Q&A: How women can lead the way toward healthcare IT’s future

June 19, 2018 |  Industry Leaders, Healthcare IT


In this age of #MeToo, more organizations are now grappling with power structures that often have not welcomed many women and minorities at the head of the decision-making table. A 2017 study by Rock Health estimated that women make up only about 23 percent of the executive leadership at Fortune 500 healthcare companies, even though they comprise nearly half of the U.S. healthcare labor force.

I recently had a discussion with two MEDITECH innovators, Executive Vice President Hoda Sayed-Friel and Director Kathie Hemingway, RN, about today’s leadership challenges for women - both generally and within the HIT industry - as well as what they’ve learned from their own experiences on the front lines. Sayed-Friel was recognized by Becker’s Hospital Review to its list of 110 Women in Medtech to Know in 2017.

I heard you both recently attended the Simmons Leadership Conference, which is one of the world’s premier conferences for women leaders. What did you take from that experience?

Hoda: The conference was a great venue for promoting and advocating for women in high power places. It was good to hear and speak with women from different industries, and to learn from them, which is something we don’t always get the opportunity to do.

One of my favorite speakers was Edie Weiner, the CEO and president of The Future Hunters. She discussed how technology is interconnected with the economy and different populations, which of course is interesting to me, since at MEDITECH we always have to consider all the different ways that our software can affect people’s lives. Nely Galán, the former president of entertainment for Telemundo, was fantastic too. She spoke about how she started from nothing to eventually take responsibility for an entire TV network. Nely highlighted the importance of women speaking up and finding their calling.

Kathie: Yes, they were great. Any time I have an opportunity to be around other leaders, I’m interested in hearing what they have to say. These women inspire and energize me.

Gretchen Carlson really impressed me - she went from being Miss America in 1989 to being a television commentator and author. She spoke about dealing with a lot of adversity in the workplace, but she fought back because she believed in herself, in her own talent. Today, she is the chair of the Miss America board of directors. They recently announced that the competition will start focusing more on the contestants’ achievements and life goals, instead of their appearance.

What do successful women leaders have in common, and how is it applicable to what you do at MEDITECH?

Kathie: Successful women tend to live by the same rules. No matter what industry you’re in, you have to work hard, you have to be authentic, and you have to stand up for yourself. Don’t be afraid to speak out, and don’t let others intimidate you. Also, you have to look at failure as an opportunity. Everyone fails, including billionaires. The key is to learn something from that failure and take the lesson with you moving forward. There is always something to be learned.  

Hoda: It’s true, to succeed you really have to work on eliminating your own negative personal thoughts. Especially in IT or really any technology field, where there is so much trial and error. To be an innovator, you have to be willing to try new things, and some of those things will inevitably fail. But you cannot get discouraged. On the flip side, you also have to take credit whenever things work out and you do something good. Don’t hold back.

Why do you feel it’s important to have women in leadership positions, particularly in technology fields?

Kathie: I believe it is important to have a mix of women and men in leadership positions. Different people bring different skills and perspectives to the work that we do here at MEDITECH. Coding skills, visual skills, communication skills, multitasking - a diverse leadership team helps to bring it all together. It’s not just about including leaders of different genders, but also leaders of different backgrounds, ethnicities, and experiences. They all help to enhance the creative process by bringing unique past experiences and perspectives into the discussion.

Hoda: Not to mention, the healthcare industry includes all different types of workers, and serves all different types of patients. MEDITECH is not creating a product just for physicians, but for nurses, CEOs, CFOs, administrators, and clinicians of all kinds, in many different settings. Female physicians tend to be among our best users, and the female-dominated nursing field is becoming increasingly tech-savvy. The bottom line is that technology leaders need to be as diverse as their customers, to serve all of their needs effectively and to bring something new and valuable to society.

The theme of this year’s Simmons conference was “Disrupt the Ordinary.” What does disruption mean to you, as a woman leader and also as an executive in healthcare?

Hoda: Disruption is all about doing something different than what you did yesterday. It’s an important term for those of us in healthcare IT, because we are developing technologies for an industry that is constantly in flux and challenging all the conventions of the past. So we have to be willing to take what we know, and throw it out the window if it doesn’t serve our customers’ current needs.

In the same way companies must reinvent their products, they also have to reinvent their decision-making, and embrace new ways of thinking. Bringing more women leaders to the forefront is part of that. Not doing things the same way, just because that’s how we’ve always done it.  

Kathie: Innovative technology is moving at a faster pace than ever before. Think of all the mobile and “smart” technologies we use in a day, and how that has transformed the way we work and live. Your business will not survive if you are unable to keep up with the times.

As a woman in a leadership role, I believe it's my responsibility to challenge staff to think differently, improve processes, move forward, and work smarter. We do not settle for the status quo in our work, and likewise women can’t settle for the status quo in their careers.

What leadership challenges have you faced in your careers? How were you able to overcome them?

Hoda: There was a time when I was leading a group of programmers, even though I was not a programmer myself. And sometimes I had to escalate some very difficult technical issues to Howard (Messing), Neil (Pappalardo), and Chris (Anschuetz). I had to navigate talking to these very smart and technical male executives, who knew much more about programming than I did, and get them to understand the situation so we could get the help we needed. I had to be able to communicate effectively, and to say I needed help - even when I felt like I was out of my element. I can recall many similar instances over the years. What’s important for women leaders to remember is that you can’t be afraid to ask for things, or let anyone pat you on the head and send you on your way.

Kathie: For me, inspiring and developing my team, and guiding them through change always presents challenges. It’s similar to our customers going through process changes - they have a large workload to address, yet at the same time they have to keep their staff motivated and positive even when things get hectic. I think having years of experience makes a big difference. You learn how to handle different scenarios with confidence. Having a mentor to confide in is great for getting advice on handling new situations.

How have you seen the healthcare IT industry change (or not change) for women over the years? How has MEDITECH evolved?

Hoda: Even though women were the original computer pioneers, as the industry grew, it became very male-dominated. Girls were often discouraged from learning math and science, and many who worked in those fields had to become superwomen - better and smarter and tougher than all the men - to be taken seriously. Fortunately, things are starting to change, with more female CIOs stepping up and more STEM education programs available to encourage girls. I’m lucky to be at a company like MEDITECH, that is progressive and has a number of very successful women at the executive level because their expertise was recognized and appreciated.

Kathie: When I started at MEDITECH 31 years ago, there was only one woman serving as a VP. Today, many women are holding very influential leadership roles here. One person who inspires me personally is EVP Helen Waters. Every day, Helen asks herself what she can do differently to contribute to our success. She is tremendously driven, knowledgeable, and hard-working. I think that these women help us to succeed in an industry where you always have to push the boundaries of what’s possible.

What can we do to encourage more diversity in healthcare IT, and help women (as well as men) fulfill their leadership potential?

Hoda: We all need to encourage - and not stigmatize - women with brains. It starts at an early age - telling girls they are smart, giving them opportunities in the sciences early, providing good role models. And beyond gender, healthcare leaders should be looking at the overall diversity of their company: is it reflective of society and our hospitals? As an industry, we have to make it our mission to grow along with the culture and to represent all of the customers we serve.

Kathie: Yes, diversity can bring valuable insights on socioeconomics, cultural differences, race, etc.

If we want to do right by our customers, we need to invite those perspectives. And if we want to produce the next generation of innovators, we need to make educational programs in science and technology accessible to all. We should also have more leadership education programs and mentorship, to support people once they get into those roles.  

What advice do you have for women in the workplace?

Kathie: Seek out and support other successful individuals. You’ll need them, not only for advice, but for inspiration when the going gets tough.

Hoda: Don’t let others define you. Gain as much knowledge about your industry as you can and never underestimate the power of tenacity. Ask for the things you want and deserve. Speak your mind and volunteer for stuff that is above your head. We need more innovative leaders, so don’t be afraid to be one.

Read one of Health Data Management's Most Powerful Women in Healthcare IT, MEDITECH's Executive Vice President Helen Waters, as she shares her thoughts on how the right technology can prepare you for a new era in healthcare. 

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Written by Tracy Gavel, Editor, MEDITECH

Tracy Gavel has been a healthcare technology editor and writer for MEDITECH since 1999. She is a member of the American Copy Editors Society and the Association for Women in Communications. Tracy holds an MFA from Emerson College, as well as a BA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.