Halee Fischer-Wright, MD, opens up about challenges women in healthcare face today

The CEO of the Medical Group Management Association discusses technology, disparity in the workplace – and more.

MGMA President and CEO Halee Fischer-Wright, MD, is a nationally recognized healthcare executive, physician leader, and coauthor of New York Times bestselling book, "Tribal Leadership." Her new book, “Back to Balance,” is due out in September.

Prior to joining MGMA, she started her own successful medical practice early in her career, spent time as a management consultant, and served as president of Rose Medical Group in Denver, a 680-physician practice, for 12 years.

We talked with her about the state of healthcare, what inspires her, the disparity in the workplace, mentoring and more.

What drew you to a career in medicine?

One of the benefits of having a non-traditional career in medicine. By healthcare standards, I’m halfway through my career. I’m of the people that when I was 8 years old, I wanted to be a doctor. There are no physicians in my family. In fact, at the time that graduated college, I was the first graduate from my immediate family.  My parents had not graduated. My mom subsequently went to college and graduated summa cum laude. It’s not like I had people in my family who were physicians.

I was drawn to the interaction with families in such a big way. That’s why I pursued a career in medicine. I practiced for almost 20 years.

I have a very asynchronous career path. I did lots of things at the same time. While I started my practice, I was also in leadership, first for the hospital and then for the physician organization and did that for 12 to 14 years.

Then, I decided that physicians had negative business creditability, so I decided to go to business school to get an MBA. I went to the University of Southern California, and got my master’s in medical management. So, I was always focused on medical practice as a career path.

While I was practicing medicine, I was also president of a medical group. So, I did that for a while until my husband was diagnosed with cancer, then I backed down and stopped consulting and focused on the medical group and practicing medicine.

You must be so disciplined to be able to juggle as much as you did – and do.

I’m not sure it was discipline or not. Sometimes, I think it was just crazy.

What drew me to medicine, really is you want to make an impact. In my career as a physician, I recognized I can make an impact one-on-one – a patient seeing a physician. But I can make a much greater impact in the business of medicine, and positively affect many more than one at a time. I think that’s what drove me to do both simultaneously.

What prompted you to seek executive positions?

In leadership circles, a lot of people talk about influence vs. power. Really how I got into executive positions was pretty organically. I was just trying to extend influence to create a bigger impact.

What is your biggest strength as a doctor? As an executive?

As a physician, I think you would burn out – just from the burden that we place on physicians – and myself included. It got to the place where you really lose the joy of medical practice from seeing patients. The hardest thing was being burnt out and not seeing any relief.

I have a book that will be coming out on Sept. 12 called “Back to Balance.”

The biggest challenge in being an executive in healthcare, is I don’t see a lot of new leadership in healthcare. What I mean by that is that we tend to iterate on the same thing. We’re looking to make something incrementally better and not to take the risk of letting something go to move on to something that has the potential to be of much higher service. That to me is frustrating.

Do you have an example?

Let’s talk about electronic health records, for example. I was in practice when they first started to show up in early 2000. Really it was being sold as a way to provide better communication with all branches of medicine. And, as a sidelight, it really helps us facilitate the business aspects of healthcare. Where we are now, years later, the providers who use the health records are really dissatisfied with them. Instead of saying, you know, this is not working, should we scrap it and just take a look at something else, we just try to take the same system and iterate on them to try to make them better.

What inspires you about your work?

I love my job. I’ve had a lot of different career positions. This is my favorite one because it encompasses such rich and diverse organizations. It really has the power to transform healthcare in a positive way. And, that inspires me every single day. We are an organization that is going through change. Like most healthcare associations, we are re-evaluating what our relevance is to the marketplace, and in that transition, we are creating a vision of where we want to be in the future. And, to me, it’s incredibly exciting.

Over your career have you encountered inequity in pay or otherwise?

The answer is ‘yes.’ I think you could say almost through any level – in a variety of ways – not just personally, but I see it with my peers as well. I hear it all the time with my peers that are women CEOs. I speak very openly about “the unconscious bias.” Women in non-traditional women career paths technology, finance and the executive levels of healthcare. In healthcare about 80 percent of staff are women, yet less than 10 percent of the executives are women. So, there’s a huge disparity there. I know in the past – about five years ago – I was having a conversation, was negotiating my salary – and the professional talking to me about salary said: “well, you know, your husband is a physician, so you don’t need much.”

Talk about mentorship

Instead of talking about mentorship, what I really support – and what I role model – is sponsorship. I can push other women into positions where they can succeed. It’s not necessarily an “high-low: I’m the mentor, you’re the mentee,” but really almost a peer-to-peer sponsorship. That, I think, actually works a lot better. And it creates, I think, a much richer culture and much more inclusive culture with the women. It’s really a diversity issue – not just women that we’re struggling with in healthcare, and in technology.

What are you reading?

I read four or five books at the same time. I typically read a business book. It’s the genre I typically read on a plane. The last business book I read was “Originals” by Adam Grant; the biography of Einstein.

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Twitter: @Bernie_HITN
Email the writer: bernie.monegain@himssmedia.com

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