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Henry Ford Health System CSO Outlines Healthcare Equity Strategies

Analysis  |  By Melanie Blackman  
   May 06, 2021

Dr. Carladenise Edwards, executive vice president and chief strategy officer at Henry Ford Health System, shares the organization’s initiatives around healthcare equity, her accomplishments as a healthcare executive, and advice for future leaders.

Editor's note: This conversation is a transcript from an episode of the HealthLeaders Women in Healthcare Leadership Podcast. Audio of the interview can be found here.

For Dr. Carladenise Edwards, who currently serves as executive vice president and chief strategy officer at Henry Ford Health System (HFHS), her career has been defined by roles in various aspects of the healthcare sector for nearly 30 years.

Long before she joined the Detroit-based integrated, nonprofit healthcare organization, Edwards started her journey as a policy analyst for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Over time, Edwards climbed the corporate ladder, serving as executive vice president and chief strategy officer at Providence St. Joseph Health. Prior to that role, she served as chief strategy officer for Alameda Health System alongside HFHS' current CEO, Wright Lassiter III.

She joined HFHS in July 2020, where she provides executive counsel and leadership for the system’s strategic planning efforts as well as partnership ventures, business development and transformation initiatives, government affairs, and Henry Ford Innovations.

Dr. Carladenise Edwards, executive vice president and chief strategy officer at Henry Ford Health System (Photo courtesy of Henry Ford Health System)

In this episode of the HealthLeaders Women in Healthcare Leadership Podcast, Edwards shares HFHS' initiatives around healthcare equity, her accomplishments as a healthcare leader, and advice for future leaders.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

HealthLeaders: When we spoke in early July 2020, before you started your role with HFHS, you spoke about your passion for providing equitable, accessible care to the diverse community that the organization serves. What has the health system accomplished over the last year around disparities and providing equitable healthcare?

Carladenise Edwards: [HFHS], like many of our brothers and sister organizations across the country, has doubled down on trying to figure out the way in which we can tackle and, in essence, eliminate health disparities.

Many of us deep in the trenches knew this before, but COVID brought to the forefront the inequity in healthcare outcomes for various populations, including people of color and the poor.

[HFHS] has been laser-focused on:

  • Identifying what some of the root causes are of those inequities, specifically for COVID, but also for other diseases.
  • Creating a plan and strategy that's a little bit different than what's been done.

In the past, we've looked at ways in which we've adopted policy or implemented new processes or procedures that would change the trajectory of care. We still need to do that.

But we also need to be clear on what the status is for disease states and communities so that we can set a goal for eliminating the gap: outcomes for white women versus Black women as it relates to dying in childbirth, for obesity rates among those in the Hispanic community relative to those in the white community. Also, [we’re] looking at things like violence and the perpetuation of violence in communities against communities, particularly with what we're seeing with Asian hate.

It's been my pleasure to work with a rock star team of people, led by our chief diversity officer, Dr. Kimberly Dawn Wisdom, and our CEO, Wright Lassiter. We're laser-focused on making sure we know what the numbers are and then creating real direct policies, programs, and inspiring collaboration to close those gaps in health disparities between communities of color in Detroit and the surrounding areas that we serve.

HL: What upcoming initiatives are being contemplated by HFHS and what are the strategies behind those?

Edwards: Some of those strategies deal with the social determinants of health (SDOH) if we're talking specifically about strategies related to addressing health inequity. The SDOH are things like transportation and the inability to get to and from appointments, living in food deserts or communities that don't have access to healthy or affordable food, and even things like the environment or living in a place that's safe.

One of the things that we're doing here at HFHS is working in partnership with the community to figure out what are the indicators and determinants of poor health outcomes and then how do we work to address those. Everything from partnerships with the grocery stores and local markets, to working with the city in an initiative called Connect 313 to ensure there's broadband access and internet access, as well as access to the physical devices that are needed to schedule an appointment online or to have a virtual visit.

HL: You've served in healthcare for almost 30 years, what are some of your greatest accomplishments in healthcare policy?

Edwards: I think about my accomplishments not that often or that frequently, but I'll be reminded of them when I get a phone call, or a LinkedIn post, or a tweet from somebody that I worked with, or worked for, who's rocking it. For me, my greatest accomplishments and pride come from looking at folks that I've had the opportunity to mentor, coach, or promote, who are exceeding me in their careers and exceeding my expectations.

I've also had the benefit and privilege of doing small tactical things.

When I worked in Georgia, and I worked for a phenomenal leader, Dr. Rhonda Medows, who was the commissioner for the Department of Community Health. We got a chance to add hearing aids and audiology as a benefit to the state employee health program and the Medicaid program. I have a son and a husband who [are both] deaf, so something as small as being able to add that as a covered benefit brings me great pride.

HL: What has been your experience as a woman working in healthcare leadership? If applicable, what hurdles have you faced and overcome?

Edwards: Having worked for many organizations: government, nonprofit, public, Catholic healthcare, etc., I've learned a lot as a female.

There's not a lot of us up here in the corner offices. Most offices are filled by men. There are some good organizations like [HFHS], which has a very diverse and warm executive leadership team. I also had the privilege of having quite a few female peers when I worked at Providence St. Joseph Health. Our leader there, Dr. Rod Hochman, was adamant about women serving in leadership.

Getting in the door is a challenge, staying in the door is a challenge, but being able to provide a perspective and a worldview that changes the strategy or the trajectory of the organization for the good. I think the benefit of having a diverse leadership team is not whether you're male or female, black or white, it's having a difference of opinion, a difference of experience, and perspective that forces a conversation that ensures you've considered all the options. I don't think you can do that if you're a monolithic team.

For women, we struggle with getting in the room, we struggle with staying in the room, but we often struggle, too, with representing the interest of other women, of diverse populations, and different perspectives, because many of us got in the room because they think we think like men.  They think we can perhaps behave or perform like men, or with a level of discretion that's symbolic of a male's kind of genotype. We think we must behave a certain way in order to get in the room and stay in the room.

I think that the biggest challenge is bringing your unique experience to the boardroom, to the discussion, and enabling that to help shape the trajectory of the business in a positive way. It's hard work.

HL: What advice do you have for women who want to serve in leadership roles in healthcare and beyond?

Edwards: My advice to other women is to be courageous, to be brave, but also to have a little bit of fun, and not take yourself too seriously. We only have so few moments on the planet, and so few moments to connect with one another in a meaningful way.

We need to take every opportunity we get. If we're focused on success and climbing the corporate ladder and getting to the next position or getting to the next role, you miss out on the joys and the lessons and the pleasure of the role that you're in. You need to enjoy where you are right now because tomorrow's not promised.

“Getting in the door is a challenge, staying in the door is a challenge, but being able to provide a perspective and a worldview that changes the strategy or the trajectory of the organization for the good.”

Melanie Blackman is the strategy editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.

Photo credit: Henry Ford Health System Cancer Institute (Photo courtesy of Henry Ford Health System)

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