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I ask women to think about what matters to them, and not give in to pressures: Terri Bresenham

LiveMint logoLiveMint 27-08-2017 Seema Chowdhry

Bengaluru: Terri Bresenham, 56, president and chief executive of Sustainable Healthcare Solutions, a unit of GE Healthcare, Bengaluru, passionately believes that women play an important role in the healthcare system of any nation. A biomedical engineer by training, Bresenham’s role at GE includes regional leadership of GE Healthcare’s operations in India and South Asia, Africa and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean), with a special focus on customers and working with governments, clinicians, private operators and NGOs to support the development of healthcare systems.

Bresenham and GE Healthcare are part of the Women in Global Health leadership platform which is a movement that seeks equal gender participation in global health leadership. Bresenham was instrumental in launching the Heroines of Health award in 2017. The award showcased the work of 13 women from 11 countries including Kenya, Cambodia, India and Sweden. The women worked with various aspects of healthcare including sexual and reproductive health, and improvement of maternal and neonatal health. Their achievements were highlighted at the WHO’s World Health Assembly in Geneva in May 2017. The aim of the Heroines of Health award is to celebrate contributions of women leaders in global health.

In an interview, Bresenham speaks about the importance of giving women greater access to technology, education, training, and policymaking in order for health systems and people to benefit. “To truly deliver on the mission to improve and sustain the health of a nation, the world must tap into and unleash the power of women,” says Bresenham. Edited excerpts:

Teri Fontenot, counted among the top 100 influential people in healthcare in 2011, wrote in a 2012 paper that women are uniquely positioned to leverage traits such as compassion to make the maximum impact in healthcare. Would you agree?

I actually look at it differently. 70% of healthcare is being delivered by women. And yet if you go to who is shaping the policy and who is making the decisions, there is little representation of women. If we have more diversity of thought, and experiences, we are more likely to develop a business model that will be more viable, more successful. I haven’t thought about the behavioural model you are talking about though.

Fontenot goes on to say that if more and more women get into CEO roles, contemporary healthcare and its delivery will get better. Is it as simple as that?

I would say yes if we have more women, there will be more likelihood that we will come up with ideas that will be relevant to serving the populations that we are trying to address. But the other thing is when something doesn’t exist, we have a chance to come up with a new concept and it does not have to be only about more women CEOs. We have to invent more frugal innovation models which will be effective, use different technologies, develop more engagement models to better contemporary healthcare.

The award Heroines of Health was your idea. Why women’s stories? How do you think that is going to create impact?

It is connected to the overall philosophy of GE to make healthcare better. We need to make healthcare more accessible and affordable and improve the quality of delivery. Today about $3 trillion of value in healthcare is created by women globally, half of which is unpaid. During my travels around the world I met women in the health sector and the agencies that are working with these women who are doing an immense job to support their communities.

However, their efforts go unrecognized. We are trying to bring awareness and recognition to these women. We sought nominations for ‘Heroines of Health’ from women whose work was positively impacting healthcare in the markets GE’s Sustainable Healthcare Solutions serves. We went on to identify 13 ‘Heroines’ and brought them to this year’s 70th World Health Assembly. We recognized them on stage in front of ministers of health and other key stakeholders to acknowledge their contribution in global health.

To further support women, GE Healthcare’s global communications leader, Sarah Wills, developed the idea of a documentary to highlight ‘Heroines of Health’ stories because nothing substitutes hearing from the women themselves. We took the services of an Emmy award winning film maker, Lisa Russell, who went on to profile three Heroines—Mercy Owuor, a community health leader in Kenya; Rohani Dg Te’ne, a healthcare worker from Indonesia; and Sharmila Anand, a doctor who runs a social enterprise in Tamil Nadu, focused on developing the next generation of skilled healthcare professionals, majority of whom are women.

How can governments and agencies get more women in healthcare roles? Is mentorship, scholarship, more training the need of the hour?

I like your list. It’s a very good list. I think for women leadership to evolve all those things are needed. In this list two ideas really stand out. One is sponsorship. You know women who are being coached and mentored get some advantage from that but really at the end of the day to get to that next level someone needs to sponsor you. Someone needs to say we have an opening here for you. People have to say ‘I know her, I would support her, I would put her in that role.’ The second is skill development, where skills can be technical, management, financial, and even leadership and communication related. If we want to make an impact in healthcare, women must have technical and leadership skills, and soft skills.

In a 2016 WHO paper, five women who are leaders in healthcare say that one of the things needed for a leadership position is a medical background. Would you agree with that?

In any domain it does help to have an understanding of it. The healthcare ecosystem has a peculiar bias, particularly the way it is structured today. So in order to influence the network it would obviously help if you come from a grounded understanding of what you are trying to ask of this person to think about or do. By the way I am a biomedical engineer and that has helped especially when I go in for discussions with clinicians or hospital administrators. There’s a trust factor because they know that I do understand what it is that they are facing and how hard it may be. A medical background is definitely a plus. But is it an absolute? I don’t think so. A strong leadership skill tool kit can also carry the day when and where needed.

If we want women to lead in healthcare should they be trained young?

As a mother of three daughters obviously, I’m biased on this one. I think there is a tremendous amount of societal messaging that comes to girls and young women that is not positive. Studies show that the 9-13 age period is a very important juncture in a girl’s life in which she starts to shape her future direction. If she hears during that period of time that she can have an exciting career, that she could do important things, can discover the next breakthrough in cancer, for example, and has the opportunity to roll up her sleeves and have firsthand experiences, it makes a big difference in how she views herself and her opportunities thereafter.

Girls have to know that there are roles in healthcare beyond being doctors and nurses. Roles like radiographer, operating theatre assistant, microbiologist, biomedical engineer, medical physicist, anesthesia assistant to name a few. I think that if more girls see that there are opportunities, India will be able to tap into the full complement of what women can do for this sector.

This is for young girls; what about women in their 30s?

I ask women to think about their purpose in life, what matters to them and not give in to pressures. It is probably the most challenging time of their life and lots of people will advise them to slow down. But it’s important to know that if they slow down now it will be difficult to get back to the path that can lead them to what they wanted to achieve in future. Think about the destination and never regret the choices you made.

In light of the infamous Google diversity row, do you think in the quest to bring women to the forefront we are not addressing concerns that men have?

It is less about gender and more about inclusive environments. Everyone has the right to realize their full potential regardless of things like gender, regional origin or religion. A large portion of government and private organizations have been traditionally led by the same kind of people. When I have an opening in my business and I interview people, by nature I am inclined to pick people who are similar to me. There is a natural, unconscious bias at play. Majority of men do not want to be considered as biased. But only once you sit with them and talk about it, they realize that an unconscious bias does exist. The same goes for women. We all have preconceived notions shaped by society, our upbringing and experiences.

For example, I remember the first time I was pregnant and a male co-worker (whose wife was also expecting) said, ‘I bet you’re looking forward to staying home with the baby’. I asked him if he was considering staying at home. He looked at me oddly and said, ‘Of course not’. I remember sharing with him that I felt the same way. Becoming a mother didn’t make me any less passionate about my work, nor did being a professional make me any less excited about becoming a mother.

How can women leaders in the field of healthcare affect policy?

If there are more women in leadership, they will have different priorities when it comes to where we put the money. Women bring their own relevant experience in prioritizing what will make this system better. What we are trying to do is find and recognize the women that are already in the system and support them as well as bring more women into the system so that they hopefully will rise in rank with the support. We will do our part not only in terms of awareness and creating more dialogue around this but also do by doing more things on the ground.

Do you think that one of the solutions is to have reservation for women in healthcare?

I am not a proponent of quotas. I start with the premise that there are enough qualified women out there, but they could benefit from sponsorship and opportunity. The question is, are we doing enough to identify or support these women? At GE, we believe that diversity in leadership will make us a better business, not for political reasons but absolutely for bottom line reasons.

Having said that, what can we do to ensure we get more women into the system? Can we be conscious of the bias making sure we can do things to support and advocate the continual growth of women? I think that’s what we should be doing and not looking at reservations.

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