CHOP CEO Madeline Bell on why women shouldn't leave healthcare

Madeline Bell, BSN, is the CEO of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, which recently made Forbes' 2021 list of best employers for women. She spoke with Becker's Oct. 14 about the notable ranking, as well as her recent conversation with President Joe Biden regarding the mental health crisis facing America's children's hospitals.

Editor's note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: CHOP was recently named one of the best employers for women by Forbes. What protocols and practices do you think have contributed to CHOP making this list?

Madeline Bell: First, I'm incredibly proud and was actually very surprised by it, and as the first woman CEO in our history, it's really important to me to have a recognition like this. Our workforce is 77 percent female. So it really makes me proud that we got the recognition, and I think it's the result of several things. There are programs that we have here at CHOP that are really focused on improving the experience that women have here, such as really good paid parental leave programs, breastfeeding support. We have breastfeeding pods and rooms everywhere. [We have] our women's employee resource group and lots of wellness programs that encourage work-life balance. 

When I became CEO six years ago, there weren't women in the executive ranks. There were just a few. And so now we're at almost 60 percent women in our executive ranks and 63 percent women physicians. So having that opportunity to show women that there's a woman CEO and there's opportunity for advancements — I started my career as a staff nurse — so I think that's really important. And also diversity and inclusion has been an important part of my platform.

So I would say all of those programs are important, but what's really important is to have the CEO, the leader, stand up and say that we're a stronger organization with a diverse team and women representing our leadership.

Q: What advice do you have for women in healthcare?

MB: I would tell women, and I do tell women, to not leave healthcare. So many women are leaving the workforce right now, healthcare in particular. And I would tell them that there's lots of opportunity and flexibility in a career in healthcare no matter what it is. You can be on the provider side, you can be on the insurance side, you can work for pharma, life sciences, health policy. There are just so many opportunities. [My advice is] to not limit yourself in your current career, but to think more broadly about healthcare, and because healthcare is so dominated by women, and many consumer decisions about healthcare are made by women, having women leaders in healthcare is really important. 

Q: Why do you think so many women are leaving the industry? 

MB: I think part of it is the childcare responsibilities, and I really think this is a function of the pandemic, frankly. And I think there are two things. One is childcare and other family responsibilities that occurred throughout the pandemic, but I also think that it has made a lot of people step back and really rethink their lives and their careers. As women do that, I want them to realize that there are ways to continue to stay engaged in a healthcare career, but perhaps to have more flexibility.

Q: Do you think that those who have left healthcare will return once things return to normal, whatever that new normal looks like? 

MB: I guess I'm an optimistic person and would say yes. I heard a quote from the CEO of Press Ganey that 30 percent of nurses are considering leaving the workforce, and I was so worried about that. Nursing is a career, and I can speak to this personally, that offers you so many flexible options, whether you're at the bedside or not. I believe that nurses that have left will return to their careers. I think this has just been [an incredibly challenging time]. Think about it: So many people in the world have been working at home, and nurses have been at the bedside 24/7 without any relief. I hope we all have some empathy for nursing and the nursing profession.

Q: What about other staff members outside of nursing who have left because it's just become too much. Do you think that they'll be returning as well?

MB: I think so. I really do. What calls people to healthcare is to be part of a mission-driven job, and to make a difference in the lives of people, and I think that calling doesn't go away. I would like to focus on all of the people who have stayed, and are still here, and to commend them for navigating how challenging this has been, time and time again, through multiple waves of this pandemic. 

Q: What are some of the trends you're noticing at CHOP regarding pediatric patients and mental illness?

MB: This is probably one of our largest challenges, the significant increase in children who have emotional, mental and behavioral problems like anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. It's a grave concern. In the middle of September, I had the opportunity to [participate] in a small group discussion with President Biden, and I wanted to make sure I let him know that the pandemic has really exacerbated a problem that we already had with children who have behavioral health issues. So there are a lot of things I think that can be done. We are, I think, woefully behind as a country in being able to prevent children from having such severe experiences with anxiety, depression and suicide that they end up being in a hospital. And so there's a lot that we need to do as a country.

One of the things we're doing [at CHOP] is embedding therapists into each one of our primary care practices, so that there's readily available support for families. We're in the process of building 46 pediatric psychiatric beds. I wish that we didn't have to have a crisis center. As I said, I feel like there's so much we need to be doing to invest in prevention, but we're not there yet as a country, and so we're left with seeing and responding to children who have the most severe crisis. 

Q: What are your top three goals and priorities for CHOP over the next year?

MB: One of them is really focusing on an employer brand and focusing on recruitment and retention. We're also opening a new hospital, a second hospital campus, which is pretty exciting and can't come soon enough because all the children's hospitals, including ours, are very, very, very busy. And then on our research side, we're really doubling down on our cell and gene therapy strategy implementation. So those are just a few things that I'm focused on.

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