Help wanted: More women innovators in healthcare

Despite the dominant role women play in making healthcare decisions and the fact that they make up 78 percent of the healthcare workforce, the number of women in executive positions at healthcare companies still hovers at a mere 25 percent.

As the "retailization" of the industry continues and we move into a new world where more decisions are being made by the healthcare consumers, which are overwhelmingly female, closing the gender gap in healthcare leadership will not only be smart business, but a key to success. Studies have shown that women – who are considered Chief Mom and/or Chief Medical Officer or "CMOs" in many households – drive the majority of healthcare decisions. Ensuring that leadership at healthcare companies includes the people actually making the decisions is not only common business sense; it is the only way the industry will get to a point where we (all consumers) can consistently find and rely on meaningful healthcare products that will positively impact our lives.

As a senior executive in the healthcare space who has spent the last two decades in various strategic, operational and investing roles, I've often thought of the role of gender in the industry. And while the industry is in a much better place than it was 20 years ago, it still ceases to amaze me (and never becomes less frustrating) when I see female employees fail to ask for what their male counterparts do; or when qualified women don't apply for jobs because they don't meet every single job qualification; or when women are penalized for not overselling their company's potential during a funding pitch. Unfortunately, the irony is that women are often the ones best positioned to deeply understand the market, representing the "CMO" and designing solutions or building companies that meet her needs.

Case in point, I looked at investing in a company years ago that had an app to notify me if kids at my son's school were sick. The goal: empower me with the knowledge needed to keep my child home that day. The young, single, male CEO thought this was a fantastic idea. Meanwhile, as a working mother, two things came to mind immediately: there is at least one sick child at an elementary school every day, and working parents might actually give their child a Tylenol and send them to school if they only had a slight fever but generally seemed okay. (Present company excluded, of course).

Whereas, when you look at a digital health start-up like CellScope, co-founded by a woman, I see a technology that actually addresses a pain point for many mothers – eliminating the need for a trip to the doctor's office. When my son was younger, he experienced frequent ear infections and with each occurrence, it was pretty clear what was wrong. Rather than taking time off of work to visit the physician's office or urgent care when his infections returned, I could have taken a photo and sent the information to the physician remotely. If necessary, the physician could then call in a prescription. This would have not only saved me time, but likely provided more immediate care for my son too.

By ensuring women are in a position to lead or influence healthcare organizations, you are increasing the odds that more healthcare consumers will be represented and served. The reality is that it's often easier to put yourself in the shoes of the healthcare consumer if you have been wearing those shoes. The "CMO," who is taking care of the entire family – children, spouse, and increasingly more common, elderly parents – doesn't have the luxury of time. She's often juggling her job, doesn't take time to care for herself because she's too busy worrying about everyone else, may not know where to get the help she needs, often relies on friends for information and so on.

So how do you develop products and services that meet her needs? Ask yourself these questions:

• Is it super easy to use?
• Does it solve a real problem?
• Does it save time?
• Is information/support immediately available and actionable?
• Is it personalized and relevant for their specific needs?
• Can it benefit the whole family? Spouses? Children? Parents?

We need to close the gender gap – the future of meaningful healthcare depends on it. I know many astute, insightful men in the healthcare industry and have learned a lot from them over the years. However, I also know that if there are more female executives in healthcare companies who are determining company and product strategy, the healthcare industry will not only build more products that people actually use and like, but ultimately help improve the health of everyone.

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As SVP and chief marketing officer at Welltok, Inc., Michelle leads all corporate and product marketing, brand development, marketing communications and public relations activities for Welltok. She is recognized as a marketing and strategy leader in the digital health space. She was most recently an Executive-in-Residence at InterWest Partners, investing in digital health companies and serving as an advisor to InterWest portfolio companies. She was also one of the early executives at Epocrates and worked for over a decade to build the company into one of the leading mobile healthcare technology companies and the most recognized technology brand among clinicians. Previously, she worked as a health strategy consultant with the Wilkerson Group and in health policy information and implementation with the Lewin Group and the Georgetown Center for Health Policy Studies. Michelle earned her bachelor's degree from Carleton College and MBA from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

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