dividends in the long run? I think I let my pride take over in the beginning of my job search, but that advice helped me strike a better balance between financial benefits and opportunities that are practical for my cost of living, but also not writing off jobs that pay less at the start but offer extremely valuable experiences and opportunity for growth.
I’m happy I ended up at my job here at Stellar Health because I saw there was a lot of room to grow and a knowledgeable leadership team that I could learn from. I have a lot of science and healthcare experience, but not as much experience in the business of healthcare, which is where I saw an opportunity to learn a great deal at this company. I also saw a lot of possibility to advance quickly and take on more responsibility, which was an exciting prospect.
Any advice you’d like to share with current graduate students?
My advice would be to know yourself. Know what you’re passionate about, what you’re into. Going through a huge career change switching from pursuing medicine to being more health systems focused, I had to look back and weigh what I had truly enjoyed during my time working for Duke Psychiatry and SAS. Those learning moments didn’t come when I was trying hard to make something happen, but rather when I remained curious and open to opportunities. I first had to realize that I needed to be more open to different options, and then apply to them.
I would also say to really lean on your network. Be really open to meeting everybody, because the way I ended up at Population Health was unexpected and through word of mouth. You never know who is connected to what. I found out about Stellar Health through a friend in Duke’s Fuqua School of Business who was sending me LinkedIn job postings. You never know how opportunities will arise.
What are your favorite memories from Duke?
In general, I loved the camaraderie of my cohort in the Population Health Department. There were only 11 of us, and we were the first cohort of the program, so we had the unique opportunity to figure out things together and pivot together as time went on. COVID also first hit during my time in the program, so we experienced adjusting to a virtual context together during our second year. I am still friends with a lot of them, and whenever I’m in Durham I try to see everyone I that I can!
Master's Student, Population Health Sciences
Jyailah Friendly is a second-year master’s student in the Duke Population Health Department and is pursuing a graduate certificate at the Duke Global Health Institute. She is interested in social determinants of health and health equity, particularly where health policy meets social services policy, such as the intersection between health and housing. Since May 2022, she has been working with the North Carolina Medicaid Strategy Team as a graduate fellow. She has been working on several health equity-related projects, including researching and recommending ways NC Medicaid can better serve its unhoused population. In her free time, she enjoys playing volleyball, spending time with friends, and trying out new restaurants.