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Sac State alum personifies lifelong learning


Barb Johnston has been very busy since graduating from Sacramento State with a nursing degree in 1978.

Her professional travels have taken her from working as a clinical nurse in intensive care, hospice and home health care, to administrative positions including health IT manager for Kaiser Permanente’s Mental Health online disease management program, to serving as chief operations officer for a company in Australia. Factor in executive director of the California Medical Board from 2007 to 2010 to complete the picture of a driven, successful woman.

“I get it from my mother, who was a builder,” she says.

After working 13 years as a clinical nurse, Johnston was determined to put her business and technological skills to work. “I learned those skills during my very intense master’s degree program at Sonoma State,” she says. This degree combined nursing with a business model similar to those taught in MBA programs, and much of the training was online, prompting her to realize the potential of telemedicine.

“Dispensing medical care long distance is not new,” she notes. “The military has been doing it for years.” Johnston just specialized in the concept, applied her managerial talents and became a sought-after proponent of telemedicine. She taught classes on the subject and served on a national board promoting access to medical care for consumers and health-care professionals via telecommunications technology. She was tapped by the Schwarzenegger administration to advise the governor’s statewide eHealth Forum in 2006.

She spent three years in Australia as COO of a company that developed the country’s first virtual private health network, overseeing a firm consisting of physicians, information technologists and a slew of staffers. “It was a great experience, but I became homesick and came back home,” she says, not surprisingly to yet another high-powered position.

Johnston was hired as executive director for the California Telemedicine and eHealth Center (CTEC). From 2003 to 2007, she was responsible for raising and managing some $23 million in grant funding to support the center. She also oversaw the development of 10 regional health networks that serve more than 120 remote health facilities in rural areas. And she was lead author of the original proposal for California’s successful $22 million grant from the Federal Communications Commission that has led to the development of a statewide telemedicine network.

This brings us to her latest venture, www.HealthLinkNow. “My husband, a practicing psychiatrist, and I co-founded this start-up company offering online mental health care,” she says. Noting that she has had offers to relocate the business to larger cities, Johnston is determined to remain at home. As a fourth-generation Sacramentan, her goal is to create a thriving home-based medical business.

Their new enterprise dovetails with Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s campaign to create jobs that are environmentally sustainable. Videoconferencing saves travel time. Plus it’s a more efficient form of care, which is why patients and doctors like this delivery system. It’s especially appealing to the burgeoning number of female psychiatrists and other mental health professionals who can do much of their work from home without leaving their children, Johnston adds.

Barb Johnston is bullish on the company’s growth potential. “In addition to psychiatrists, we’ve had several other medical specialists come aboard,” she says. The New York Times recently took note, citing this among other companies offering online therapy. HealthLinkNow is distinctive because it is seeking institutional clients, such as hospital emergency rooms and large employers where employees can teleconference from a room at work rather than, as she says, “lose a half or a whole day of work for a consult.”

Johnston is particularly grateful for the guidance she received from nursing instructor Robyn Nelson at Sac State. “She had a huge impact on me, stressing the importance of lifelong learning in preparing us to succeed. I continue to learn every day, and that’s what makes life so interesting.”

– Alan Miller

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