When Charlotte Yeh entered medical school decades ago, it was the first year more than 10 percent of the slots were available to women. Fast forward to today, and women make up almost half of medical school classes. Women also hold prominent roles throughout health care, including in management. But getting a coveted spot in the C-suite has been tougher, says Yeh, now the chief medical officer for AARP Services.
“Women are not very well represented in the highest levels of leadership,” she says. “The current generation may feel kind of complacent… but they haven’t realized there’s still the hurdle of getting into the top management.”
That broader picture is similar in the field of telehealth, where women leaders say they’re still underrepresented. So how can women strengthen their roles in telehealth as the industry continues its explosive growth? In a first-ever event, the American Telemedicine Association conference in Orlando this month will feature the panel, “Women Executives in Telehealth: Positioning for the Future.”
“I’m very impressed with the ATA,” says Yeh, who will moderate the panel. “It’s remarkable and a positive sign of the times that they’re already talking about leadership.”
In the best, most high-performing organizations in any field, Yeh says, it’s common to see more women included among the board and management. “Let’s face it, men and women are different,” she says. “Women may lend a very different lens or perspective versus if everyone at the table looks the same.”
That’s especially true in health care, as women often make decisions related to their family’s health, says panelist Kristi Henderson, vice president for virtual care and innovation at Seton Healthcare Family. “Without their voice,” she says, “solutions will not appreciate the perspective of women who are the users or facilitators of these services the majority of the time.”
In telehealth specifically, it’s imperative for women to play a role in the direction and innovation of new technologies and how organizations and companies are structuring their strategy, says panelist Julie Hall-Barrow, vice president for virtual health and innovation at Children’s Health, Dallas. “Without the perspective and tenacity of women in key leadership roles,” she says, “the industry as a whole will lack vision.”
Progress made, but more needed
The enormous growth of the health care industry in the last two decades has included increased options for women, says Henderson, who began exploring telehealth 18 years ago and went live with her first telehealth program in 2003. “The number and variety of jobs in telehealth have created new opportunities for women across business, clinical and technology sectors,” she says. “The value of women in health IT leadership roles is evident, resulting in increased numbers of women holding senior leadership roles in telehealth, health systems and health IT in general.”
Hall-Barrow, whose work in telehealth was spurred in the early 1990s, says she’s witnessed a growth of women leaders in the market. “My career has followed this trend,” she says, “and has led to incredible opportunities to lead efforts in one of the largest states in the nation and in one of the leading pediatric health care systems in North Texas.”
But while companies are putting policies in place to achieve equality for women in the workplace, more work is needed to create neutral gender environments, says panelist Paula Guy, president and chief executive of Salus Health.
There remains an underrepresentation of women at the board table, Henderson says. “There has been a slow increase of these women moving into more senior positions and being invited to the table for decisions,” she says. “Now that there is more of a conscious attention to diversity and inclusivity, this underrepresentation is changing.”
There’s still room for women leaders in telehealth, particularly in the C-suite and boardroom, says Hall-Barrow, and current leaders should encourage this by mentoring other women.
Advice from top women in telehealth
Honing an expertise to differentiate yourself from the pack is one way to achieve success in telehealth, Henderson says. “Find your skill and passion, then refine and perfect that skill,” she says. “Determination, integrity and tenacity are critical factors for career advancement.”
Start with a win, Hall-Barrow says. “When putting a program together, creating a technology, or implementing a system, do so with a guaranteed success,” she says. “This success will drive leaders to pay attention to your work and seek your advice for the next opportunity.”
Find a mentor, especially one in the field, Hall-Barrow says. “The more you can learn about the industry,” she says, “the faster you will make an impact in areas that you aren’t expected to make.”
And keep up with the rapidly changing health care market. “The more you know, the more key you will be in your industry,” she says.
Women have a long way to go to be close to where men are in leadership positions in health care, including telemedicine, Guy says. “The women I know in telemedicine are smart, strong, passionate, caring, and they work hard to get the job done,” she says. “If given the opportunity for leadership positions, we would see telemedicine grow like never before.”