86: How Pivoting & Risk-Taking Can Enhance Your Medical Career with Dr. Lisa Johnson-Pratt

by Coach Gabriella Dennery MD | Leadership, Life Journey, Physician Job Change, Podcast

Please be advised that this episode contains talk about sexual assault. If you would like to skip that section of this episode please turn it off at the timestamp 13:24

“How can I use my time because it is the only thing I cannot get back. I cannot make time. So finding the best way to spend that is actually an active adventure for me right now.” -Lisa Johnson-Pratt MD 

In this episode, Gabriella talks with fellow Howard University School of Medicine graduate, Dr. Lisa Johnson-Pratt, about her remarkable and successful career path as a physician, and the pivots she has made throughout, taking Dr. Johnson-Pratt all over the world, including China and Vietnam. She has had more traditional positions in medical pharma and some outside the box, including a role in marketing and currently as a movie producer. With all of her success, she continues to look for new challenges and meaningful ways to spend her most precious asset: time. If you have ever wondered about the breadth of careers you could have with a medical degree, this episode will be eye opening for you. 

Dr. Johnson-Pratt currently holds a position of SVP, New Product Commercial Strategy at Ionis Pharma and she is on the board of directors of Tracon Pharmaceuticals, Assembly Biosciences, and Young People in Recovery.

You can find Dr. Johnson-Pratt on LinkedIn and on her Podcast, Life After Abuse.

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 Podcast produced by: Amanda Taran

Please enjoy the full transcript below

Gabriella: Please be advised that this podcast episode includes the topic of sexual assault. You’ll find the timestamp in the show notes. This content may be triggering for some and inappropriate for children. Feel free to skip that section or this episode. Above all, take care of yourself.


Lisa: How can I use my time because it is the only thing that I cannot get back. I cannot make time. So, finding the best way to spend that is actually an active adventure for me right now.

[Music intro]

Gabriella: Hello, my name is Gabriella Dennery, cohost of DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast, and today, we’re going to talk about a topic that is near and dear to many physicians’ hearts. I’m so happy to bring to the show, Dr. Lisa Johnson-Pratt, who I have to say, and I’m sorry to embarrass you, Lisa, you have to be the master of the pivot. So, we’re going to talk about that today. Welcome to the DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. 


Lisa: Yeah, it’s really my pleasure to be here, Gabriella, to talk with you. 


Gabriella: Excellent. I’m going to ask you a little bit to start off, what is your origin story in medicine? What made you decide to become a doctor?


Lisa: Well, it’s a great question. I actually didn’t start out most of my youth wanting to be a doctor. I wanted to be a lawyer and a Supreme Court Justice. But my mom, I think, had some other ideas. I had a lot of medically oriented people in my family, and so, it seemed like a logical path. But I think more importantly, I was just curious. I liked people. I liked people getting better. I liked the idea of helping people, which is a traditional thing. But also, there’s just this intellectual curiosity about the science of it all. As I started exploring more and going through my courses in undergrad, that’s what really piqued my interest more than anything else, just intellectual curiosity.


Gabriella: Fast forward a little bit, you get to med school- [laughs] 


Lisa: Yeah. 


Gabriella: -at Howard University. This is where we met. Back in the day, you did an internal medicine residency. 


Lisa: Yeah. 


Gabriella: You had mentioned that you were not going into clinical practice. I have to say, I was shocked in that moment. You mentioned pharmacology or the pharmaceutical industry, and I was like, “How did that happen?” 


Lisa: That was serendipitous. That’s what’s so amazing about life. You live long enough, and you look back and you see the grand weaver weaving. I was literally at a nurse’s station one night. I was admitting a patient, and Robert Taylor, who is our head of pharmacology was also an MD PhD, and he sat down beside me, and we were actually admitting the patient together. He was like, “What are you going to be doing?” I was like, “I have no idea what I’m going to be doing.” I was like, “I’m just not finding anything that’s really got me going right now. Maybe, I’ll just do clinical practice for a couple of years, and then do a fellowship. After that, I’ll figure it out. I thought maybe I will go to law school,” but I was really clueless. He was like, “Well, question. Would you be interested in becoming our first fellow for a joint fellowship with Glaxo,” which is a pharmaceutical company, “that is a combination of clinical pharmacology and pharmaceutical medicine?” Well, I was literally like, “Sign me up.”


It just opened my eyes to this world that was out there. I basically decided that this was probably a great combination of the many different things that I wanted in my life that I hadn’t found yet. It was the opportunity to have a different application of medicine. Not just treating at that time in an internal medicine clinic as a resident, hypertension and diabetes, it was an opportunity to go broader than that, and to also marry some of these skills or interests that I had in business and other things. Yeah, so. that was the pivot. 


Gabriella: What I’m hearing you say is that it combined for you, at that time, all the other things that you really wanted to pursue or that you loved, that you were interested in beyond just clinical medicine. You saw yourself in different roles from a very early stage. How would you, in that case, then define pivoting, knowing what you know now?


Lisa: I think that pivoting is, first of all, being really open to your capacity to change and being very in tune with yourself and where you are at that point. I think a lot of times, it’s easy to stay the course, because it’s familiar and comfortable, but you’re not comfortable. So then, you’re miserable, and I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to be miserable. So, I define it as recognizing those two things, and then taking action.


Gabriella: Was there any internal pressure or external pressure to say, “Well, maybe I should just follow the path that everybody else follows”?


Lisa: Oh, yes. [laughs] Absolutely. Back to my lovely mother. [laughs] First person I called and told was my mom. She was like, “What?” 


Gabriella: Moms are great, I tell you. [laughs] 


Lisa: Mom is like, “What? Are you crazy?” I was like, “No, no, no. I’m not crazy.” Now, she’s like, “Yes, you should be chairman of the board.” [laughs] But before then, it’s like, “What?” The pressure to conform in general is very high in our society. The risks are high, especially if you paid a lot of money for your education. My goodness, how much time do we spend to become a doctor? Undergrad, medical school, residency. And to jump into an unknown spot, you’re definitely going to get some folks or even yourself going, “Am I making the right decision?” I think that’s normal and that’s okay. That’s why it’s so important to understand the impetus for the change, and then to really think about what could potentially come out of it.


Gabriella: If you could sum up in one or two keywords or even a phrase, what was that impetus for you?


Lisa: I would say that I am someone who likes to wake up and do something different almost every single day. It’s curiosity, and it’s maybe ADHD, I don’t know. I’m serious. My kids are saying, “I think you have ADHD.” [laughs] But I think that I had this vision for my life that was really expansive. That’s way more than a couple of words, but it’s vision, it’s curiosity, and it’s a desire for novelty.


Gabriella: Yeah, a desire for novelty. You’re talking about not wanting to stagnate, but wanting to grow. Would that be a fair assessment?


Lisa: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. One of the things I’m telling my kids all the time, there’s a lot of books being written on these articles being written on this, that we have no idea what the world’s going to look like in our future. That future can be as short as a year. I was visiting my sister in December of 2019. I didn’t know I wouldn’t see her again for 18 months. It’s crazy. So, we don’t know. The speed of technological change is happening really rapidly, the ability to have mobility is accelerating, and I think that the idea that we’re going to have one career in our lifetime is probably unrealistic. I’ll give you two very clear examples. 


I was at this meeting that was hosted by Stanford, and they had this woman who does medical information. She made this comment that the medical information is doubling about once every 90 days. The funniest example I have is, I sit in this group with women who were in different industries, and one of my colleagues said, “Yeah, I knew things that changed when my friend called me up from her bank and said, “We are just hiring a chief TikTok officer.”” TikTok has been around for 24 months, and now, people are trying to figure out how to use this new TikTok platforms. We have doctors on TikTok, and we have lots of people on TikTok. We hadn’t even imagined that five years ago. What you can do with different platforms really changing, and I find that very exciting, and I think if people are going into medicine now, so many ways in which they can utilize their interest, skill, capabilities in medicine to do so many things, including solving some of the toughest issues we have on the planet.


Gabriella: Let me go back and ask about pivot, because you’ve pivoted several times. It’s not just from medicine to pharmaceutical industry. There were other things that happened after that. So, tell us a little bit more about that.


Lisa: Yeah, so, someone told me is they were sending me a little dinner off to China [laughs] that I had the highest risk profile of anyone that she ever met. That might or might not be true, I don’t know. But within my industry, I’ve done a couple of different pivots. When I left, I did a very traditional route. I went into clinical development. I was a clinical director, and then I moved into medical affairs which got me exposure to a lot of businesses, not only my own in terms of, at that time, Glaxo but meeting pharmacy directors, and meeting academics, and KOLs, and all of that. It started me to use a lot of my skill sets in terms of presenting and synthesizing information and that was really cool. 


After spending about 10 years in a couple of different companies in that area, I moved into marketing. I went knocking on doors within Merck and said, “Hey, I’d like to be a product manager.” I was really interested at that point in time in strategic thinking, and strategic decision making, and clinical was one part of that. I told someone, “I want to own the whole strategy. I don’t want to just own one part of the strategy.”


So, I landed in 2000 in a marketing director role on a big franchise for a primary care product called Cozaar for hypertension, and stayed on that franchise for a couple years learned a lot, a lot. It was like my MBA, I think. I’ve had a lot of different jobs. I’ve had pure commercial jobs, where literally, it’s like about boots on the ground. I’ve had very strategic jobs. I’ve had operational jobs. Actually, my last job before I came into small biotech [unintelligible [00:10:54] company was running global operations for Global Pharma, for GSK. Then, I landed in a biotech on the management team reporting to a CEO. That led to a couple of things, including landing on a couple of public boards. 


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Gabriella: Let me ask you this, because it seems like there came a point where taking risks was no big deal to you. Was that always the case?


Lisa: I think so. After I hit about 35-ish– when I made the decision to move from clinical development to marketing, that doesn’t happen a lot in the pharmaceutical industry for a position. That changed everything for me because that was such a huge leap. Then, at that point, it was like, “Well, I can do that, and I can do that, and I can do that, and I can do that.” Sometimes, I surprise myself and I get nervous. I’ll do something that’s new. Even today, there’s new stuff cropping up, and I’m like, “Can I do that?” I was like, “Well, I just have to try it.” It’s like, “Okay, well, maybe I did that at a 50% level, but hey, it’s better than 0%. So, let’s just keep going.”


Gabriella: And you get to learn as you go. Now, you’re producing movies. That’s another huge leap. Have you ever produced a movie before?


Lisa: I produced a movie that my daughter made, a short called Getaway Car when she was a film student, and that was great fun to watch that process but actually, it’s based on something quite serious. So, I have a site called Life After Abuse. My daughters, both of them went through an assault. I just felt I had to do something. You reach these moments where you’re like, “Okay, I’ve done all these things, and bad things can still happen to you.” That was a moment where I had to figure out how I was going to deal with that trauma, and pain, and suffering. So, I started this very nascent platform, and it’s still nascent, because I work. It’s there, but I really started it because I wanted parents to be able to have a place to go to if their child had ever been assaulted, and needed some support and needed some answers. What that led to was this desire to look at how I could put myself out there more in the world. 


The second thing, as I started talking about this, was I started becoming a partner for a group in Uganda, which is called Rape Hurts. It’s run by an amazing woman whose name is Hellen Tanyinga, who was raped when she was 10 bringing water to her village. Hellen has done some amazing work for the past 10 years, basically teaching women in villages outside of Kampala how to fish. She’s done just incredible work in saving kids from trafficking. It’s just amazing.


We were going to make a documentary on that, and then COVID hit. We couldn’t go to Uganda to do that. The filmmaker that I was working with had another project, and he called me up, and he’s like, “Look, Lisa–” He’s a producer, and he was like, “I got this project called Where’s Rose? And Where’s Rose, it’s a horror movie, which rape is, but it’s a horror movie, and it’s about sexual assault. Would you be willing to be an executive producer on that?” I was like, “Well, absolutely,” because we can’t put the money into the documentary right now, and that’s how it got started. This was a friend from my daughter’s film school. It’s amazing, again, how life weaves itself. I met him about three years ago once as he and my daughter were driving back to school. But I just wanted to figure out ways to support women and children who are in these vulnerable situations, and that’s a way to do.


Gabriella: Well, that’s powerful. Lisa, do you consider yourself an activist at this point in your life?


Lisa: I think so. It’s one of the reasons why I’m always evaluating my life and where I’m spending my time. Because you wake up, and you kind of go like the world is on fire. I live in Venice, and in Venice, we have over 50,000 people living on the streets, Venice, California. There are 50,000 people living on the streets in Los Angeles, and I see that every day. I see mentally ill people every day. I see people rummaging through my trash everyday looking for food. I see people who are suffering from addiction. One has to decide how they’re going to engage in that. I think that I am an activist, but I’m not quite the activist that I want to be yet. There’s a lot more to do. I feel the activism that I’ve experienced over the past has been, “Let me give some money to somebody,” and that’s fine. I don’t disregard that or think myself not worthy because of that. Sometimes, that’s what you can do. But there is a very strong desire bubbling up in me now to do more than that, and I’m trying to figure out how. The problems that we have are so great and feel so hopeless at a time when we have so much resource to be able to figure out how to solve them.


One of the other things that I’ll just mention is that I’m in a couple public boards in biotech, but I’m on a nonprofit board called Young People in Recovery. So, I’ve aligned everything that I do to my own personal world. When one of my daughters was assaulted, she was having terrible PTSD, and part of the treatment was benzodiazepines. She came to me one day and she’s like, “Mom,” after a lot of different types of treatments, she said, “I feel like I have a benzodiazepine addiction and I think I need help.” Luckily, we had all these resources that we could throw at it, and she got the help that she needs, and she’s been two years off of benzodiazepines, and that’s phenomenal. 


There are a lot of young people who are suffering, and they don’t have the recovery support systems. They can maybe get treatment. There’s a huge disparity around that in terms of economics and racial inequality, but if you look at recovery programs, we just say, “Great, we’ve treated you. Bye.” And yet, there are people who need support in getting back on track for education, or getting back on track for home, or getting back on track for their job. This is wasted talent if we don’t do something about it. So, I joined this board, Young People in Recovery, which is a wonderful national organization, where young people run groups, and they peer counsel, and they peer teach, and there’s a prison program that they run to help people transition back into the world. I am basically an activist board member. [laughs] So, I’m doing things like that.


But then, when I see outside my door, there are people that don’t have access to any of that, it just spurs my, first, anger and then attention to try to figure out what to do. If you think about the full circle, though, Gabriella, medicine is woven throughout all of this. Because if I’m on my podcast or on my little blog, and I’m talking about transcranial magnetic stimulation, I can actually talk about that for the treatment of PTSD. I can have a conversation with the trauma of sexual assault. I can have a conversation about what does substance use disorder mean and how are we going to support people with addiction and understand it in a way that maybe other people can’t. So, yeah, I guess I am an activist, but I want to do more.


Gabriella: I love that you bring up the fact that you’re drawing not only from your professional background, but you’re weaving it, I like that word ‘weaving’, into your personal experience in order to help people. As you said, I went into medicine because this might be a way to help people, and that’s exactly what you’re doing. But it’s now playing out in probably ways that maybe 5 years ago, 10 years ago, or 20 years ago, you’d never would have predicted.


Lisa: Yeah, that’s right. That’s what makes life so interesting. I was listening to something today, this pastor that I listened to, he said, “We go from glory to glory, but we don’t know what the transportation’s going to look like.” I can tell you there’ve been some real moments when I didn’t know what that transportation was. I was like, “Wow, where am I headed?” [laughs] Especially, in depth of pain, you just kind of go, “Where am I headed?” or when you look out in the street, you see people suffering, “Where are we headed?” So, yeah, they did not look like this. I would have never thought when I was getting that diploma from Howard in 1989 that this would be my life. I wouldn’t have thought that.


Gabriella: One last thing, Lisa, because what I just heard you say, I think, it’s something very powerful that we talked about pivot, moving from career to career, job to job, next adventure to next adventure. It starts with job employment career, and then it moves into adventure and curiosity. I’m wondering what is the ultimate pivot here? Because it seems like the ultimate pivot is taking something that you’re frustrated and angry about, and then flipping that 180 degrees and making it a new purpose, a new curiosity, a new adventure, a new discovery. Would that be the ultimate pivot for you based on experience and what you see outside your door, even it’s like, “Okay, I need to do something about it?” 


Lisa: Oh, I think so. Because my kids are always asking me, “Okay, what are you going to do?” I’ve thought about everything from going to Doctors Without Borders and doing something there, to just deepening my engagement with the causes that I’m already focused on and figuring out ways. I don’t feel like I need to start new foundations. There’s a ton of them, which one do I want to join? [chuckles] Great people have already done that. So, yes, I think the ultimate pivot is really using the freedom that I have in my life to do something very up close and personal to help individuals. That’s the other pivot that I’m moving towards, Gabriella. I believe that everything is personal. We have the situation in our church where they’re deciding that they’re just going to help 20 4th graders learn how to read this summer or 3rd graders so that they can be prepared for 4th grade. That’s like hands on, and I want to get hands on. So, that’s my ultimate pivot to live that.


The final thing I will say, though, is distraction is big in our society. I get distracted all the time. Trust me. I can watch Netflix all day long too. [chuckles] But one of the things that I did do about five years ago is I really started looking at Simplicity Movement. No, I actually don’t live in this beautiful background. I started really thinking about how much money do I actually need to live, and how can I trade money for time? That’s the pivot also that I’m going through right now. To say, “Okay, right. I’m good. My kids are good. They’ll figure out, their lives are doing great. And how can I use my time?” Because it is the only thing that I cannot get back. I cannot make time. So, finding the best way to spend that is actually an active adventure for me right now. 


Gabriella: What’s your immediate next step? What do you have in mind or what is your immediate inspiration right now?


Lisa: Yeah, I think my immediate inspiration is to do better in the things I’ve committed to, getting more involved in Young People in Recovery, so that I’m not just a board member who shows up at the board meetings, and does a few little things. In the areas like the film for the advocacy, Rape Hurts foundation, or other groups like that, just really getting more involved and taking the time to do that. It sounds simple, but I think I’ve only scratched the surface of the commitments that I’ve already made.


Gabriella: That’s excellent. There’s still I have no doubt so much to learn and so much to grow in, and everything that you have right now or that you’re involved in right now, I’m sure the possibilities are limitless. Lisa, I am just so proud of you and so amazed by you. You’re such a wonderful example of just going with where your heart takes you, so I appreciate you sharing your insights with us today. 


Lisa: Gabriella, it’s such a pleasure. I’ve known you for a really long time. You are a Warrior. So, it’s actually quite humbling to be here with you today, and thank you for having me. 


Gabriella: You’re welcome. Thank you.

[Music outro]

Did you know that August is National Civic Health Month? Civic Health Month is a month dedicated to highlighting the important connection between civic participation and health, and features hundreds of hospitals and clinics, and thousands of individual health care providers, all committed to helping their patients and providers vote like their health depends on it. Civic Health Month makes it easy for you to get involved by providing personalized tools and resources like badge backers and posters to help your patients register to vote. And the best part, it’s completely free.


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Amanda: Hello, and thank you for listening. This is Amanda Taran. I’m the producer of the DocWorking Podcast. If you enjoyed our podcast, please like and subscribe. We would also love it if you check out our website which is You can also find us on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and on Instagram. On Instagram. We are @docworking1 and that is with the number one. When you check us out on social, please let us know what you would like to hear on the podcast. Your feedback really means a lot to us. And if you’re a physician with a story you’d like to tell please reach out to me at [email protected] to apply to be on the podcast. Thank you, again, and we look forward to talking with you on the next episode of DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast.


Life Coach Gabriella Dennery, MD OMD is passionate about helping busy physicians rediscover the joy of their calling. She draws on her training as a physician, a musician, and an ordained non-denominational minister in addition to health & wellness and life coaching to offer professionals from all walks of life the benefit of her broad experience and deep insights.

You can find Gabriella as one of the co-creators of STAT: Quick Wins To Get Your Life Back.

The daughter of a psychiatrist mother and a neurosurgeon father, both from Haiti, Gabriella and her five siblings were expected to choose from five noble callings: Medicine, Dentistry, Engineering, Law, or Agronomy (caring for the delicate soil of Haiti).

Gabriella, an innately gifted healer and teacher, chose Medicine and graduated with honors from Howard University College of Medicine, “The Mecca.” Following her residency in internal medicine at Duke University Medical Center, Gabriella moved to New York City to serve as an attending physician and clinical instructor in Harlem and later as medical director and attending physician at SUNY Downstate Bedford-Stuyvesant satellite clinic in Brooklyn.

Her greatest joy as a primary care physician was supporting her patients, shepherding them to Aha moments, and nurturing positive shifts in perspective that measurably improved their health and wellbeing–a strength that makes Gabriella so effective as a coach.

After more than ten years of practicing internal medicine, Gabriella chose to explore the integration of medicine, music, and ministry to promote better health of her fellow physicians by becoming a physician coach. She successfully coaches physicians to prevent and/or navigate through physician burnout, reach career and personal goals, clarify and take actionable steps to achieve their own personal vision, and is well known for helping doctors at all stages of their careers, from students to residents/fellows to practicing physicians. She maintains her work-life balance by playing percussion and violin, composing music, and enjoying a very fun and fulfilling marriage.

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