People aren’t very predictable, and their health needs can be drastically different from one another, so designing ways to keep the population healthy can be a challenge. But according to alumnus David Lehr, approaching the challenge using statistical mechanics—treating it like a system of microparticles—can allow one to make positive changes to the quality and accessibility of healthcare.
“It’s hard to predict what a particular atom is going to do, but if you zoom out and look at a couple billion of them, you can predict what the system is going to do,” he said. “It’s a lot like that with public health. It’s tough to figure out what one individual is going to do, but when you get enough of them in a group, you can assess their needs and allocate resources so you can improve care and make it more affordable for everyone.”
Lehr, who graduated from Penn State with a bachelor’s degree in physics in 2005, is currently the chief strategy officer at Meritus Health, a healthcare provider located in Hagerstown, Maryland, between southern Pennsylvania and the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. There, he explores opportunities to partner with local healthcare practices and to improve public health in the community.
“We want to make sure we provide resources to the community so they stay healthy, and to practice preventative care so that we’re not just seeing them in in the emergency room,” he said. “We’re also trying to control costs so people can afford the care that they receive.”
A career in healthcare isn’t what Lehr expected as an undergraduate. As a physics major, he enjoyed taking on complicated problems, learning new ways to approach a problem or nudge a system in different directions. He conducted research with Nitin Samarth, George A. and Margaret M. Downsbrough Department Head of Physics, and with the late Rustum Roy, Evan Pugh University Professor Emeritus of the Solid State, who founded what is now known as the Penn State Materials Research Institute. But in conducting research, Lehr realized that the traditional academic path may not be ideal for him.
“As a big university, Penn State has amazing opportunities for undergraduates to conduct research and to use the research facilities,” he said. “For example, I was able to use the electron microscope and train in state-of-the-art clean room techniques. If I had not already had these research experiences, I might have continued down the academic path and attended graduate school. But having these experiences also showed me I might be better suited to a nontraditional career path.”
Lehr was exploring his options in consulting, programming, and software management and made his resume available to recruiters through Penn State Career Services. As it turns out, a healthcare software development company contacted and eventually hired him. There, he developed programming and management skills and learned about the healthcare system. He then worked as a consultant specializing in healthcare software and analytics for a variety of companies.
“At one point, I led a team developing an analytics system to help the healthcare provider make data-driven decisions on an ongoing basis,” he said. “I was only supposed to be there as a consultant for six months, but after six years I was still there as a chief information officer, where I was responsible for all the technology in the healthcare system.”
After years of learning about healthcare software, he found his interest in industry itself growing. In January 2021, he joined Meritus Health, shifting his focus from technology to the business operations of the health system, where he hopes to make a positive influence on the health of the community.
“Penn State Career Services directed my path in a way that I never expected,” he said. “I have returned to Penn State several times as a recruiter at fairs and other events, and I continue to be impressed with Career Services. I have also been invited to speak on a panel in the course Physics 444 to discuss all of the many things physics majors do with their degrees. I hope that by interacting with current students, I can help them understand the variety of career options they can pursue.”