She wanted to be an anthropologist. That’s what brought Apryle Pickering to Missoula and the University of Montana in the first place.

Fifteen years and two master's degrees later, the Vermont native has settled deftly into her new role at Community Medical Center, in a job that at first blush has little to do with anthropology.

Pickering is CMC's director of Population Health and Government Programs, which needs some breaking down for us lay people.

While in a similar role at Providence St. Patrick across town, she was handpicked to lead an effort called “Meaningful Use,” the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ program that's worth millions of reimbursement Medicare dollars to local health systems employing certified electronic health records.

Population health management, Pickering explained, means looking at hospital populations in a holistic way.

“In health care typically we’ve done episodic care in the clinic setting,” she said. “With population health, we’re focused more on looking at our entire patient population and making sure they stay healthy, whether or not they come into the office or not.”

That means meeting patients at home, looking at social determinants of health and “what else could be going on in their lives that impact their health and wellness,” she said.

By all accounts, Pickering is good at what she does. When she came to Community Medical Center in December, it was her third promotion in three years, according to Paul Tripp, a former administrator at Providence St. Patrick who nominated Pickering for the Missoulian 20 Under 40 recognition.

“Apryle is a leader whose business acumen, professional demeanor and intellectual capacity is truly beyond parallel and serves as an example of what every health care administrator should strive to be — and achieve,” Tripp said.

“She’s remarkable,” said Dr. David Lechner, her current boss as chief medical officer at Community and president of its physician group. “Apryle has a job and a title that is not necessarily easy to understand. It’s a complicated, difficult subject, and she truly is the subject matter expert in this for our corporation, if not for the state of Montana in general.”

Pickering’s mother Sue is a nurse, “so I think that may be where my interest started in health care,” she said.

She grew up in Florence, Vermont, and went to Union College in Schenectady, New York, where she majored in anthropology. Family, scenery and the University of Montana’s anthropology department drew her west in 2002 with Justin Clook, her high school sweetheart and now husband of nine years.

Pickering earned a master's at UM in applied anthropology in 2004, then one in public health in 2008. Meanwhile, she was getting a taste of hospital life as a receptionist at St. Pat’s and the Western Montana Clinic.

“My focus has really been the health of the patient the whole time I’ve been in health care, and when I had the opportunity to take a position in population health it seemed to really match my interest and I became, I’d say, very passionate,” she said.

That passion comes in handy in staying on top of the complex evolution of health care.

“We’re seeing a lot of changes in the way we are paid and providing care, with a lot more changes to come, I’m sure,” Pickering said, adding, “I believe deeply that where we’re headed in health care payment reform is the best option for the patient.”

And it turns out, she’s right in her educational wheelhouse. Pickering took medical anthropology courses at Union College, which is described as the study of "human health and disease, health care systems and biocultural adaptation.”

“When I started graduate school, I had a much different picture of what I would be doing,” she said. “Sometimes people plan their lives to be a certain way and that doesn’t always work out. And sometimes that’s for the best.”

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