Women In Science: How Female Innovators Are Changing the Face of Healthcare

As healthcare companies continue to make great strides in innovation, women hope to become even bigger players in the field, both with regard to the technological advances and in bringing effective, real-life changes to healthcare for women around the world.

Currently, only 13 percent of healthcare companies or institutions have female CEOs, and only 30 percent of leadership positions have women at the table. All of this is despite the fact that women comprise 50 percent of patients and 65 percent of the workforce involved in healthcare,[1] and 80 percent of the final deciders[2] regarding family healthcare are women. “We need to get more women at the table, and I think we’re uniquely positioned to solve some problems in this industry, and there’s a strong history of women doing just that,” said Sandra Colner, CCRA, Director, Lab & Life Sciences, Health and Life Sciences Business, Intel Corporation during the recent GE “Choose To Challenge” panel in honor of International Women’s Day.

The following are some of the main areas where women within the field have seen room for improvement, as well as some of the ways that they are helping to bridge the gap between what’s still needed and what the healthcare field has already accomplished.

Encouraging the next generation of female voices

Although healthcare companies have gotten good at having women involved in decision making in general, there is a lot to improve when it comes to having women in leadership roles in healthcare, said Karley Yoder, Chief Digital Officer, Ultrasound at GE Healthcare. “We’re going to do this by empowering women at all stages of their educational journey to get involved, empowering them to make the decisions to amplify the work they’re doing, and by thinking about getting diverse voices at the table,” Yoder said. “We’ve seen the studies across the board in every industry, where if the people making the product don’t represent the people using the product, we fall short.” 

With those objectives in mind, one of the biggest ways that women already in the healthcare field can help increase the number of females in the future of the business is to interact with the younger generation, and to put an emphasis on pursuing science and technology, said Stephanie Sassman, Portfolio Leader, Women’s Health with Roche Pharmaceuticals. “I’m hopeful seeing some of this effect in terms of additional enrollments into medical school, and I’m hopeful that we’ll start seeing that with science and engineering, as well,” she said. “We have to empower the younger generation to not be shy about seeking out a STEM career.”

That, along with a determination to keep the conversation going about the importance of women’s health — including encouraging women to seek out healthcare, get screenings and demand virtual healthcare when appropriate — can make a big difference.

Women who already hold a place of power within the healthcare community can also help by embracing other women in healthcare and encouraging them to innovate, said Colner. This includes emboldening them “to bring their unique passions into this very diverse community,” she added. “We can really make some incredible disruptions and unleash the power of the data that is going to absolutely empower our future.”

Building patient trust

Even though healthcare companies are doing brilliant science these days, if the products produced by that science aren’t able to make it into clinicians’ hands and change the way patients’ interact with the healthcare system, then it falls short of what technology can do across the spectrum, said Yoder. One disconnect between products and use is that, when it comes to healthcare, “all patients want trust in their systems and the technologies they interact with,” said Dr. Claire Bloomfield, CEO of The National Consortium of Intelligent Medical Imaging at the University of Oxford in the UK, “and to keep that trust, personalized and precision medicine needs to be designed for everyone, yet still tailored to meet individual needs.”

One way to do that is to have healthcare companies communicate better, said Dr. Bloomfield, particularly regarding how data is used within the healthcare field, as well as incorporating different types of data, and representation and diversity into that data. This helps ensure that trustworthy solutions are being developed that clinicians want to use and that patients will be happy to use for their care.

On the flip side, patient engagement and trust for the use of their data is also integral to building databases that are as inclusive as possible. Rather than being risk-averse, patients should be pushing for their data to be used to ensure that the data collected actually reflects their communities. “I think there’s almost a call to arms,” Dr. Bloomfield said. “People can get protective about sharing or use of their data, but it’s important that we do contribute. By being a data donor, we can ensure that the solutions generated can help us, our families, our broader communities, and we need to be a part of that. It’s not a passive process.”

Establishing stronger working relationships

At the end of the day, technological advances in the field of healthcare should help accomplish a number of objectives, not the least of which includes allowing providers to focus less on documentation and turning to a computer and more on turning to their patients and providing guidance and coaching to drive better outcomes for care, said Yoder. “Patients are worrying about each part of their healthcare journey, but [healthcare] companies can make the process more seamless for them through greater partnerships, either with government, other companies or start-ups,” Sassman added.

Sassman also points to the differences in the breast cancer discovery process between developed and developing nations as an example. In the U.S. and Germany, for example, five to six percent of women are diagnosed with breast cancer at the metastatic stage, compared to 70 percent of women in developing areas like Africa and Vietnam. “There are opportunities to bring these women in earlier through partnerships we can set up with the governments, and through technologies like AI,” she said. “Throughout partnerships across the continuum of care, we can provide more for women and their families in all societies.”

As innovation in healthcare continues to bring advantages to patients, women within the field continue to keep their eye on what’s really important to provide an all-around valuable experience. “I’m inspired by looking at the tech industry and how they’ve taken the leap into trying new business models,” said Sassman. “Now is the time to do that in healthcare, with something more focused on the patient, and how we can bring forward that continuum of care that’s better for them. If we keep that patient in the center, and continue to collaborate with others around the table, I truly believe we can make things much better for women and for our societies.”

For more on the state of women in healthcare, and the advances they are helping to bring to the filed, check out the full International Women's Day “Choose To Challenge” panel, sponsored by GE, right here.


[1] Stone T. Southerlan E. Women Make Up 65 Percent of Health Care Workers—but Only 13 Percent of CEOs. Why? Marsh McClennan. 1 Apr 2019.

[2] Wentz-Graff K. Women responsible for most health decisions in the home. OHSU News. 11-May-2017.