As healthcare chief information officers, they ascended to their positions from various paths, with divergent motivations and backgrounds.

However, to a person, these women believe they are using their talents in their organizations to do accomplish important work.

“I’m in the right place at the right time,” says Tina Esposito, vice president of health information services for Advocate Health Care. “There’s been a shift in people’s understanding of how important data is.”

“There are many people who were born to be either caretakers or motivators. I was born to be both,” says Liz Johnson, chief information officer at Tenet Healthcare for acute care hospitals and applied clinical informatics.

Esposito, Johnson and other women in leadership positions in healthcare IT have seen significant change in the industry in promoting women into leadership roles. While they can’t provide hard data, these leaders say they’ve seen increased numbers of women in top IT positions at healthcare organizations.

However, they generally believe the industry can do better in encouraging women to ascend to leadership positions in healthcare.

The extent to which women fill leadership roles in healthcare IT “could be better; it’s getting better overall, but it’s not where it needs to be,” says Sue Schade, currently interim CIO at University Hospitals in Cleveland. “Organizations have different cultures, and some of them may have a more male-dominant culture that’s not supportive for women.”

And recent salary survey information from the Healthcare Information and Management System Society found significant differences in compensation between genders in healthcare IT positions. HIMSS data found men earned an average of $126,000 per year, compared with $101,000 for women (the salary data spans a variety of positions, not just top roles).

In management roles, HIMSS found that first-year compensation for women was 63 percent that of men, and it takes females more than 15 years in the same role to achieve income parity with men, says Carla Smith, executive vice president of the organization. Some in the industry fear that such a significant pay gap may cause women with leadership aspirations to pick another industry for their careers. HIMSS data also shows that men fill 31 percent of top management roles, compared with only 14 percent of women.

Also See: The Most Powerful Women in Healthcare IT Conference

Still, there’s been significant growth in opportunities for women in healthcare IT leadership roles, compared with 20 years ago, when only a handful of women pioneers led IT in healthcare organizations, and even overall staffing was predominantly male.

“Early in my career, I’d be in some meetings and I would be the only woman there,” says Theresa Meadows, senior vice president CIO at Cook Children's Health Care System. “I think we’re still in the minority, and I would like to see more women in IT leadership positions.

“There needs to be a constant re-evaluation of where we are with this,” Meadows adds. “There’s been a lot of information released around equal pay [in healthcare IT], and our industry is moving in the right direction, but it still needs to be addressed.”

More women are coming to healthcare IT out of clinical roles within healthcare organizations, or at least have passion for working in meaningful roles that meet important societal needs.

That’s Johnson’s background, for example. She started her career as a nurse, and was promoted quickly to positions where she managed units and then filled other executive roles in her organization before moving into a consulting position, through which she came to Tenet for an engagement. There, she became excited about the potential for data to have an impact on care delivery.

“With my background as a clinician, my goal was always around delivering safer, better patient care,” she says. “I discovered the value of data and information to drive better decisions. Other industries had gotten their arms around that, and I believed that we could do it in healthcare, too.”

The CIO position has changed significantly over the last 20 years, and it calls for different capabilities, says Adrienne Edens, who will join the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) on June 1 as its vice president of educational services. She is currently serving as CIO of the Valley Area for Sutter Health.

While information technology is more complex and diverse than ever, top healthcare IT executives are no longer just technicians. They need a variety of skills to manage projects, relationships, communications, staff and efficiency initiatives, working with many diverse constituents within healthcare organizations, Edens says.

“It’s often a dialogue that goes back and forth, and especially for women, we’re very relationship oriented,” she adds. “We like working with teams. People enjoy this new way of working, and we’re closer to the front lines.”

Enticing more women to consider information technology careers is part of a bigger challenge for American society, says Esposito.

“We just don’t have enough females in STEM (science, technology, engineering and management) roles,” she says. “We really need to think about going back to the sources and ensuring that there are enough opportunities for young girls in STEM. It won’t happen overnight, but we’ll eventually see a change.”

Schade agrees. “You have to start young; you have to start programs in the grade school and continue it on from there,” she says. “You have to get the message to girls that it’s good and OK for them to do technology and math, and not let the social norms discourage them.”

While that’s a long term fix, women CIOs say healthcare organizations need to be more aggressive in recruiting women to fill IT roles.

“We do a great job of recruiting women to be nurses, and we need to tell more of our story about what a rewarding place it is for a technology professional, and especially women in technology,” she says. “It’s a pretty exciting time to be working in healthcare IT.”

The growing maturation of the IT industry in healthcare, and the sense that IT is on the cusp of delivering insights that will improve patients’ lives, is one of the most compelling stories to motivate women to pursue an HIT leadership track, says Pam McNutt, senior vice president and CIO for Methodist Health System.

She entered the healthcare IT field in the 1990s, and is as hooked as ever. “It’s exciting to give patients access to their records and be able to exchange information bidirectionally,” she says. “That’s really the next realm of how we help patients. It’s about saving lives, and now our goal has shifted to preventive care and really improving lives, and that’s very exciting.”

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