<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=799546403794687&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">
Stephanie Farmer, MHA, and Leah Lleras, MS

Caring for Patients on the Business Side

Leah Lleras, MS, interviews Stephanie Farmer, MHA, for Women's History Month.

Written by Rachel Sauer on March 17, 2023

For Stephanie Farmer, MHA, an "a-ha!" moment in her career happened as an undergraduate working in the University of Colorado Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. In that role, she began to see how the business and administration aspect of health care can play a significant part in patient care, and how she could have a role in that care.

In honor of Women's History Month, Leah Lleras, MS, director of finance for the Department of Surgery, interviews Farmer, vice chair of administration for the Department of Surgery and the CU Cancer Center, about the path her career has taken since that a-ha moment.

The following transcript of their conversation has been edited for clarity.

Leah Lleras: Hello, my name is Leah Lleras and I am the director of finance and research for the Department of Surgery at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. In honor of Women's History Month, we are celebrating HERstory by interviewing women in our department and inviting them to share some of their experiences as women. Today I'm talking with Stephanie Farmer, the vice chair of administration for the Department of Surgery and the Cancer Center. Okay, Steph, first question is, could you tell us a little bit about your role in the Department of Surgery and the Cancer Center?

Stephanie Farmer: Well, as you said, I serve as the vice chair of administration in the Department of Surgery and my official title in the Cancer Center is the associate director of administration and finance. So basically, in both roles, I serve as the senior administrative leader, and work closely with Dr. Schulick and the leadership team.

Leah Lleras: And did you always want to work in this field?

Stephanie Farmer: I started out in undergrad as a music education major with an accounting minor and at that time, when I started college, I wasn't exactly sure which direction I wanted to go. So, I went the music way because I was able to get a music scholarship – it was all about the money. After my freshman year, I decided that I didn't want to teach music for the rest of my life and I switched over to a business administration degree because that just seemed to fit me better.

During that first summer break after my freshman year, I got a job as a student worker at CU, in the Department of OB/GYN and was really just providing administrative secretarial support to a senior faculty member who was getting ready to retire. When I had extra time, I constantly was going to the department administrator saying, "Do you have other stuff for me to do?" That turned into me having a job in that department for every winter break and every summer break, and through working in that role I really became interested in health care administration.

When I was in high school, I did work in a private practice, an OB/GYN private practice, so I really got interested in that patient care aspect. And then working in OB/GYN I really saw how, from a business perspective, I could really have a role in patient care and not have to touch the patients, which was a key thing. So, when I graduated, I got a full-time job in the Department of Anesthesiology here at CU and in the evenings, I went to school and got my master's in health administration. Getting that degree led me into the urology division administrator role, which led me into the Department of Surgery assistant administrator role, which led into my current role as vice chair of administration. And then when Dr. Schulick took his role as the director of the Cancer Center, that led me into assuming that administrative role. So, that's been my path.

Leah Lleras: Yes, that's great. I think it's really helpful for people to see how one job leads into the next opportunity and the next opportunity, and to be able to look back on that and see where you came from and where you are today. Do you think your gender has had any impact on your professional career and if so, how?

Stephanie Farmer: I do think, in a way, being a woman has impacted my professional career. I think back to 30 years ago, when I started as a division administrator, for a lot of the meetings I was in, I was the only female at the table in that leadership role. Honestly, it was very intimidating at that time and I think part of that was because I was gaining my footing as an administrator and part of it was I just didn't have a level of confidence at that time. But I allowed it to hinder my voice and it was hard for me to speak up at times, being the only woman in the room.

I have gained confidence over the years, mainly because I have gained more experience and knowledge, and so I do think it is easier for me to speak up because I know that I have knowledge and experience in this area. I believe that had there been more women at the table back then, it would have made my path a little bit easier because I think that would have given me more confidence at that time. So, I do think it impacted me back then. Were I starting out today, it probably would be a little different because there are more women at the table. So I do think it affected me in that way.

Leah Lleras: I know that faith and family are important to you; how do you ensure your own work-life balance?

Stephanie Farmer: That is a question people always want the answer to and I don't know that I have a great answer. I do think, for me, it comes down to priorities. I love my job, I love what I do on a daily basis, but in reality it is not the number one priority in my life. My family and my faith are my number one priority and so I have to be active in making sure that they have the time and attention that they need. I know people talk about having balance, but I don't think on a day-to-day basis anybody will be able to have exact balance in their life. But I think if you look over the course of a year, hopefully by looking over 12 months you've attained some kind of balance. Because we all know the pendulum is going to swing one direction or the other, depending on deadlines. A little thing like a pandemic, different things are going to swing the pendulum towards the work side.

But we have to make sure that we're taking time to allow for family vacations and time off and time in the evenings and on the weekends for that pendulum to also swing the other way so that there is more balance over the course of a year. I think too many of us allow it to swing one way and stay that way for far too long, and we all have to be better at allowing that to go the other way. As a leader, I try very hard to make sure that my staff and those around me know that it's OK for them to take vacation, it's OK for them to do X, Y, and Z because it is really important for them to do that.

Leah Lleras: I have been on the receiving end of that, you are very good at making sure that we all have the time and the space to be able to have that balance as much as possible within the confines of the deadlines and the the environment that we work in. And I very much appreciate that.

Stephanie Farmer: I think overall, when we allow ourselves to have that time and those breaks, it actually makes us better at our jobs.

Leah Lleras: Yes, absolutely. What advice would you give to someone wanting to pursue a career similar to yours?

Stephanie Farmer: I think the key thing is you really need to understand, first and foremost, what fills you up. What are things that keep you going? And get behind that and find ways that your career can align with what fulfills you. I am fortunate in that I love the aspect of my job that is getting behind the mission of what we do. In a way, on a daily basis, I am impacting areas of clinical care, of research and education. I'm contributing to saving lives, I'm contributing to the health care of tomorrow, and that fulfills me a lot. That helps me keep going when things get really rough. It's because yes, I know that I'm making a difference there. Your career goals need to align with what fulfills you.

I think far too often people don't think about that and that's why they become unhappy in their job. You shouldn't be unhappy coming to work on a daily basis. If you're not being fulfilled in what you do, you're not in the right thing. I think the other thing, aside from that, is in my role you've got to be able to be creative, you've got to be able to get your hands dirty and figure things out and how to get things done. You need to be able to collaborate. In academic medicine, we never have everything figured out. There's always something new coming down the pike, there's a new piece of technology, so we're having to constantly learn and constantly change. So, you have to be able to work in that kind of an environment to do well in academic medicine and move through leadership roles within this organization.

Leah Lleras: Is it important for women to support other women in professional pursuit?

Stephanie Farmer: Absolutely. I think a lot has changed and there are more women in leadership roles, and there are definitely fewer instances where I'm the only female in the room. But I think it is really important that we support each other in these situations and be able to help each other advance and grow.

Leah Lleras: Agreed. Absolutely. You are currently the highest-ranking administrator in the department; is it is important to see women in leadership positions?

Stephanie Farmer: Yes, I think it is challenging for people to strive for something that they do not see. They can obtain things that they don't see, people are doing that on a daily basis, but I think if they don't see somebody in a role that they're striving for, it does make it a little bit more challenging. I think back, for me, having examples has been really great. One of my best examples is my grandmother. She led the business department at a local community college and she's the one who taught me principles of accounting, typing, 10 key. These are things I did with my grandmother and they were formative in my life.

Then, thinking about this campus, having people like Lilly Marks and Jane Schumacher that I have worked with and have had the opportunity to be mentored by has been really inspirational for me, and there are things that I've learned from them that have been key. I don't think I will ever be at the caliber of any of these women, but I hope that I can provide inspiration for others and be able to help others along their path. And maybe also help them to learn from my mistakes so that they can actually be better than I am.

Leah Lleras: Thank you so much, Steph, it was a pleasure talking with you about this this morning. I'd like to thank Steph for sharing some of her stories with me today and to thank you for listening.