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Henry Ford Health System's New CSO: How Healthcare Can Address Health Disparities and Inequities

By Melanie Blackman  
   July 09, 2020

Dr. Carladenise Edwards shares how she hopes to implement strategies for equitable, accessible care for the health system's diverse communities.

Healthcare disparities is an important topic at Michigan-based Henry Ford Health System, which has a research collaborative focused on "understanding both the mechanisms by which provider and patient-related factors contribute to health disparities and how health care systems can be the driving force in developing and implementing methods for their elimination."

Just last month, the health system announced it signed a letter of intent with Michigan State University to expand its current partnership to collaborate on healthcare disparities.

This focus is also important to Henry Ford's new Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer, Dr. Carladenise Edwards, who is passionate about providing equitable, accessible care to the diverse community the health system serves.

Edwards has worked in and out of the public sector on healthcare policy for almost 30 years. In her most recent role, she served as executive vice president and chief strategy officer at Providence St. Joseph Health. In the past, she's also served as chief strategy officer for Alameda Health System alongside Henry Ford Health System's current CEO Wright Lassiter III.

Edwards, who starts her new role with Henry Ford Health System on July 13, recently spoke to HealthLeaders about what she hopes to accomplish and how her education and career background helped prepare her for this role.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Carladenise Edwards, senior vice president, chief strategy officer, Henry Ford Health Systems (Photo courtesy of Henry Ford Health Systems)

HealthLeaders: What has your experience been working in healthcare leadership as a woman?

Carladenise Edwards: It can be challenging at times, particularly for me because of the role that I play. As a person who's been on the transactional side of healthcare, I am almost always the only female in the room in a negotiation, or when facilitating a strategy session with executives and board members; often the only person of color.

What it requires is to be on your A-game all the time. We have no choice, as women and people of color, other than to be exceptional. Often be ‘overqualified and credentialed,’ just to get your foot in the door. But then at the same time, we also have to be incredibly thoughtful about how we represent our gender and our race, and to be intentional about the relationships we build with a diverse group of people who can be supporters and advocates for us in our work. That often includes men, and white men, and building strong relationships and allies is so important to being successful.

It's a challenge at times, but I don't think it's insurmountable. I do find there are times where women want to retreat and I say "don't retreat; don't retreat, don't quit. Get back in there. Keep going." Because I'm cheering everyone on, and I am managing my female colleagues up, and I'm trying to create opportunities for them and the next generation of women that's behind us.

HL: What is your healthcare background and what inspired you to work in healthcare as a leader?

Edwards: I'm actually an epidemiologist. I studied medical sociology at the University of Florida, which is where I got my PhD. And then I [finished] two additional certifications: one in neuroscience at the University of Leuven in Belgium and the other one in life course development at UCLA.

My intention was to be in the policy arena to understand, and then appreciate, how politics, economics, and the environment influence health and well-being, and what kind of policies need to be put in place so that we can eliminate the disparities that exist between us.

It was my thesis that those disparities were not innate based on biology, but they were based on all these external factors. So that was what I thought I was going to do when I grew up; I was going to be an academic and do research that influenced policy and push for agendas that would change the trajectory in the life course for primarily people of color. Then I got tapped to work in Washington D.C as a Presidential Management Intern to work on healthcare policy specifically focused on mental health and aging.

From there, [my journey] just weaved up, down, and all around.

I've been in and out of government doing policy work. I've been in and out of the private sector doing strategy and business development for both technology companies and healthcare companies that wanted to implement new ways of managing and delivering care. Then I've been in the delivery system. My work has always been around health in life course development.

What's exciting about Henry Ford is that I get to do all of that. It's a not-for-profit organization that's well-positioned to influence policy because of their reputation and the way in which the Fords influence our economy and government. It's also an opportunity to do some real strategy around community health and how care is delivered in such a diverse community, from Detroit all the way up in Ann Arbor; from Lansing and across.

I'm excited because I find that I'm in a place that I can actually do a little bit of everything based on all the skills that I've acquired over the course of my career. I'm an academic as well, so they have academic affiliations, a strong research institute, and they recruit some of the brightest scientists and physicians and clinicians around the world. I'm giddy just thinking about it.

HL: What are you most excited for with your new role as senior vice president and chief strategy officer of Henry Ford Health System?

Edwards: The first thing that comes to mind is the word "innovation." It's being in an organization that is committed to discovering and implementing new ways of delivering care, addressing healthcare inequity, and trying to eliminate disparities and outcomes. Being in an organization that is committed to doing things in new ways, which is the history of the organization, is what has me excited.

The other thing is the people. CEO Lassiter, [who] I have had the benefit of working with in the past, is just an incredible leader. Kind, just, integrous, and fully committed to success into excellence. He's inspired by helping people be their best selves, so, the leadership team is a reflection of that.

HL: With starting this new position during the COVID pandemic, how has that affected the interview process?

Edwards: Well, if it weren't for COVID, it's likely I wouldn't be making this transition. I'm fortunate and blessed that an opportunity to do what I do, and love, became available at this time. It's a blessing and a curse for me. The curse being that the department that I ran at Providence [St. Joseph Health] was eliminated because of COVID-related budget constraints. But then a new opportunity presented itself at Henry Ford, an organization that believes that strategy is imperative to helping them figure out how to get through the implications of COVID. And then you just add on top of that the civil unrest, which makes it even more critical that we are sensitive, empathetic, and action oriented around coming out of COVID and through COVID in a way that doesn't further disenfranchise and disadvantage the poor and the vulnerable.

HL: What are some short-term strategic initiatives you're looking forward to implement related to the pandemic?

Edwards: One of the things that I strongly believe is that the outcomes we want to achieve have to be clearly defined based on the circumstances. From there, you identify the right strategies and approaches to get to those outcomes. I'm coming into an organization that's grounded, mature, and has achieved a certain level of excellence, and so for me, my starting date is finding out where we are now, what are the goals that the organization has put forth pre-COVID and now since we've experienced COVID. Then, how do we go about implementing the right strategies to achieve those goals?

Personally, [I want] to make sure that, nationally, this country is on a trajectory to live with the current infectious diseases and to be able to better manage and cope with the threat of future infectious diseases, because this is not the end. It's the beginning of a series of events that will become a normal for the planet, which is how do viruses and humans cohabitate in a planet where resources are becoming more and more scarce.

Our global economy is driving much more interaction and connectivity between people and people, animals and animals, humans and animals, than we've ever seen in the past. Personally, I am excited about thinking through how Henry Ford positions itself in a global economy, so that we can be part of the solution as it relates to the country being able to prepare itself to fight future viruses and prevent future pandemics from occurring.

HL: You mentioned healthcare inequity and disparities and outcomes of health. Are there other topics that you're personally interested in and invested in as well?

Edwards: Healthcare economics. In addition to making sure everyone can get equitable access to care that results in outcomes that are consistent with the treatment that they receive, and racism, and poverty, and disparities, I'm interested in ensuring that we think deeply and critically about how do we sustain that healthcare system that provides equitable, accessible care. Our current healthcare economics are broken. The system of healthcare does not exist in a way that delivers on what our country should be able to deliver on, which is a healthy workforce. It just doesn't make sense that we can be one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with some of the wealthiest people in the world, but we can't figure out a way to have a healthy citizenry in a workforce and healthy environments.

Related: Nearly Two-Thirds of Employers Focusing More on SDOH Because of Racial Unrest

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“In addition to making sure everyone can get equitable access to care ... I'm interested in ensuring that we think deeply and critically about how do we sustain that healthcare system that provides equitable, accessible care.”

Melanie Blackman is the strategy editor at HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.

Photo credit: DETROIT, MI-MAY, 2015: The Henry Ford Health System is one of the largest medical providers in the Detroit area. This is the original hospital where it was founded by Henry Ford. / Editorial credit: James R. Martin /


Dr. Edwards' background in policy, contracting, and business strategy helped prepare her for her new role with Henry Ford Health System.

Often the only woman and person of color in the room, she tries to create opportunities for others.

Social and economic disparities are some of her key areas of focus.

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