On Modern Healthcare panel, T. Ruth Chang, MD, discusses women, work, and family during COVID-19

During Modern Healthcare magazine’s recent “Women Leaders in Healthcare Conference,” Northwest Permanente Chief People Officer T. Ruth Chang, MD, described the experience of many female health care workforce during the pandemic, an event that led many to leave their jobs to care for children and older or sick family members.

Headshot of Ruth Chang, MD
T. Ruth Chang, MD

“I’ll say one word that sums it up: overwhelmed,” said Dr. Chang, a participant in the “‘Shecession’: Resilience of Female Workforce in the Wake of Pandemic” panel. “That was the one word that emerged when we asked our staff in Northwest Permanente and across all of the Permanente Medical Groups at our Women in Medicine conference [in June], where we built a word cloud and asked attendees to put in one word that describes how they felt.”

Dr. Chang shared factors contributing to the choice of “overwhelmed” as the word to describe how many health care workers, including men, are feeling.

“In the practice of medicine,” she said, “everyone is feeling overwhelmed by the incredible complexity of taking care of patients during the pandemic, where the information is ever-evolving, ever-changing.”

In addition, Dr. Chang said health care workers have ongoing worries about life and work decisions, which could be potentially lifesaving or life-ending. “It was really overwhelming for our staff, particularly for women who tend to take a disproportionate burden of the emotional work and the domestic work for their families.”

To alleviate some of the burden during the height of the pandemic, when many child care and day care centers were closed, Dr. Chang said Kaiser Permanente offered a $200 per week child-care stipend for each full-time, patient-facing employee with children either aged 13 years or younger or with adult children who have disabilities requiring full-time care.

She added that flexible work hours helped alleviate some of the burden for administrative colleagues.

During virtual meetings Dr. Chang recalled seeing colleagues’ children coming in and asking homework questions. “We also knew some of my colleagues could not meet from early morning because they had to get their kids ready to log online [for school], so we worked with that. Flexibility was really important.”