83: Career Pivots, Leadership, and Twice Exceptional Physician Coaching with Dr. Krystal Sodaitas

by Jen Barna MD | Physician Coaching, Physician Job Change, Podcast

“Focus on today. Because so often we spend our time and we create so much pain for ourselves looking at the fact that we are not at our goal yet, and instead I would say ‘what step can you take today towards that goal?’” -Dr. Krystal Sodaitas 

In this episode, Jen and Dr. Krystal Sodaitas talk about how Dr. Sodaitis discovered her career path in the health insurance industry, and how Leadership Coaching helped Dr. Sodaitis to gain the skills to become an associate chief medical officer in the healthcare insurance industry.  She also specializes in coaching twice exceptional gifted people, including physicians. Listen to hear about what twice exceptional means and how that can apply to physicians and their children.

Dr. Sodaitas is a mom, wife and board-certified pediatrician, fellowship trained in academic general pediatrics. Dr. Sodaitas transitioned from academic medicine to working for a health insurance company over eight years ago and is currently the associate chief medical officer for a health plan based out of her home state of Illinois. She is also a certified life coach specializing in Life Coaching for Gifted

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Please enjoy the full transcript below-

Krystal: Focus on today, because so often, we spend our time and we create so much pain for ourselves looking at the fact that we are not at our goal yet. Instead, I would say what steps can you take today towards that goal?


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Jen: Welcome to DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. I’m Dr. Jen Barna, and I’m excited to bring to you today our guest, Dr. Krystal Sodaitis. She’s a board-certified pediatrician fellowship trained in academic general pediatrics. She transitioned from academic medicine to working for a health insurance company over eight years ago and is currently the associate chief medical officer for a health plan based out of her home state of Illinois. In March 2019, Dr. Sodaitis, completed a certification in life and weight coaching from the Life Coach School, and launched Life Coaching for Gifted. She also has advanced certifications in physician coaching, and leadership coaching. Welcome, Krystal, it’s so good to have you here today. Thanks for joining me.


Krystal: Awesome, it’s great to be here. 


Jen: Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you see yourself. You have multiple roles, as I’ve just briefly touched on. 


Krystal: Primarily, I think of myself as a wife and mother, that’s my main job, the job that goes on in the background at all times. And then, I have my job that is my primary source of income, which is as associate chief medical officer of a health plan, which I absolutely love. It’s extremely interesting. It challenges me every day. It allows me to use my medicine brain, but it also allows me to use a different part of my brain that we didn’t really get to flex in medical school, we don’t get to flex on a day-to-day basis when we’re taking care of our patients. 


Then, I’m a coach. My coaching also runs in the background all the time. I primarily got certified as a coach, because I saw the value of the coaching tools as a part of leadership. At the time, when I first started certification, I wanted to be promoted, I was sort of what we call a frontline medical director. I saw that if I incorporated those tools into my own thought process. But also, as I progress as a leader, it would help me to get promoted. So, I went through certification. As you said in the intro, I certified in March 2019. In August, I was promoted, and then only about 15 to 18 months later, I transitioned to this role as the associate chief medical officer. 


I use coaching every day. I coach myself. I coach the people on my team, but it’s in the background, like I said. I’m not their coach, but I use the coaching tools to help them bring them best selves to their job every day. 


Jen: How did you make that decision to go from practicing pediatrics to working in the insurance industry? Was that something that you knew about as you went through medical school and training? Or was that a decision that you made later once you were out practicing? 


Krystal: The story actually starts in my fellowship, and my program director, she was the medical director for a small health plan that was based in the hospital. I did my training at Texas Children’s Hospital. Texas Children’s has its own health plan. At the time, my fellowship director was the medical director. She also saw the value in teaching residents about the health insurance industry as a whole. What’s the difference between an HMO and a PPO? How does that affect the way you practice medicine or your reimbursement? As a fellow for those people who have been in fellowship, sometimes you get tasked with particular roles that the faculty don’t necessarily want to do. So, as a fellow, there were three of us and we would rotate doing, it was something like health insurance 101 or health plan 101, and we rotate giving that talk to the residents. I absolutely fell in love with it. I thought it was so interesting.


To the point where, fast forward when I was a faculty member, I incorporated a talk about health insurance into the newborn nursery rotation. I had no idea that this type of job even existed, where you look at policies, you helped to formulate the policies, you make decisions about whether or not a particular plan of care meets medical necessity criteria. The first time I saw a job description like that, it was like a light bulb went on in my head. I quite literally said to myself, “This is the job for me.” 


To answer your question, I had no idea about these types of jobs until I saw that job description, and once I did, I made a beeline in that direction. I wasn’t qualified, really, for the job when I first learned about it. But over the next 15 months, I took some courses, I joined some committees, it really was very goal oriented to create, basically a resume that would be marketable to the health insurance industry and get a job, and I did. 


Jen: Fantastic. I love your story. I love that you pivoted into a direction that you didn’t anticipate when you started your career. I’m really always curious to hear a story about how someone makes that pivot. If there’s a defining moment that leads up to that, it sounds like you almost got an additional fellowship training, with your fellowship training. 


Krystal: It was a process, but it was really enjoyable. 


Jen: It’s also interesting how just one or two people can influence your career so much, and that it was perfect for you that this person who was the head of your fellowship program had and passed on the knowledge about this type of opportunity, and you’ve done so for others. It sounds like leadership, coaching has also made a huge difference for you. I’m really curious to hear about how you knew to seek out leadership coaching. From what I know about you, it sounds like you’re a believer in lifelong coaching and the benefits that can be obtained from that, that’s something that we have in common. 


Krystal: Yeah, absolutely. I was always a big believer in leadership training, because I think that very few people are born with the intrinsic knowledge of how to lead. I think that a lot of people who get promoted, and we know this, people who are very good at their job, those are the ones that get promoted. But once you get into that leadership position, it requires new skills around managing, sometimes the people who were your colleagues, a month before or a week before, and for many of us, myself included, that is not an intrinsic skill. I realized when I was looking for more, within my health plan job, that I was going to have to get some additional experience. So, I got exposed to a woman named Kris Plachy, who has a podcast, and her podcast was very much focused on managers. I think she had a program called The Manager’s Formula, maybe the podcast was called The Manager’s Formula, I can’t remember anymore, because she’s since pivoted, but listening to it, I could really see how coaching and the tools, how they really helped to educate me on how to deal with the thoughts and feelings that come up when you have to manage other people, and basically how to deal with their thoughts and their behaviors that come up in the workplace.


When you start to get exposed to something, and then you dig, and then you dig, and then you dig, I keep digging and seeing more and more value in it. Like I said, that’s a big reason why I got certified, I give her 100% of the credit as to why I decided to become certified as a coach, because I knew that it would be valuable and leadership. I’m just going to back up for one minute and talk about, now that I am a coach, one of the groups of people that I really like to focus on are twice exceptional physicians. Twice exceptional is a term that is used to describe someone who is gifted in some way and also has an ADA recognized disability. This could be if you are non-ambulatory, this could be if you have fibromyalgia, it could be if you have autism or ADHD, I really focus on people who have a learning related disability, like ADHD or dyslexia, dysgraphia. 


When you are quite exceptional, your cognitive ability has to be so high because in order to get through medical school, without supports, your intelligence takes you a very, very long way. But at some point, we all reach a point where our cognitive abilities just can’t do it anymore. And we have to rely on our executive functioning, our reasoning, sometimes our abstract thinking and when you have a learning related disability, you can then start to falter and have difficulty. 


What I found is that when twice exceptional physicians get to that leadership point, the scaffolding just completely falls apart. And that’s where they start to seek coaching and look for coaching. I got the advanced physician certification and the advanced leadership certification because that really married those two groups of people that I love to coach.


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Jen: Tell me about how you decided to coach this specific group. What was it that made you identify specifically with this type of problem and helping this particular group of people? How did you come to the twice exceptional and multi-exceptionality groups? 


Krystal: I started out coaching gifted young adults and adolescents. The reason is, because most of the physicians that are listening to this are gifted, and they probably have gifted children. Like many of us, when I saw the challenges that my daughter would be having, I have a twice exceptional daughter. When I saw the challenges that she was having in school, I started to research, like, how do I help her? Where are the resources? You do a Google search for gifted children helping gifted children, there’s like a million things that come up. But what happens when those children become adolescents and young adult, is the support basically is nonexistent. There’s a lot of support for the parents, not a lot of support for the adolescents and young adults. We know there’s data that shows that there’s a lot of depression, there’s a lot of anxiety, there’s a lot of failure, job failure, school dropout in that population. I saw the need, and that’s where I started, because I knew that that was a population that would be in need. 


Just over time, residents fall into that young adult grouping. I started with residents, and it wasn’t like a quick pivot. It was just a very slow realization that, that specific population of twice exceptional people within the physician community, they just really call to me, I really just loved talking with them, talking them through their guilt and their shame, their imposter syndrome. I saw how exceptional, pun intended, they are, and I wanted to help them see that too. I wanted to help them see their own exceptionality. As I say, I like to help gifted people exceed their own expectations, and many people in the twice exceptional community physicians[?] notwithstanding, they don’t see that anymore. They basically expect to fail. 


Jen: You mentioned guilt and shame. I think those are two topics that someone who’s listening and just learning about themselves, starting to understand that if they’re feeling guilt and shame, which they may not have even specifically identified yet, that they are not alone as physicians and that calling those out is actually a way of making them be the small things that they actually are. But once you name them and bring them out into the open and realize that you’re not alone and feeling that way, it makes you realize that they’re not as big as you think they are. I’m curious about your experience with this particular group and your experience personally, with guilt and shame and how you coach around that. If you can give me just a quick overview to help people understand what we mean by that. 


Krystal: Well, guilt, many of them come from this idea of, they were lucky to get into medical school. They’re lucky to be there. The guilt comes from taking up a space that they don’t actually deserve to take up. We start to break down the idea that were you actually lucky to get there? Was it really just luck? Or was it really just a lot of hard work? In many ways everybody has their own degree of hard work. But again, when you have a learning related disability, you have to build up some supports and some coping strategies in order to get to the level of being a physician. That’s how we start to address the guilt. Also, then there’s a shame to many people, because of the twice exceptionality are diagnosed later. Many of these people are diagnosed in medical school or residency, or even beyond. The internet is littered with stories of parents, especially women who only started to discover their own twice exceptionality when their child was diagnosed. Their child is diagnosed with autism or ADHD, and it’s so familiar to them, they look into the diagnosis for themselves. 


Then there’s the shame. It’s like, there’s the diagnosis. First, there’s always as a parent, it’s like, “I give this to my child?” Which is absolutely a no. But then it’s also like, “What if somebody found out? What if someone finds out I have ADHD? What if someone finds out that I have dyspraxia? Or, what if my patients realize that I can’t do X, Y, Z, right? Or, I have difficulty with something?” We start to really unpack that chain. And it’s like, “What if?” How does this work for you? How does this help you with connecting with your patient? Because very often, as physicians, we’re put on this perfectionist pedestal, and we all know that nobody’s perfect, none of us are. That’s how we really start to look at the guilt and the shame. 


Jen: Do you have a piece of advice for someone who may be listening and really just beginning to question these possibilities in themselves? Where should someone start?


Krystal: You start with your physician, right with your primary care physician. I think that, especially things like ADHD and autism, it’s becoming more and more well known that these conditions are being diagnosed in adults. They’re not like diabetes, or like, “Oh, I want to go check to see if I have gout.” If your primary care physician can help you, or they may refer you to a psychiatrist, I don’t think psychiatry is the first place to go. I think if your primary care physician doesn’t feel like they are the best resource for you, then I would consider neuropsychological testing, is often not covered by insurance, and that can be a barrier for some people. But I do think it has a huge value, because it doesn’t just give you like your IQ and the diagnosis. Neuropsychological testing really can give you a lot of ideas about where subsets of where your challenges are, and subsets of where you really exceed. 


I would say if you are going to go the neuropsychological testing route, that you should seek out someone who specializes in gifted, who has experience in gifted because they’re going to be able to really understand the nuances of how does ADHD present in a gifted person? How does dyslexia present in someone who has a processing speed that is off the charts, and how to find the National Association of Gifted Children, NAGC. They are good place to start. Some states I know in Illinois, we have an Illinois chapter that there’s probably a chapter in most, if not all states. So, that’s a good resource. If you have a gifted private school, that may be an additional resource. There’s a couple here in Illinois, and I know just a few, like if you’re in California, for example, there’s a school called the Bridges. So, consider reaching out to them, and seeing if they know of someone who does neuropsych testing specifically for gifted.


Jen: Fantastic. If someone is interested in finding you, what would be the best way for them to reach you?


Krystal: The best way to reach me is just through my email, which is my first name Krystal, with a K, K-R-Y-S-T-A-L [email protected]


Jen: If anyone would like to learn more, they can find you there and we’ll put that in the show notes. One last question. If you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be? 


Krystal: If I could give my younger self a piece of advice, it would be focus on today, to stay in the moment, focus on today, because so often, we spend our time and we create so much pain for ourselves looking at our goal and the fact that we are not at our goal yet. Instead, I would say, what steps can you take today towards that goal? 


Jen: Wonderful, Dr. Krystal Sodaitis. Thank you for joining us on DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast.




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