March is Women's History Month. Each week, we'll feature one of our Swedish caregivers who will share with us what women's history means to them. This week, we spoke with Michele Arnold, M.D., chief medical officer of Swedish Issaquah, about women's progress, the future and what Women's History Month means to her.
1. Can you briefly describe your role at Swedish?
I serve as chief medical officer at Swedish Issaquah. I'm fully accountable for the safety and quality of care provided in our facility. I'm also responsible for stewardship of resources to ensure the sustainability of services to our community, as well as overall patient and caregiver experience.
2. What inspired you or why did you choose healthcare?
When I was young, my grandfather became a quadriplegic after a minor car accident. It turns out he had an uncommon musculoskeletal condition that left his spine vulnerable to injury. I was 11 when I sat by his side, assisting with truncal balance on the mat during therapies while he was in inpatient rehab. I helped clean the pin sites where the halo fixator anchored into his skull. And at that young age, I decided I wanted to be a physical therapist...or a rock star (which I still contemplate from time to time). We mourned the loss of his ability to fly fish, but he actually lived another 15 years with excellent attendant care and saw all of his grandchildren grow up. And I'm fairly certain that that was the pivotal moment in my young life that directed me towards a career in healthcare.
3. Is there a specific woman, mentor or group of women that influenced you to work in healthcare?
I was definitely influenced by my experience with my grandfather, but the clinical mentor who comes to mind dates back almost 30 years. I took a part-time job with an outpatient therapy group while I was in college. In my two years there, I worked as a physical therapy (PT) aide under an occupational therapist named Cindy who taught me to do things that are now considered probably out of scope for a PT aide. I got to apply hot packs. I did therapeutic ultrasound and interferential. I did some limited manual therapies. I counted reps while patients did their resistance exercises, but what I recall most was Cindy demonstrating her own unique blend of patient connection and excellence of care, a mix of human connection and science. And it was inspiring that patients consistently left better than when they came to us (my amateur efforts notwithstanding). This occupational therapist told me about my medical specialty, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, and I've been practicing now for nearly 20 years. I wound up sub-specializing in Neuromuscular Medicine and Spinal Cord Injury medicine, where I get to regularly collaborate with occupational therapy, physical therapy and the rest of the rehab team.
Michele Arnold, M.D., chief medical officer at Swedish Issaquah
4. How has the previous work of women in healthcare paved the way for you?
As I mentioned, when I was young I wanted to either a physical therapist or a rock star. In the late 1970s, most of us thought that rock and roll was the domain of men—and medicine wasn't all that different minus the big hair and the Spandex. In 1977, the song Barracuda by the band Heart hit the charts. The duo is made up of rock and roll hall of famers Anne and Nancy Wilson. They were the vanguard women of rock breaking down barriers in a male native business in which they had few role models.
Now, let me tell a corollary story. Instead of the late 1970s, now the year is 1998 and I'm one of a handful of women in my medical school class of 48. Dr. Nancy Dickey was a professor in the department of family and community medicine at the Texas A&M Health Science Center and had just been elected as the first female president of the American Medical Association. She was one of three women on the 20-member American Medical Association (AMA) Board of Trustees. Dr. Dickey was known for her work in health policy and healthcare delivery solutions, medical ethics, and professionalism. She helped develop the AMA bill of rights, and she was inducted into Texas Women's Hall of Fame. A pioneer like Nancy Dickey stepped into the void just like Anne and Nancy Wilson; they all made a way for the women who followed.
I think sometimes we can't see the possibilities that haven't been modeled and maybe all it takes is for one brave soul to break out, break forward. We watch and we learn, and now we see possibility. Then possibility becomes a precedent. As people follow, that precedent becomes a path. These women leaders of our past, they're the sojourners who bushwhack into the unexplored places. The beyond. They give us eyes to see the real possibility of a flourishing career in medicine as a woman. And they lay the path for us to follow.
5. How are women paving the way now for future generations?
As of 2019, women made up a little over half of all medical students. However, there are many areas in medicine where women—women of color, in particular—remain underrepresented. In certain surgical fields like vascular surgery, urology, orthopedics, and neurosurgery, on average women have yet to achieve the same level of academic tenure as their male peers. According to the AMA, women account for just 3% of healthcare chief medical officers, 6% of department chairs and 9% of division chiefs. Women of color are absent from many C-suites. There are fewer medical school deans who are women, and moreover, nearly three quarters of executives pick proteges who look, act and think just like them. But today women are leading into these spaces. We're adding diverse ideas and leadership styles to our organizations. On a national level, we're even challenging entrenched gender-biased reimbursement patterns.
6. What are some things you’re excited about for the future of women in healthcare?
The thing that excites me about women's role for the future, is that we're not bushwhacking anymore. The path is cut, but now we're reaching up and we're achieving higher levels of responsibility and authority. Moreover, we're reaching out and we're reaching down to pull up other potential leaders. I'm excited to see the ongoing match toward equitable pay. I pray that we are the last generation who tells our daughters the story of how we earn less than our male colleagues.
I've also seen a change in the character of female leaders in healthcare. When I started down this road, the typical female lead espoused many so-called ‘male attributes’: tenacity, authority, certainty, ambition, and maybe in our darker moments, cunning and ruthlessness. We learned very early to lean into our innate resilience and temper our compassionate empathic selves—sometimes even suppress it, still our tongues, and value performance over connection. Now we're moving slowly toward authenticity. I see pockets where we're speaking up more. I also see when we're silenced. There's still work to be done to change the culture of leadership and make it not just hospitable to women leaders, but [a space where we can] leverage our gifts to better organizations and their connections to our communities.
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