Attendees gathered in downtown Chicago Aug. 9-11 to hear stories and advice from prominent women in the healthcare industry as part of Modern Healthcare’s annual Women Leaders in Healthcare Conference.
The event, held at Hilton Chicago, featured keynote addresses from industry leaders, panels offering career advancement strategies and ample networking opportunities. Executives discussed a wide range of topics, including how to engage employees and overcoming barriers to leadership positions.
Here are seven key takeaways from this year’s conference.
1. Tackling labor challenges requires innovative, employee-focused plans.
Staff shortages and costs continue to be top-of-mind among healthcare organizations, especially with regard to nursing. Employers need a better understanding of the market in which they are recruiting, said Dr. Iman Abuzeid, co-founder and CEO of nurse hiring platform Incredible Health. She said nurses often seek other jobs because they want opportunities for career advancement and more flexibility in their schedules.
“The days of three days a week, 12-hour shifts, full-time only, are kind of over. You still have to keep that option, but you also have to offer a whole menu of other options,” Abuzeid said in her keynote address.
Reliance on expensive contract labor is subsiding, but healthcare workers are still struggling to keep up with patients’ care needs.
Janice Walker, chief nurse executive at Baylor Scott & White Health, said an organization needs to encourage buy-in from front-line workers when trying to close care gaps. Dallas-based Baylor Scott & White implemented its Registered Nurse Compensation Plan a few years ago as a bonus structure to motivate bedside nurses to improve key metrics such as rate of admissions or hospital-acquired infections.
“It allows accountability peer-to-peer,” Walker said. “During the most trying times in the pandemic, when we all were stretching for cash, really not sure what was going to happen, that particular program never came up for risk of cutting because it works and it drives outcomes.”
2. Investing in new technology can enable success.
Artificial intelligence is a hot-button tool in healthcare, with uses ranging from patient outcome prediction to clinical note translation. Earlier this year, delegates from the American Medical Association voted to more closely study the benefits and adverse consequences of using AI and determine where boundaries are needed.
Dr. Jill Kalman, executive vice president, chief medical officer and deputy physician-in-chief at Northwell Health, said she believes AI is going to transform the healthcare industry. As an example, New Hyde Park, New York-based Northwell is partnering with an AI company to help identify pregnant patients with the highest risk of conditions such as preeclampsia and connect them to resources to improve outcomes, Kalman said.
In some cases, tools, including generative AI, can help relieve administrative burdens on clinicians.
“Nurses, doctors—every element of [the] front line has their head in a computer, and we want to have them back to the patient,” Kalman said.
3. Caring for diverse patients comes with new challenges.
Executives at the conference noted the challenges of caring for historically marginalized patient populations in a politically charged environment.
Kevin Sowers, president of the Johns Hopkins Health System in Baltimore, said executives had decided not to publicly discuss investments in the transgender care program at Johns Hopkins' All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, due to possible backlash from legislators amid the state's efforts to restrict such care.
Last year’s Roe v. Wade reversal also continues to cause conflict in reproductive care, as providers navigate whether they can legally offer abortions and what to do when they can’t. Kalman said family planning practitioners at Northwell are busy receiving out-of-state patients and learning how to proceed when individuals have different financial resources. She said the recent hurdles are discouraging some physicians from going into reproductive care and could create an OB-GYN shortage.
4. Mentorship can make a big difference for career paths.
Women executives at the conference encouraged attendees to speak up and ask to be mentored. They said it is also important to provide that support for others if possible.
“Mentorship is an ecosystem,” said Terika Richardson, chief operating officer at Ardent Health Services. “Everyone in this room is responsible to take someone along with them.”
5. Male allies are necessary to achieve equity in healthcare leadership roles.
Leadership positions are typically skewed in favor of men, despite women composing a huge portion of the healthcare workforce.
To achieve equity, executives said men must join their women counterparts in supporting change, including being intentional about efforts to bring more women into leadership positions.
William Jennings, senior vice president and Fairfield region president at Hartford HealthCare, said organizations need to make formal declarations when pursuing cultural change. The Hartford, Connecticut-based organization added “equity” to its company values, for example, and leaders are required to sign an equity commitment.
Johns Hopkins' Sowers said one person usually cannot change an organization. In many cases, ushering in cultural change also means changing the leadership team.
6. It’s time to push back on impostor syndrome.
Many women executives report feeling like an impostor in their roles: “Why am I here?” “Should I even be here?” “Am I really qualified for this?”
Stephanie Mercado, CEO and executive director at the National Association for Healthcare Quality, offered a piece of advice: Get over it. She suggested cutting negative self-talk that one wouldn’t feel comfortable saying to a friend.
Angelique Richard, chief operating officer and chief nursing officer at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center, said being prepared—even over-prepared—for a meeting or other event has helped her move past negative thinking. The tactic worked when she was asked to advise on environmental sustainability at the White House about a year ago and felt the impostor syndrome creep in despite her expertise.
“I was the only woman of color there,” Richard said. “As we began to have the conversation, it was so incredibly apparent to me that they didn’t know nearly as much [as I thought], and I remember thinking in that moment, ‘Yes, you do belong here. You do have something to say.’”
7. It’s important to know your “why.”
In another keynote address, Cheri Bustos, co-chair at global strategy firm Mercury Public Affairs and a former U.S. representative for Illinois, detailed the challenges of leading a mostly Republican constituency as a Democrat and her desire to do bipartisan work.
Bustos said her role as a representative for the 61605 ZIP code, a historically underserved, high-crime area in Peoria, Illinois, helped motivate her to push for changes in health outcomes.
In 2022, Bustos helped launch the Congressional Social Determinants of Health Caucus, a 32-member bipartisan task force exploring how federal funding can impact health outcomes. She also introduced the Social Determinants Accelerator Act, which helps provide seed funding for communities to study the causes of inequity.