NASHVILLE, TN — National Women’s History Month began in the month of March in 1857 when female factory workers around New York City protested over poor working conditions. While much progress has been made in the way of improved wages, education, and occupational opportunities, women still face many inequities. In 2021, for example, women held just 33% of senior leadership roles in the U.S.
The good news is that organizations across the country are working hard to create real advancement opportunities for women, especially in senior leadership. This is certainly the case at Nashville General Hospital (NGH) in Nashville, Tennessee, where 80% of the executive team are women.
“About 70% of healthcare workers are women,” said Joseph Webb, DSc, FACHE, Chief Executive Officer of NGH. “This, along with the fact that women make 80% of all healthcare decisions for their families, point to the need for greater female representation in healthcare senior leadership roles.” Webb also says that female executives drive policy at NGH. “They represent the best of the best in all areas of leadership, communication and the ability to execute on our strategic initiatives.”
This is important to Webb as he knows African American women are key to improving the health of their families and their communities. But it’s been a challenge building their trust. “Historically, African Americans have been distrustful of our health systems, and rightly so,” says Webb. He points to the 1932 Tuskegee experiments as well as the personal experiences of many women. Research shows that although things are improving, black women in the U.S. continue to experience excess mortality, shorter life expectancies, and higher rates of maternal mortality than other women in the U.S.
“When we talk about women’s health, we tend to focus on reproductive issues, which is a valid concern, but it’s not the whole picture,” says Webb. For example, women are more likely to have a heart attack than men, but their symptoms present very differently. “They present with different complaints, or, in many cases, they don’t articulate certain symptoms because they don’t realize they may be relevant to the situation.” Webb says that having female leadership at NGH is a great way to ensure that clinicians and patients alike are educated about how critical it is to build trust and explore complaints in greater detail.
Webb says that one of the keys to building trust among women is to improve health equity through health literacy. Another way NGH is addressing women’s health is through its evidenced-base care model. Every patient who comes to the hospital, whether through the ER or an ambulatory setting, is assessed for social determinants of health to determine if they’re lacking a key area of health literacy. “Women play a significant role here,” says Webb. “The more educated a patient is on their condition and care regimen, the less likely they are to have adverse outcomes.” True, long-term change begins at home and NGH works to make sure women have the resources they need to create healthy families.
For Taura Long, MD, a family practice physician at NGH, health literacy is at the heart of every patient encounter and conversation. For example, instead of just telling prediabetic patients they need to eat better and lose weight, Long educates them on why they need to make changes, as well as the consequences they can expect if they don’t. Then she gives them the resources to be successful. Once again, trust is key. “Women have to trust you before they’ll truly open up and share,” says Long. “My goal is to be their advocate, to be in their corner and help guide them through the entire healthcare journey—even outside of our facility.”
Long also builds trust by being relatable. “I’m careful to show them that I’m a regular person, just like a sister, a mother, or a friend, which helps put them at ease,” she says. This is especially important in the area of mental and behavioral health. “I screen everyone once a year for mental illness,” she says. “Women will get dressed up to come see me but, deep down, they want to ask about their mood.” Once the conversation begins, they often start to cry and open up. “It’s this trust that allows me to really help them.
“Fifteen-minute appointments are not okay, and Nashville General realizes that” says Long. “They’re less worried about how many patients I see and more concerned about care quality. This creates a better experience by giving women time to create a connection and for me to understand what a woman is saying verbally and non-verbally.”
Long, who joined NGH four years ago taking a risk leaving a position with a large health system in Nashville has a passion for her patients that goes beyond the healthcare setting. She’s a girl scout troop leader for underserved, homeless, or near homeless girls. She also participates in health fairs at churches and other community venues. “I especially love working with youth,” says Long. “I share with them what it’s like to be a physician and talk with them about how they can pursue a career in medicine too.”
Long was deeply invested in building a hospital supported practice in North Nashville, a traditionality underserved area. “One of the reasons I chose to come to Nashville General is that I wanted to make a positive change for the community, to be a voice for the voiceless,” she said. “I saw all the great work Webb and his team are doing and felt passionate that I wanted to be a part of it.” Long is quick to point out how much support she and her team receives from Webb. “He always checks in with us and me, making sure we have the tools we need to succeed.”
Long also says Webb is the first CEO who asks her about how she’s doing. “Caring is in the culture at Nashville General, no matter who you are.” For the women of Nashville, there’s no better place to receive care for themselves and their families. “We’re here to improve the health of our communities,” says Webb, “one neighborhood—one woman—at a time.”