January 25, 2024 • By The UCI Paul Merage School of Business
Growing up as the child of Mexican immigrants in Santa Ana, Sarah Lopez bore witness to her community's resilience in the face of healthcare challenges. Her family, without insurance, exhibited remarkable resourcefulness, often resorting to home remedies as their form of care.
This backdrop of determination and adaptability inspired Lopez to dedicate her life to promoting health equity. With a background in medicine and an MBA earned from the Merage School, Lopez skillfully harnesses her interdisciplinary expertise to enhance healthcare delivery across her career.
Reflecting on her journey, she shared, "As a child of Mexican immigrants, my desire to bridge medicine and business was shaped by the strength and resilience I witnessed in my community."
The beginning of Lopez’s medical career took root in an AP biology class in high school. She immediately fell in love with the subject and decided to major in the discipline at UC Irvine.
While earning her degree, Lopez took part in research labs and volunteered at hospitals, where she developed a passion for connecting with people. One moment in particular had a profound impact on her future career.
“I was a young college student translating for a family that didn’t speak English,” she said. They experienced an absolute tragedy, but the husband thanked me. At the time there really weren’t translators helping people communicate with their doctors and nurses. After that moment, I decided I wanted to go into health care.”
Fueled by the need to help people from underserved communities, Lopez was accepted into medical school at UC Irvine. She was part of the inaugural program, Prime-LC started by Dr. Alberto Manetta, which is committed to training physicians to meet the needs of underserved Latino community members.
While earning that degree and speaking with many physicians, Lopez realized the important role business played in the medical industry. She decided to get her MBA from The Paul Merage School of Business.
“You want to be in the room, to occupy the spaces where important decisions are being made,” she said. “As someone that has always tried to educate myself and prove that I’m worthy of occupying those spaces, I decided to pursue a degree in business. Getting that MBA gave me the exposure of what are the spaces and places I need to occupy.”
Confronting health care justice with business
Learning the business side of the medical industry has been invaluable to Lopez. During medical school, students are trained in medicine but there is an entire business landscape in the industry that they are not exposed to.
“During medical school, you’re so busy learning about how to diagnose and treat patients that you have no idea how to even run or open a practice,” she said. “How does health insurance play into this ecosystem? What’s the importance of a marketing strategy? I wouldn’t have learned any of this important information without my MBA.”
Lopez said her MBA may have more utility for her current position than her medical degree. She wouldn’t be able to influence how the company structures and creates care delivery models without her business acumen.
Her interdisciplinary knowledge has allowed Lopez to confront health care justice and equity in a unique way.
“It has to do with social drivers of health,” she said. “A lot of our Latino and Black neighborhoods are affected with lower life expectancies. How do we help them and support those communities? It’s not until we really take into consideration that the communities themselves already know what the problems are, and many times have solutions, they just need our support.”
Insights as CMO
Lopez has made a significant impact working towards healthcare justice as Chief Medical Officer at Zocalo Health, which provides affordable health care for the Latino community. She’s learned key insights into community health care that has helped her understand the subtleties of care delivery.
In particular, Lopez realized that trust is one of the most important components of health care.
“If you don’t trust me as your doctor, health care delivery system or as an organization, then you’re either not going to come to me or you aren’t going to follow through with whatever health plan I tell you to follow,” she said.
With that critical insight, it’s clear that one of the most essential missions of a community health organization should be to cultivate trust with its patients. Lopez has had to put her business and medical experience to work while determining the best way for companies to build trust in the community.
Part of the solution has been operating at a local level. That means showing up to neighborhoods and partnering with community-based organizations that have a proven track record of doing good work in the area.
It’s a process that takes time, particularly when a community is traumatized and skeptical or hesitant,” Lopez said.
With the lofty goal of fostering an equitable health care system, Lopez is drawing upon the entrepreneurial skills she learned at the Merage School. She said that many of the softer skills she acquired have been particularly helpful. Specifically, she contends that leveraging connections and partnerships have been essential to her mission.
“How do you strategize in a way that makes sense for different communities,” she said. “It’s very important being able to leverage those networks, their importance and the key of communication and having conversations that move your mission forward.”
Health equity is built into everything Lopez does. As a physician executive, she applies a social justice lens on a daily basis. She ensures that biases never come into play when dealing with patients or designing patient care. She also surrounds herself with reliable individuals who help her “refocus when things get blurry.”
“I always ask myself, ‘Why am I making this decision?’” she said. “I apply this to every decision, every connection, every patient.”
Technology is another important tool in the battle for health equity. In particular, telehealth can help solve the accessibility problems that many low-income communities face.
Lopez said there are many studies that show health outcomes are better if patients have a physician that is culturally aligned with them. Considering the disproportionate amount of Latino doctors in the country, telehealth enables those doctors to still see patients without geographical barriers.
“I can be here in Orange County and see patients all over California,” Lopez said. “I can give them my expertise and they can have access to a Latina physician who understands their culture.”
Another important technological component of the health equity dialogue is the rise of artificial intelligence. Lopez believes AI could help physicians by identifying and flagging concerning health issues. However, in order to ensure that the technology does not perpetuate health inequities, developers need to be aware of their biases so that they aren’t built into algorithms.
“That’s why it’s so important for individuals with different lived experiences to participate in the conversations and building AI,” she said.
Advice for Future Leaders
In looking to the future, Lopez believes that leaders in health care need to lean into their identity. She said that individuals from minority communities often try to blend in to be accepted. But it’s important for people with diverse backgrounds to lean into their true identity because “that’s where the magic happens.”
Innovative ideas are realized when people embrace themselves and their community. Lopez said she’s found success and personal fulfillment by accepting herself.
“I don’t have to pretend to be someone else,” she said. “Innovation comes with diversity, and the innovative ideas I have brought to the table came because of my lived experience.”
This guidance is critical to achieving an equitable health system. Lopez pointed out that nothing is going to change unless authentic people from diverse backgrounds are included in making big decisions.
Decision makers and leadership teams need to have members from the communities that they’re trying to support, she said. Adequate representation will promote new ideas and answers.
“There are amazingly qualified individuals out there that already have solutions that we just haven’t considered,” she said.
"Sarah Lopez exemplifies the Merage School's vision of leadership – transforming challenges into opportunities to create a more equitable future,” said Dean Ian O. Williamson. “Her unwavering commitment to health care justice serves as a beacon, guiding us toward a more inclusive and excellent society."
Merage School Involvement
Lopez’s work to improve health care delivery extends beyond her day job. She is a dedicated alumna working with the Merage School to address equity.
She became a member of the Dean’s Leadership Circle because its mission aligned with her own. Dean Ian O. Williamson’s commitment to community outreach resonated with Lopez, who takes the same approach when it comes to health care. She was particularly excited about the Future Leaders Initiative, which empowers high school and community college students from Southern California’s underserved communities.
“I realized that the school was being innovative and really trying to understand and support the community to uplift everybody,” Lopez said. “I knew that we had the same mission in our different spheres of influence, and I wanted to be a part of that.”
Lopez also participated in this year’s Latinx conference. She said it was important for her to connect with members of her community and see how they’re causing positive change. Bringing the Latino community together is important because community members can be accomplishing great things, but may be siloed.
“What an amazing conference with leaders who are impacting the community and really driving change,” she said. “It is really important to have gatherings like this that create a space to connect and have important conversations. It helped me learn about how we market to Latinos and how we approach the community. It showed me how powerful and influential the community already is.”