The feminization of health care is here. And that’s a good thing.


The feminization of health care is fundamentally changing care delivery in the United States and it is doing so in ways that will accelerate the pursuit of improved quality and affordability.

Historically, health care providers and health care leaders have been selected for and nurtured traits that are traditionally seen as “masculine” — traits such as heroism, independence, and competition. Yet it is clear that as people live longer with more complex conditions, the more traditionally “feminine” traits of interdependence, empathy, and networking become more important. Even in the most technically challenging health care event, the outcome for the patient is determined by a team.

A successful outcome for surgery on a brain tumor requires the heroic hands of a neurosurgeon, along with the primary care diagnostician, the radiologist, nurses, physical and occupational therapists, oncologists, radiation oncologists, the spouse, children, home health aides, friends, neighbors, and the list goes on. It truly takes a village to create a healing environment around individuals with complex conditions.

A lone hero is a lonely voice. A highly coordinated, synchronized team of participants working in concert with the goals, desires, and wishes of the patient and family create the symphony.

A new approach to care

This is what I mean by the feminization of health care — delivering care in more team-based ways characterized by collaboration and the use of social networks. This approach is in sharp contrast to the patriarchal, hierarchical model that is traditionally masculine.

When doctors, nurses, medical assistants, and other valuable team members work in collaborative, interdisciplinary teams organized around a common goal we unleash the power of the group. We get a kind of infectious excitement to innovate and create change. The team-based care that is becoming the norm in the United States operates with outcomes in mind but is supported by a network — and a more balanced management style.

Observation and experience during my more than 20 years as a physician reveal some well-defined patterns and trends. The traditional masculine, top-down hierarchical style of management is certainly employed by some women and, on the other side of the ledger, there are men who possess a team-based leadership approach. Yet, in general, it has been my experience that the management styles of men and women as a whole are different.

I have found that organizations with a hierarchical approach feel much more focused on compliance, and on the idea that people do things because they have to (because it’s what they are paid for) rather than because they want to (which connects with their sense of purpose). Despite the fact that a large majority of workers in health care are women, most mainstream health care organizations – like most large corporations – operate with this patriarchal mindset.

Alignment with ACOs

The feminization of health care is well-aligned with the trend toward accountable care organizations and other team-based approaches. Creating an ACO, by definition, requires building an effective inter-professional, interdisciplinary team. And the team must be capable of caring for the patient from the clinic to rehabilitation to home — with all of the actors working together around the individual patient. The “lone-wolf” leadership style is counterproductive in this sort of setting.

The feminization trend is particularly evident in middle layers of management where there is rapid growth of a management style that is team-based, collaborative, interdependent, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. This has been happening throughout Kaiser Permanente where there are more women in leadership as chiefs of service, as physicians in chief, assistant physicians in chief, and hospital leaders.

In addition, there are active social networks among interregional teams, using network-based learning to accelerate making care better for our members. In this model people come together as peers, organized around a common purpose rather than under a hierarchy.

Glass ceiling in health care

While this trend is pervasive within middle management, the news is less encouraging at the top. According to a report by Rock Health, women represent only 21 percent of executives and 21 percent of board members at Fortune 500 health care companies despite making up more than half the health care workforce.

At senior management levels and in board rooms, leaders-as-heroes and leaders who drive results top-down remain highly valued. At these levels, there is clearly greater comfort with authoritative rather than collaborative, servant leaders.

I believe that greater balance in leadership and management styles can accelerate capitalizing on the benefits of the feminization of health care. If we are to transform health care in the United States, we need to get “unstuck” from our reliance on the traditional models of leadership in our industry.

Hierarchical models have moved us toward greater accountability for results. However, we are not going to manage our way out of our current health care crisis. We need to learn our way out, enabling disruptive thinking from a much larger set of contributors.

We need to evolve our health care leadership both because the traditional hierarchical approach excludes many women and because, quite honestly, the method has not gotten us where we need to be. Adding in the “yin” to complement the “yang,” the feminine to the masculine can bring the benefits of balance, inclusion, and diversity to help transform the industry.

Amy Compton-Phillips is chief quality officer, the Permanente Federation.  She can be reached on Twitter @amyleecp3.  This article previously appeared in the Physician Leader.

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