Mirjam Rodella Sapia, MD, DD, MPH | Safety, Quality, Informatics and Leadership



Timing is everything. After a serious car accident forced Mirjam Rodella Sapia, MD, DD, MPH, a primary care specialist and public health professional in Southern Switzerland, to slow down to nurse a broken hand, she happened to see an email about Harvard Medical School’s Safety, Quality, Informatics and Leadership program. She applied and was accepted, ultimately launching her career in exciting new directions. This includes helping her start a primary care center and integrating a lifestyle medicine approach in her center for public health.

A Car Accident Leads to Harvard’s Safety, Quality, Informatics and Leadership Program

“Before Harvard, I had been working as a Project Manager in Medical Informatics at the public hospital network in Southern Switzerland, analyzing the workflow of the clinical documentation of the electronic medical record and doing quality-improvement projects,” Mirjam explains. Through the Safety, Quality, Informatics and Leadership Program (SQIL), she hoped to delve more deeply into the specifics of how to implement a patient safety plan and to stay on top of the latest quality-improvement protocols to take her efforts to the next level.

She traveled more than 7,000 miles from Switzerland to Boston to attend the in-person portion of the Harvard program, which was a blend of live workshops and online content. “The individual and the team assignments helped me develop my competencies,” she says. But she stresses that one of the most exciting parts of the program was the diversity of students she encountered at Harvard, who came from all around the world. “Students from different cultures and professional backgrounds were huddled in the same room. Curiosity was the motor for talk. And the more we talked, the more we discovered, discussed and exchanged,” she remembers. “We immediately started to go out for dinner in the evenings. We felt Harvard. We felt Boston. Cultural diversity united us.”

She points out that the relationship between the high-profile faculty and the students was also inspiring. In addition, she was quite impressed by the values emphasized by the faculty, the program curriculum, and the other students. “I found this really special and it truly set this program apart,” she says. One workshop was especially engaging; Beth Frates, a Professor of Lifestyle Medicine, talked about the importance of clinicians’ promoting healthy lifestyle choices for patients and looked at how clinicians can develop best practices to serve as a role model. This sparked such an interest in the topic that she took this focus back to her own primary care center to implement there.

Mirjam was also the team leader for a group project in which she and her peers developed the idea for a motivation application to improve health promotion in the general population, based on the pillars of lifestyle medicine.

In her capstone project, she developed the idea for a shared information platform to identify frail patients, refer them to specific assessments so they can partake of interventions to improve integrated care management and, as a result, health outcomes.

Juggling Classwork with Other Commitments

While she found all of the work inspiring, she also found it challenging to juggle the classes with her personal and professional commitments. “As a mother of three I often didn’t have time to study during daytime, so I had to sacrifice my night hours. Every teaching lesson gave new inputs to develop my own project. SQIL became a new word in my every day vocabulary. It infiltrated my mind. Every free moment was dedicated to writing on my capstone project or a team assignment. Every word mattered. Every moment mattered. Harvard became part of me,” she says.

“To bring the coursework and my private life together was a balancing act. But all of the students did it. And we are all proud of our achievements,” she stresses. It was a long road but also a very worthwhile one.

Navigating Obstacles in COVID-19

Then, just as she was preparing for the final exams to graduate the program, COVID-19 struck. “I was just 100 km away from the hotspot in Northern Italy. I was on duty for the whole region during the first two weeks of the acute phase of COVID-19,” she says.

One night she woke up feeling miserable herself. She ended up having COVID and for the next two months was so sick she could barely do anything.

“I was exhausted at the smallest effort. When I started to learn for the exam, I invested entire afternoons to go through the script. But as soon as I turned the page, I couldn’t remember what I had read just moments before,” she recalls.

Although she prepared extensively for her exam, to her dismay the lingering effects of COVID-19 made it difficult to concentrate, and she ultimately failed. “I realized only months later that I was probably a long-hauler after the COVID disease, suffering from physical exhaustion and concentration problems,” she says. Fortunately, she was able to take the test again once she was feeling better, and the second time she passed with flying colors.

Graduating from the Safety, Quality, Informatics and Leadership Program

“On the last day, we had a virtual graduation ceremony. Great speakers, big emotions. Suddenly, everything was over. With just one click. Everyone in his corner of the world, feeling the emptiness after this very intense year. No hugs, no kisses, no cheers,” she says. “I was sitting alone on the terrace of my house, in a nice summer dress, with a glass of champagne in my hand.”

But she didn’t stay alone for long. “Eight months ago, I opened my own Center for Primary Care and Public Health,” she says. Therefore, she spontaneously decided to have a party at the center to celebrate her graduation. This was especially fitting, since the center had developed, at least in part, out of her Harvard experience.

While the intention had been there before, throughout the program she refined her plans and focused the framework on contributing to better quality and safety in an ambulatory setting, and incorporating key elements of lifestyle medicine in primary care consultations. 

Today, Mirjam says, the center has four different tracks, including the primary care arm, which takes a life course approach from fetal health and infants to the elderly; the public health track, which works with health workers developing projects based on national public health strategies to address non-communicable disease, mental health, chronic care, equity; an NGO for health promotion, which organizes public conferences online to motivate people and engage them to make healthy lifestyle choices; and a health innovation focus, which incorporates the development of informatic tools using learning health systems to improve safety and quality of care.

“My NGO is promoting a healthy lifestyle on the populational level, and we’re looking to develop a motivational app that my Harvard team and I created as a team assignment,” Mirjam says, adding that this project has raised interest at the national level.

“Further, I recently obtained a European Certificate of Lifestyle Medicine and I’ve been voted as a Quality Board member of the Swiss Society of General Internal Medicine. Overall, my profile has become more visible and I hope to become part of the newly opened Medical Master School, so I can pass something on to the new generation of physicians,” she says.

Striving for New Ways to Make a Difference

But while she is proud of all these accomplishments that have come about since deciding to take part in the Harvard program, she is still constantly striving for new ways to make a difference in the medical field. “I want to learn how to tell stories to motivate people to live a healthy and happy life,” she stresses. This recently prompted her to go on to participate in Harvard’s Media and Medicine Program, where she is continuing to build exciting new skills to enhance her work.

Information regarding COVID-19 has rapidly evolved. This content provides a historical snapshot of events surrounding the date of posting.

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Written by Lisa D. Ellis