From registered nurse to influential healthcare leader, Anika Gardenhire’s rise has been remarkable. The Assistant Vice-President of Digital Transformation at Intermountain Healthcare talks diversity and inclusion in the MedTech industry and the challenges she’s overcome. By Hazel Tang.
Even as a child, Anika Gardenhire had grand ambitions. “I remember my mom and grandmother asking me what I wanted to do and I replied, “I want to be the attorney- general of the United States.” she laughs. “My mom would say, “You think you can be anything, don’t you?” and I would simply answer, yes.”
Gardenhire, 36, firmly believes this is one of the fundamental things we can do for young people. “If they have a huge ambition or goal, tell them how hard it may be to get there. But at the same time, tell them, if you’re willing to do the work, you can get there. And you will make it.”
Having a motivational figure in the family certainly makes a significant difference. “Even my grandparents who had lived in a different era and experienced things that would make me cringe now, helped me understand that I may have to work harder than others and not all doors would be open for me,” she says. “I had ‘The Talk’ not once but many times. In fact, I still have to have it with myself on those days when I come out of a meeting feeling not heard, or when some micro-aggression catches me off guard. I always remember my grandparents telling me, “If the door is not open, take down that door. Climb through the windows if you have to but don’t walk away.”
On another occasion, Gardenhire went home to South Carolina for her Aunt Mae’s funeral. It was a beautiful celebration of life and time with the family and members of her aunt’s high- school graduating class were there to pay their respects. After the funeral, Gardenhire talked to her mom on the journey home, and was stunned to learn that her aunt had attended high school when it was still segregated. “I knew Aunt Mae was one of those women who would not mind kicking down a closed door but I had such a better understanding of the stories she told me when I was growing up after hearing the solemn tributes her all-black classmates paid her during the service.”
Gardenhire tells how her aunt had worked for Sprint, the telecommunication company that provides wireless and internet services, for more than 20 years and how she probably was the first woman in technology she had ever met. Gardenhire would listen to her stories about the struggles she had at work as her career progressed and how she became one of the first black female supervisors. “It’s not until you sit in a seat like the one that I currently occupy that you can begin to understand the work of opening doors and creating new spaces. My Aunt Mae and an incredible number of women like her opened the doors that I was able to walk through.
I truly hope I can do the same for the next generation of amazingly talented women of color.”
Indeed, as an African American female, taking up a leadership role in a big organisation is something which many previous generations could only dream of. Gardenhire said she “brings” those generations of her family and community to work with her every day. In spite of our advances from telegraph to Twitter, women, especially women of color, struggle substantially behind men for representation in leadership positions. The Center for American Progress described it as ‘an uneven and imperfect revolution’.
In 2017, Scientific American reported only 5% of managerial jobs in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) went to African American females. After the 2016 departure of Ursula Burns as the Chief Executive Officer of Xerox Corp, there are currently no black women heading any Fortune 500 Companies. Gardenhire recognises the gap here. “I think we are progressing but we’re not there yet.
We are still in a place where womenand minorities are not getting the same level of funding and opportunities entering big tech companies and that’s really tough. It won’t just happen, it will take real work to fix it.”
That’s why Gardenhire believes in the importance of building a community; something which females and minorities can do for one another. She cites the kind of support she has received from various female leaders as her career progressed. She continues to be grateful to those who hired her for her first leadership role and help lay the foundation of who she is as a leader today. Gardenhire firmly believes these people taught her things that she wouldn’t have learnt on any leadership course and enabled her to look up to them and see a reflection of herself. “It’s amazing to have those women who are interested in your growth and willing to put you under their wings,” she says. “I continue to have amazing mentors surrounding me and hope to always.”
Nevertheless, Gardenhire also gives credit to the male leaders who want to see her succeed, like her present boss who, understanding her need to be part of a bigger community, has given her space and mentorship. “It’s about inclusivity,” she states firmly. “I believe we will do great things if we start having inclusive conversations. We need to know people as people, understand their experiences, and what they carry with them. It’s harder to exclude or make people feel undervalued when they genuinely like being around each other.”
On the other hand, Gardenhire never denies the challenges she had to face while progressing from a registered nurse to a healthcare leader. She talks openly about her love of working
with patients on the hospital wards, and how rewarding it was to see and experience the positive impact that had on patients and their families. However, it was only when she was given her first opportunity to guide other nurses that she realised she had the capability to create more of an impact and be of more service. “I quickly realised I could be a servant leader, to positively influence other healthcare workers, allowing them to support many other patients and their families.”
With technology, the ripple effect and impact a person can have on the lives of others is exponential. “That is one of the reasons I love it,” she says. “But that truth makes it even more important to ensure representation. Since technology is created by people it can have bias which is scary. In healthcare it’s even scarier!” Indeed, technology in healthcare especially has the ability to be incredibly positive or detrimental, not just in one individual or family but for entire population segments.
In 2015, Gardenhire oversaw the consulting teams during the deployment of an electronic health record (EHR) system in all the 23 Intermountain Healthcare hospitals and over 170 clinics. Known as iCentra, the system integrates EHR, practice management and revenue cycle configured by both Intermountain Healthcare and Cerner, one of the most significant suppliers of health information technology solutions in the US. It was not only the end of the illegible-handwriting-on-medical- records era, but also the beginning of a generation shift.
“We are truly at the very beginning of our digital transformation journey,” says Gardenhire. “We’re just beginning to see an infinite landscape as we understand the many opportunities that are offered to us in supporting the decisions of clinicians. It’s really wonderful to contemplate the positive impacts that technology has had in healthcare, particularly when we think about the kind of care we can provide for patients.”
But she also warns of not indulging too many technologies and transformations simultaneously. “We must ensure we bring the people along with us. Transformation is not about new technology but people. It’s about patients and caregivers doing something different tomorrow than they did today because we have new enablers through the technology. We have to be more careful when we engage with startups. Vendors should think differently when they enter the healthcare market. I just cannot think of anything more serious than health. It’s life or death. We have the benefit of being able to watch other sectors such as fintech and retail and we should learn from their early mistakes and successes.”
Gardenhire also highlights the fact there is a generation growing up in a digital age and the current make-up of technology experiences in healthcare may not meet their expectations. Children are now learning about digital literacy in grade school. Coupled with the challenges of the lack of diversity in the industry, there is a need to think about the type of work environment that will facilitate the recruitment and retainment of the next generation of talent.
Gardenhire believes she is sandwiched between two eras. The generation before her would have devoted their entire life to moving upward while the next generation may not be willing to dedicate the same time in order to grow. “It’s something we need to recognise and respect,” she says. “People always talk about building a pipeline but what will happen once it’s built. In some cases it has been built but we have not created inclusive work environments.. You can start by being mindful and conscious about the needs of the new generation, as well as hiring for diversity and inclusion. Ultimately, healthcare is about creating safe spaces and listening for the needs and expectations of others.”
She also wishes to encourage those who want to occupy spaces where there is no representation that looks or thinks like they do. Her recommendation is to try everything and find leaders or mentors who are going to challenge you. Meanwhile, it is also crucial to understand the value of experiences, count your blessing and be humble. “When someone gives you the benefit of their experience, pause and listen and try to digest it,” she says softly. “You’d be surprised at the huge difference that can make.”