'I wanted to do more than just be upset': Dr. Esther Choo tackles gender equity with Time's Up Healthcare

Women make up roughly 80 percent of the healthcare workforce, but only 11 percent are CEOs, according to Esther Choo, MD, one of the founders of Time's Up Healthcare, which launched March 1.

Time's Up Healthcare is part of the national Time's Up movement, which was created in January 2018 to draw attention to issues of harassment and gender inequality in the entertainment industry.

Since coming together roughly six months ago, Time's Up Healthcare has grown to include 50 founding members and 13 senior advisers. It is led by an eight-person steering committee including Dr. Choo, who also works as an associate professor of emergency medicine at the Portland, Ore.-based OHSU School of Medicine.

Dr. Choo spoke with Becker's Hospital Review about her experience and research into gender equity and harassment, her involvement with Time's Up Healthcare and what she hopes the organization will accomplish.

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: You've been in the public eye for such a long time advocating for women and for gender equity. What has your experience been in medicine been like?

Dr. Esther Choo: Well, my experience with medicine has really been evolving. Initially, I had a handful of stories of things I had experienced and my immediate fears. But we started to realize that as we developed a bigger and bigger network regionally and then nationally, the unpleasant experiences and challenges and barriers to progression we experienced were not unique. These experiences are common to everyone in healthcare. We looked at the data, and the data really supported that these problems of harassment and inequity are really consistent across healthcare, and they are not improving on their own. In some cases they seem to be getting worse. But discussions about gender bias and sexual harassment have really exploded over the past year, and I think it's finally coming to a tipping point where people have more awareness and a feeling that it's time for this to come to light.

It feels very organic and right for me to be involved in this now. I've been talking about these issues forever, but you know, I'm an emergency medicine doctor and we don't just sit around and pontificate about things. I'm in a very action-oriented field, so it felt time to do something other than just observe and educate. I wanted to do more than be upset about it. I wanted to work toward positive change. It feels like the most wonderful outlet for all the frustration I had in this area.

Q: How did you get involved with Time's Up? Where did the partnership come from?

EC: It was a nice series of events. I have a consultancy called Equity Quotient that I started with a friend that examines gender discrimination in medicine. Our goal was to improve the measurement piece around culture for women in healthcare. My co-founder and I were on social media talking about the company and a psychiatry resident tagged Time's Up in one of our conversations. From there, a communications director at Time's Up reached out to us, and the rest is history.

We realized quickly that our goals and objectives aligned so closely with the Time's Up organization that we had admired for a while, and it really felt like like a no-brainer.

Q: What were some of the goals that you and Time's Up had in common?

EC: Time's Up really sought to bring gender equity issues out from the dark corners they were hidden in and really bring those issues to the surface and to the public. These are problems that are hidden in so many ways, from people having these experiences and maybe being ashamed of coming forward or feeling like they have no power or agency to bring them forward. That it could ruin their careers. I think people felt a lot of futility and started feeling hopeless about the lack of change. With Time's Up, we saw that there was a lot of value in talking about these things in a public way and that speaking publicly can be more effective than quietly trying to bring about incremental change. I think that general approach and framework was one we really needed in healthcare.

Q: Movements like this can't really work with solely women involved — we know men have to be allies. How does the organization plan to get men involved in the conversation?

EC: Yeah, exactly. We released a video of male allies supporting healthcare. We've heard from many men asking how they can help. The truth is that there are often more men than women in leadership positions. Some may argue that women can work with men to bring these issues up, that times have changed. We've worked very hard to communicate that this change is for everybody, not just for women. We welcome men's support. We look forward to working with everyone.

Q: Time's Up Healthcare has garnered support from many healthcare associations. Can you talk a little bit more about those partnerships?

EC: Those partnerships were a really wonderful and important part of Time's Up Healthcare. I mean, our organization isn't pretending like we invented something new. There have been groups working on understanding issues of gender equity and harassment for years, and what we wanted to do was first amplify their great work, strengthen it and bring it to the surface. We also want to collaborate with them in the future as a unified team. The work of organizations like the American Nurses Association, the American Medical Women's Association and others serves as the foundation for our efforts and makes our work possible.

Q: I know the organization is also partnering with FIGS, the medical scrubs manufacturer, to bring the Time's Up message to hospitals and health systems.

EC: FIGS was really wonderful. They had this great idea to create scrubs with the Time's Up logo and in the organization's signature black color. It is such a good, symbolic representation of what we want people to feel from the organization. Providers can carry that message with them so that even if they have these experiences at the bedside, there is this notion that there is someone out there trying to change their environment. It's that wonderful opportunity for us.

Q: What are some concrete goals you have for Time's Up Healthcare? What do you hope to accomplish?

EC: We want every health system and health professional school to come to the table and declare their commitment to the goals of Time's Up Healthcare. We have the opportunity to put forward and share our best practices for the workplace so those hospitals and health systems can improve the policies they have in place to make providers and other healthcare professionals feel safer and more accessible, and frankly allow us to give better care to our patients.

Our organization officially launched a few days ago, so when we initially spoke to people, they were understandably hesitant and suspicious about getting involved. But we're working with people in every type of role and encourage anyone who wants to work with us to join. We are really trying to address every single corner of healthcare, not just the stories of doctors or nurses.

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