On February 2, HC3 hosted Women Leading the Changes in Healthcare Delivery as part of it’s the Role of Women in Healthcare Series. During this virtual event, Laurie McGraw engaged with women about their paths to successes as health care leaders and how they are promoting health equity, improving health outcomes, and bending the cost curve.
Moderator: Laurie McGraw, Senior Vice President, American Medical Association and Host, Inspiring Women With Laurie McGraw Podcast
Featured Panelists: Bobbie Byrne, MD, Chief Information Officer, Advocate Aurora Catherine Dimou, MD, Midwest Market Executive, Cigna Cheryl Rucker‑Whitaker, MD, MPH, FACP, Chief Executive Officer, Complete Care Management Partners, LLC
Watch the Recap | Link to Video
Breakthrough moments as leaders
Dr Byrne: It was being in a room and understanding everyone, but none of them understanding each other. It was almost like being a translator for people in different roles, and it was that opportunity to be able to communicate in that way that started me down a leadership path.
Dr. Dimou: When I was nominated to be part of the executive committee of the medical staff at Rush, I realized and saw there was this incredible opportunity to bring my knowledge and skills to other people up. To me, it was a sign that people respected what I did, and that was a seminal moment.
Dr. Rucker-Whitaker: As a young assistant professor studying disparities, I learned how much the health care system was spending on Medicaid, but then I witnessed communities on the south and west sides of Chicago with such poor health outcomes and numerous challenges. I became a life-long student of health policy and finance. I also had an opportunity to start, and help build, a Medicaid health plan from the ground up. Seeing that the investments we made drove real results was a pivotal moment. It was truly an opportunity to make an impact.
Amid the pandemic, where are the opportunities for women? How each of you leading through the uncertainty?
Dr. Dimou: What changes and motivates us during the pandemic? The impact of uncertainty. It is hard when things are uncertain, but looking at our outcomes as a nation, we have the highest mortality rate, and we can absolutely do better. We have to keep moving forward and working together to make things better. There’s an opportunity to reimagine the fragmented health care system that currently exists. During the pandemic Cigna’s partners shift away from the financial data analysis of value-based care models and focus more on quality. So, they leaned into it with “COVID Care” which was about maintaining coordination and trying to eliminate gaps in care. They are now starting to come back to their value-based efforts, but it was an important way to pivot during this critical time to continue to meet the need.
Dr. Rucker-Whitaker: One of the biggest challenges was implementing a vaccine mandate for our workforce. Before the vaccine came out, there were many challenges with staff being out for sick leave and bereavement leave, so when the vaccine went live our company mandated that all employees were vaccinated. As medical professionals. It is important to let data and facts drive our work and our decisions. Leading up to the mandate, we shared information with our staff monthly to ensure they would understand the importance. We announced the mandate in mid-summer and gave people time until end of October to comply. We tried to walk people to it, and not just a mandate it.
Dr. Byrne: The “COVID Years” have not just been one thing, there has been so much change from what it was in the beginning. We went from “how to find PPE and set up surge units?” to “how do you set up video conferencing?” to “how do you do vaccines?” to “scarcity and trying to get people vaccines” to “another surge” to “a staffing issue.” We are trying to think about what we have learned that we can then normalize, because people are craving some type of new normal. Throughout the pandemic, we were monitoring and sharing data a lot more frequently. We are also trying to instill and utilize workforce flexibility. If someone is capable of doing this work in another city or state, why not make that happen. One concern of Dr. Byrne’s was that with this flexibility there could be some limitations and assumptions for women. As great as is it to have flexibility at home, there’s a lot of expectations that women are the ones that are responsible for parenting (e.g., zoom school) and other responsibilities while at home, which could negatively impact their potential for advancements.
Are we out of crisis management and into normal high-level management?
Dr. Byrne: If we are experiencing a crisis anywhere, it’s around staffing and COVID-19’s implications, not just around COVID-19.
Dr. Rucker-Whitaker: From a leadership mindset, we are not in crisis. We are now managing in a ‘new normal’ after two years of building new infrastructures – informatics, data-dashboards, and so on – that help us manage and communicate differently and efficiently. As we move forward and want to grow, staffing does feel like the biggest dependency. But building a vaccinated workforce is really important.
As leaders, how are you keeping up energy and focus?
Dr. Dimou: Listening to your staff is really important. We all have learned that people do get burned out and have different issues to deal with at home. Early on in the pandemic, Cigna gave everyone 10 days of emergency time off. This was a tremendous help for if/when people got COVID-19, were taking care of their kids in at-home learning, or whatever else they needed those days for. It also helped people see that we – the leadership – get it. We support people doing the work and being happy and healthy.
Dr. Rucker-Whitaker: We did not do a great job at first and our staff was starting to burn out. We instituted a three-day weekend every month and hired people to cover Saturdays. We have been flexible with the executive team also; for example, no meetings on Fridays. You can still work that day, but it is a chance to catch up. Personally, I made mental and physical changes to my routine to get more balanced. Now when I take vacation, I am really truly trying to unplug and not checking emails.
Dr. Byrne: Everyone needs to have their people that they can vent to. You want your team to see you at your best, not your worst, and the higher up you go the more you need to segment who you can vent to.
What should women do who want to advance and not get lost?
Dr. Byrne: Women need to be more overt about their goals, which tends to not be their tendency. Equity involves knowing that different people might need different things. Women might need different coaching guidance. It’s not womens’ tendency to take over or be boastful, so sometimes you have to be boastful for them. On Obama’s cabinet, the women made a point of reinforcing the other women’s comments. I have recognized and realized my own needs and have changed to allow that flexibility.
Dr. Dimou: Informal and formal mentorship is invaluable. Leading by example starts at home too. When my daughter would interrupt a Zoom meeting, I would introduce her and say she is doing school from home today – make it normal and okay.
Empathetic leadership is not everywhere, so what advice do you have for women that don’t have it?
Dr. Rucker-Whitaker: Executive coaching is good for young managers/directors to find their voice and learn how to insert themselves into a room. The time before meetings is important – there is less “water cooler time” than there used to be, so it’s important to be proactive, maybe reach out to someone and ask to grab 15 minutes to talk about something before the meeting. We lost some strides in normal networking opportunities and building relationships. Don’t just retreat to showing up to the online meetings, people tend to work with and promote people that they know.
How do you keep the flexibility and tolerance as we shift back to the in-person environment?
Dr. Rucker-Whitaker: The hybrid environment is most likely here to stay. Employees are going to have choices. Many employers are thinking about this new environment and are focused on retaining their employees by creating a good culture and environment that meets their needs.
If your company says they are flexible, but your female manager is not open to it how do you manage that?
Dr. Byrne: You could try to educate your manager on why this flexibility is good for her as a leader and for the company. Most of the time when people are not flexible about one thing, they are often not flexible about other things. And you have to recognize when it is time to fire your manager, maybe it’s not the best manager for you long term.
Do you still see women not supporting women at the executive level?
Dr. Dimou: I meet with a group of women every month and we try to socialize and normalize the idea of supporting each other. Trying to promote one another and support each other makes it easier and more normal as a community across the company. And there are some men that get it as well and can be very supportive allies in your leadership journey.
Dr. Byrne: As women physicians, often we get called by first name whereas the men are called “doctor.” Advocate Aurora Health’s male CMO has made it a habit of calling all women “doctor” at all times which has helped tremendously. And he had no idea before this, so it is about having advocates and allies.
Best Advice for Women Like You
Dr. Rucker-Whitaker: Invest in yourself, think about ways to invest in the relationships around you and leverage the hybrid environment.
Dr. Dimou: Reimagine yourself, your workforce, and your family – don’t keep static. Let’s make it better as we try to emerge, and we should try to have the best new normal that we can. Your own creativity personally and professionally is what can get you there.
Dr. Byrne: Tell people what you want and what you are looking for. We think sometimes that people can read our minds, and especially in this remote environment it can be very hard to have those water cooler conversation. If you want something different, be open about it.