Women in Healthcare Counter Trend

While some cry foul, others see it as a golden opportunity for women. The most outstanding exception to this rule is in the healthcare industry. Today, almost 49 percent of medical school graduates are women, a sharp contrast to the 5 percent in 1952. By 2010, women composed 34 percent of the physicians and surgeons in the United States, while accounting for 91 percent of registered nurses.

It is not only on the medical delivery side of the equation – women also are moving into C-Suite positions, particularly here on the Space Coast. At Health First, one of the county’s largest employers, the chief human resources officer and the chief nursing officer (overseeing some 2,100 of Brevard’s 4,600 nurses) are both female.


Changing View, Changing Opportunities

Paula Just, Health First’s chief human resources officer, commented on the dominant place women have in healthcare. “Years ago, the world had a much narrower view of positions that were acceptable for professional women — back then it was largely limited to being a teacher or a nurse. Therefore, many very smart and talented women became nurses. As things evolved over time, these women observed various roles where men were predominant and said to themselves, ‘I could do that.’ Because there was such a concentration of women in these fields, as society opened to women, the light went on and they took advantage of the opportunity.

“I’ve had this conversation with my husband. When we were children, the pediatricians we went to were men and the nurses were women. At the schools we attended, the principals were men and the teachers were largely women. But with our children, their pediatricians were women and the principal at their elementary school was a woman, with male teachers.”

It is an observation Connie Bradley, Health First’s energetic chief nursing officer, shares. “The traditional model of the nurse working exclusively in the hospital setting is changing. They are moving beyond the medical surgery unit and are branching out into specialty areas. With an Integrated Delivery Network (IDN), we have nurses in our Health First Health Plans division, nurses in outpatient wellness, in the hospital setting, or in one of the medical groups.” She went on to explain that at some level, nursing is much like engineering in a technical corporation; it is where a person enters the profession, but not necessarily where they will end up.

“In a contemporary environment, nurses, particularly nursing leaders, have to have a high level of business acumen. You have to be able to see the bigger picture, you have to develop exceptional interpersonal skills and you have to be able to use data to drive outcomes. These are the kinds of nurses we’re looking for; therefore, schools look to us as advisors, so that the type of nursing professional we need is prepared for the workforce.”  


Preparing Leaders For the Future

For Just, who has more than 27 years of experience in healthcare human resources and previously served as network vice president of human resource effectiveness at SSM Health Care Corporation in St. Louis, attracting and retaining the best and the brightest people is at the core of her responsibilities. “Health First has a number of things in place to ensure our associates can spend their entire career here. With more than 7,800 associates, we recognize that during the course of a career, people want to explore different opportunities so that they are not doing the same job year after year. We hope those changes and that exploration process, which people naturally take, would be within Health First.

“For instance, we have tuition assistance programs in place that help associates pursue degree programs that can advance their career. We also are launching a scholarship program to help nurses with an associate’s degree get their bachelor’s degree.”

Bradley explained the significance of this move: “Nursing is art and science; we encourage a bachelor’s-level nursing staff because of our need for those critical thinking skills in this new environment of a very intense and coordinated level of care. Nurses need to be skilled at quickly connecting with patients, their families and staff. Just as healthcare has become more complex, so too has nursing. Today, nurses have to see a larger picture and think in terms of the integrated system.” 

“It is essential to have staff that continually ask, ‘How do we create the best patient experience?’ The feedback we receive shows us patients value courtesy, compassion and friendliness from their caregivers. Asking themselves, ‘Did they care about me and was the outcome positive?’”


Creating Opportunities for Others

Both Just and Bradley worked through the ranks of healthcare operations, obtaining higher levels of credentials and responsibility. Bradley earned a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in nursing from Marquette University, and her doctorate of nursing practice (executive leadership) from Concordia University. Just earned her MBA with a focus on human resources, is a certified coach and facilitator for Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) and is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management.

Along their professional journey, both discovered that creating meaningful and challenging professional opportunities for others is part of the fabric of their role and one of the most fulfilling aspects of their career. In a field (like hospitals) where often more than 70 percent of the staff is women, providing a path for career advancement or even a second career is a thrilling challenge and opportunity. “When you help associates pursue advanced degrees, that opens doors and helps people move into new opportunities within the organization,” Just said.

“I was always drawn to healthcare, though I realized I wasn’t cut out to be a direct care provider. You learn your own limitations. For me, it was getting queasy at the sight of blood. I thought about a lot of things. But when I put my economics degree to work as a job analyst for a hospital system, I got to talk to a lot of people and discovered how healthcare works, and I was hooked. When I get out of my office and walk the halls of a hospital and see what we do, I find that so exciting,” she continued.

Bradley added, “We facilitate the discovery of where someone who begins in nursing can then move. The nurse is there 24/7 interacting with patients in our hospitals. We are listening and preparing the patient to take care of themselves in all areas where care is provided. We care for people when they are sick and strive to help them achieve optimal health and wellness.” 

“In a real sense, nurses are the coordinators, navigators and conductors of care, which is why we want nurses to work to the top of their license and experience. I think of it as a ‘gift,’ because they are able to connect all the components of science and art. That is what makes nursing something you look forward to doing at the beginning of the day, and leave knowing you have made a difference in someone’s life.”


RN Scholarship Program

Health First will be offering a new Registered Nurse (RN) Scholarship program for its associates beginning this spring. The scholarships are provided by the Health First Foundation and are up to $2,500 per calendar year. Health First nurses enrolled or preparing to enroll in a BSN or MSN (Bachelor or Master of Science in Nursing) program are eligible to apply for scholarship consideration for the fall 2015 school term. The Institute of Medicine’s Future of Nursing Report provided a number of recommendations to meet the healthcare needs of Americans, one of which was increasing the percentage of BSN prepared nurses.

This article appears in the May 2015 issue of SpaceCoast Business.
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