CHOP CEO Madeline Bell Explains Why Women Shouldn’t Leave Healthcare


Madeline Bell, BSN, is the CEO of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which recently made Forbes’ 2021 listing of the best employers for women. She spoke with Becker October 14 on the notable ranking, as well as his recent conversation with President Joe Biden regarding the mental health crisis facing America’s children’s hospitals.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

Question: CHOP was recently named one of Forbes’ Top Employers for Women. What protocols and practices do you think helped CHOP make this list?

Madeline Bell: First of all, I’m incredibly proud and I was actually very surprised about it, and as the first female CEO in our history, it’s really important for me to have such recognition. Our workforce is 77 percent women. So it makes me really proud that we got this recognition, and I think that’s the result of several things. There are programs that we have here at CHOP that are really focused on improving the experience that women have here, like very good paid parental leave programs, breastfeeding support. We have pods and nursing chambers everywhere. [We have] our employee resource group and many wellness programs that promote work-life balance.

When I became CEO six years ago, there were no women in the management ranks. There were only a few. And so now we’re almost 60 percent female in our executive ranks and 63 percent female physicians. So having this opportunity to show women that there is a female CEO and that there are opportunities for advancement – I started my career as a staff nurse – so I think that’s really important. And also diversity and inclusion have been an important part of my platform.

So I would say all of these programs are important, but what is really important is that the CEO, the leader, stand up and say that we are a stronger organization with a diverse team and women representing our leadership.

Q: What advice do you have for women in the health field?

Mo: I would tell women, and I tell women, not to quit health care. So many women are leaving the workforce right now, especially in the health field. And I would tell them that there are a lot of opportunities and flexibility in a career in healthcare, whatever it is. You can be on the supplier side, you can be on the insurance side, you can work in pharmacy, life sciences, health policy. There are so many opportunities. [My advice is] not to limit yourself to your current career, but to think more broadly about healthcare, and because healthcare is so dominated by women and many consumer decisions regarding healthcare are made by women , it is really important to have women leaders in the field of health.

Q: Why do you think so many women are leaving the industry?

Mo: I think part of that has to do with child care responsibilities, and I really think that’s a function of the pandemic, frankly. And I think there are two things. One is child care and other family responsibilities that have happened throughout the pandemic, but I also think it’s made a lot of people step back and really rethink their lives and careers. In doing this, I want them to realize that there are ways to continue to embark on a career in healthcare, but maybe to have more flexibility.

Q: Do you think those who left healthcare will come back once things get back to normal, regardless of this new normal?

Mo: I guess I’m an optimistic person and would say yes. I heard a quote from Press CEO Ganey that 30% of nurses are considering leaving the workforce, and I was so worried about it. Nursing is a career, and I can speak to it personally, that gives you so many flexible options whether you’re at the bedside or not. I believe the nurses who have left will resume their careers. I think this has just been [an incredibly challenging time]. Think about it: so many people in the world are working from home and nurses are at the bedside 24/7 without any relief. I hope we all have some empathy for nursing and the nursing profession.

Q: What about other staff outside of nursing who left because it got too much. Do you think they will come back too?

Mo: I think so. I really do. What calls people to health care is to be a part of mission-oriented work and to make a difference in people’s lives, and I think that call doesn’t go away. I would like to focus on all of the people who have stayed and still are here, and congratulate them for navigating how difficult it has been, time and time again, through the multiple waves of this pandemic.

Q: What are some of the trends you notice at CHOP regarding pediatric patients and mental illness?

Mo: This is probably one of our biggest challenges, the significant increase in the number of children who have emotional, mental and behavioral problems like anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. It is a serious concern. Mid-September, I had the opportunity to [participate] during a small group chat with President Biden, and I wanted to make sure I let him know that the pandemic has really exacerbated a problem we already had with kids with behavioral health issues. So I think there is a lot that can be done. We are, I think, woefully behind as a country in preventing children from having such severe experiences of anxiety, depression and suicide that they end up in hospital. And so there are a lot of things we need to do as a country.

One of the things we do [at CHOP] integrates therapists into each of our primary care practices, so that there is support readily available for families. We are in the process of building 46 pediatric psychiatric beds. I wish we didn’t need to have a crisis center. Like I said, I feel like there is so much we need to do to invest in prevention, but we’re not there yet as a country, and so we have to see and respond to children who have the most severe crisis.

Q: What are your top three goals and priorities for CHOP over the next year?

Mo: One of them really focuses on an employer brand and focuses on recruiting and retention. We’re also opening a new hospital, a second hospital campus, which is pretty exciting and can’t come soon enough because all of the children’s hospitals, including ours, are very, very, very busy. And then on the research side, we are really doubling our implementation of cell and gene therapy strategy. So these are just a few points that I am focusing on.