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Igniting a Women's Health Activist Movement—WHAM!

March 2017

Karen Wolk Feinstein, Ph.D., President and CEO, The Jewish Healthcare Foundation and The Pittsburgh Regional Health Initiative

On January 21, 2017, hundreds of thousands of Americans and millions around the world joined together to advocate for and protect cherished principles of equality, acceptance, and justice—principles that are non-negotiable in a free society, and are intimately linked to health and health care. I proudly marched with 20,000 or so men and women of all ages, races, and creeds who took to the streets in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The day stirred memories of my college years, when I joined others who fought for civil rights, educational and economic opportunity, and a woman’s control over her own body, mind, and career. Linking arms with three generations of my family on a sun-soaked January morning, I felt capable of punching through any ideological wall.

But, as was the case in the 1960s, the march is only the beginning of a movement. Without follow-up action, it will merely be a pleasant stroll and a quickly-forgotten historical footnote. We at the Jewish Healthcare Foundation (JHF) are not content to let this activist roar go silent. That is why we recently launched the Women’s Health Activist Movement Global (WHAM Global), a network to empower and cultivate female leaders who advance health care systems that are transparent, respectful, accountable, and equitable.

Supported by the Heinz Family Foundation and JHF, WHAM Global will work to accomplish those goals by leveraging technology to create a vibrant activist community unbounded by geography, and by harnessing the knowledge of female, executive-level health care professionals who will mentor a new generation of female leaders. Joanne Conroy, M.D., CEO of the Lahey Hospital and Medical Center, and I are co-founders of WHAM Global, which was launched during a TEDx talk that I delivered this past fall.

Why WHAM Global, and why now? Because women are vastly under-represented in health care leadership positions—and we all suffer because of it.

Women represent about 80 percent of the overall health care workforce in the U.S. and make 80 percent of health care decisions for their families, according to Rock Health’s State of Women in Healthcare report. But less than 10 percent of the Top 100 U.S. Hospitals (as rated by Truven Health Analytics) have female CEOs, and under 30 percent of Top 100 Hospital board members are female. No Fortune 500 health care companies are led by a female CEO. And, when women do manage to swim against the current and ascend to leadership roles, they are paid 20 percent less than their male counterparts with similar educational backgrounds and experience (according to the American College of Healthcare Executives member survey).

This leadership imbalance occurs as the American health care system marches, inexorably, toward higher costs and poorer health. The United States spends almost one-fifth of its annual GDP on health care—nearly twice as much as any other affluent nation. And yet, its population health outcomes are dismal. Compared to other industrialized nations, the United States has shorter life expectancy and higher rates of chronic diseases. Around 40 cents of every dollar that the nation spends on health care goes to waste in the form of unnecessary treatments, preventable complications, inefficiencies, and errors.

At a time when the health care system is underperforming and overconsuming, the glass ceiling in leadership roles deprives organizations of women who offer new perspectives, consensus-building and mentoring skills, and insights about women’s health.

WHAM Global aims to change that. We are taking a hub-and-spokes approach, creating a “network of networks” with members who come from the C-suite, the newsroom, the policy table, Capitol Hill, and everywhere in between. We are going retail by developing a world of activists and citizen-scientists who are committed to empowering patients, using our health care resources wisely, and bringing the same level of convenience and courtesy to health care that we have come to expect from the Ubers and Amazons of the world.

WHAM Global is wired for action. In addition to our online community and social media presence (engage with us on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube), WHAM Global is establishing local women’s activist networks in Pittsburgh, Boston, and Washington, D.C. in partnership with the national organization, Women of Impact. The local chapters will feature in-person events and a Champions program, which will rally members around addressing a health issue relevant to their particular communities.

Here in Pittsburgh, we are using the wisdom of the crowd to help create a consensus reform agenda. This summer, we are holding an event during which WHAM Global members will pitch their health activist ideas while using a rapid-fire presentation format. It is the sort of concise messaging needed to gain attention and mobilize for action in a world where communications and governance occur in 140 characters or less.

We are planning a similar event in Boston, Massachusetts later this year, where presenters will be selected through video submissions. As in Pittsburgh, the winners will receive a suite of support, services, and mentoring from local female leaders to bring their community health improvement concepts to life.

Are you ready to make your ideal vision of the health care system a reality?

You can join our movement on the WHAM Global website. Fundamentally changing the way that we deliver and receive care might feel like a massive undertaking, but we encourage you to start the journey:

  • Demand transparency. We should know what procedures will cost, as well as the performance of any provider that we encounter—from doctors to nurses to radiologists.
  • Reward the best performers with your business.
  • Give immediate feedback, even if it is uncomfortable. It is okay to say, “Doctor: I am having an unpleasant experience at your office,” or “Nurse, I feel unsafe here.”
  • Share your story.
  • Resist overtreatment. Question a procedure or diagnostic. Ask, “Doctor, is this necessary? What are my options? What if I do nothing?” Consult Dr. Google.
  • Become a Citizen Scientist like Sharon Terry, a WHAM Global member and President and CEO of research advocacy organization Genetic Alliance. She and her husband went to the bench, discovering and patenting the gene that caused their children’s disease.
  • Form an action group, and pass legislation. WHAM Global coordinator Pat Mastors successfully advocated to strengthen patient safety laws in Rhode Island, and co-founded the Patients’ View Institute to give a voice to the voiceless in health care.
  • Fight waste. Vivien Lee, M.D., a WHAM Global member and head of the University of Utah Health Care, rejected the exorbitant prices charged for EpiPens in favor of a $10 EpiKit. What if everyone did that? We would surely reduce the 40 percent of waste in the health system.
  • Fight for equity. Let us fight for equal representation on health care boards and in executive positions, and for equal pay.

We want to hear your ideas on how we can create a more transparent, respectful, accountable, and equitable health system. We are looking for partners to launch more boots-on-the-ground chapters of WHAM Global across the country, and world. We want to channel the energy of the marches into concerted action. The issues that we seek to address—protection and advancement of women, strengthening mental health services, improving quality and removing waste from the health care system—transcend partisan politics.

WHAM Global will fight for women’s equity. We will have a voice and an agenda, and we will ‘make a scene’ in a positive way. We will achieve behavior and policy change.

Will you continue to march with us?