Q&A: Health inequities strike early in a female physician leader

Suja Mathew, MD, had her first glimpse of health inequities in medicine as a teenager, when her father fell ill and required heart surgery.

Although successful, the months following her surgery were difficult for her working-class immigrant family. Bills for her care wiped out most of their funds, she said. “We had family insurance. But at that time, the patient was still responsible for a significant portion of the costs,” said Dr Mathew, whose family is from southern India.


Accompanying her father on visits to his cardiologist and other doctors, she was struck by the differences in care in some care settings. “That was years ago, long before everyone was talking about health equity or the social determinants of health,” she said. The experience encouraged her to pursue medical studies.

“It made me want to become a doctor myself and address health equity issues,” said Dr. Mathew, executive vice president and clinical director at Atlantic Health System in Morristown, New Jersey. . Atlantic Health System is a member of the AMA Health System program, which provides enterprise solutions to equip leaders, physicians, and care teams with resources to contribute to the future of medicine.

Since then, she has built her medical career on the social determinants of health while mentoring her younger colleagues.

Mentoring and coaching is one of his favorite activities. “I’m a medical educator at heart,” said AMA member Dr. Mathew. “I love seeing people grow around me and I am absolutely thrilled with the success of the people I have mentored and coached.” The newly elected member of the AMA’s Council on Medical Education trained physicians on how to create a culture of wellness in practices and improve leadership communication during times of stress, a topic that has been particularly relevant during COVID-19.

To celebrate Women in Medicine Month in September, Dr. Mathew spoke about the vital role of networking and coaching in women’s job satisfaction, offering insight into her own efforts to establish a network for female physicians in South Asia. South.

WADA: You recently moved from the chair of medicine at Cook County Health in Chicago to clinical director and executive vice president of the Atlantic Health System. How has this change been for you?

Dr. Mathew: It was a wonderful opportunity. When I reflect on how my life has changed over the past five or six months, I feel remarkable how comfortable I feel in this new position, given that it is a new organization, a new city, a new part of the country. The transition was smooth.

WADA: What made you decide to change?

Dr. Mathew: I spent 22 years providing care and leadership that was very meaningful to me at Cook County Health. I had the opportunity to meet Brian Gragnolati, CEO of Atlantic Health, at a meeting and really connected around his vision for his organization. It was a great opportunity to join a truly first-class organization that is dedicated to patients and committed to providing the best possible care to our communities.

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WADA: As a female physician and leader, how could this new role pave the way for other female physicians?

Dr. Mathew: I think any leadership role I take on, whether in this one or in other areas I operate in, helps open up opportunities for other women. As much as I can succeed and be good at what I do, it creates opportunities for others. I have brought and will continue to bring certain principles to my leadership style.

This includes a commitment to people from demographic groups that are underrepresented in health care – health care leadership in particular – women being one such group. I would certainly expect them to see me not only as an example of what they can accomplish, but also as a supporter and advocate for their needs.

WADA: Each September, the AMA celebrates female physicians, residents and students during Women in Medicine Month. The theme of this year’s campaign is “Leading with Purpose”. Talk a bit about how this impacts your career and your advocacy as a female doctor.

Dr. Mathew: My focus around healthcare and medicine comes from a very personal place. I experienced health care alongside my parents, who both needed a lot of health care during my teenage years. In particular, my father’s experiences have helped shape my view of medicine and the role of health care in advancing communities for health equity.

When I see a patient, I’m reminded that that patient is someone’s father or someone’s sister, or someone important, a loved one and we need to make sure that person feels exactly that – and that we give the care we would want for this loved one of ours, like the care I wanted for my father. This is what I strive to give to my patients.

My leadership role allows me to make an impact…not just in the direct patient care that I have been able to provide for years, but now in leadership, to ensure that all patients in the organization are treated with the level of care, compassion and empathy that I wanted for my own father.

WADA: What role does professional networking play for female physicians? Do you engage in ongoing mentoring and coaching?

Dr. Mathew: Networking is important for everyone, and it is important for female physicians. It’s important to see role models, to see peers doing work that you can learn from. It is important to have sounding boards for problems or challenges. Often when we are at a crossroads, we may not know which direction to go when considering a career change, patient care, or interpersonal conflict. Anyway, it’s great to have this network.

A network that I developed regionally and nationally through the American College of Physicians, in addition to the AMA, meant a lot to me. It’s been an amazing way to support my decision-making over the years.

I go to my mentors through these networks to bounce back from difficult scenarios. When you rise as a leader and especially as a female leader, it can be quite lonely at times. There may or may not be people you can talk to in your own establishment depending on the content of the conversation. It is therefore important to cultivate relationships with both women and men, but certainly with women, in your region or at the national level.

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In a medical education role, I was the program director of a very large residency program for many years. For seven or eight years, I had the responsibility of mentoring and mentoring hundreds of young doctors. I loved doing this and watching people grow and succeed, and I continue to do so in my current role.

I have relationships that I have developed over many years. Here at the Atlantic, I’ve been thrilled with the number of younger, less experienced physicians who have approached me in my very first few weeks here, asking for this level of mentorship. It’s really striking for me. I don’t think it’s easy, as a young, developing leader, to start a conversation about mentorship with a new senior leader coming into the organization. So just the fact that so many have done it tells me there is a real need.

During my leadership journey, I haven’t seen too many people like me in the leadership roles I strive for. I again see a real opportunity to build infrastructure around this. Together with one of my mentees, Lakshmi Warrior, MD, a wonderfully talented neurologist in Chicago, we are founding a group for South Asian women in healthcare leadership called the South Asian Women’s Healthcare Collective.

It’s an opportunity for South Asian women who are leaders in healthcare – and who aspire to develop their leadership skills – to come together to network with peers and become mentors.

WADA: How do mentoring and coaching contribute to women’s job satisfaction?

Dr. Mathew: We all need human connection. Medicine is a very demanding field, no matter what level or type of medicine you practice or your position in the healthcare ecosystem. Having this opportunity to interact both as mentor and mentee, as coach and recipient of coaching allows us to grow and find impact.

WADA: What other things can be done to elevate female physician voices and career trajectories?

Dr. Mathew: There are system initiatives to ensure that women are well represented at every stage of the game when clinical decisions are made. Again, as a clinician, women must be represented when we develop policies that affect our professional lives. Women must be represented at all levels of leadership and they must also be represented at our senior levels of governance. This representation, this invitation to participate is really important at the system level.

And then for my female colleagues there, I would say that you have to fit in, you have to take risks, you have to be ready to defend your values, your needs and do it with respect and courage.

WADA: During the pandemic, many female physicians have taken on multiple roles. They are doctors, but they are also primary carers at home. This caused a lot of burnout among women. I was wondering if you could talk about that.

Dr. Mathew: That’s absolutely correct. I know the past two years have placed a disproportionate burden on female physicians. They not only care for their own children and nuclear family, but often for extended family members and certainly for aging parents.

As leaders, we must recognize this. I think we need to look at how we create an inviting culture for our women. They have so much to offer. In some cases, this will require some flexibility. But it’s an opportunity for all of us to grow and meet the unique needs of women in our healthcare workplace.

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