This Fresh Take interview featured Ruth Williams-Brinkley, Regional President of Kaiser Permanente (Mid-Atlantic states). Ruth joined Francesca Ioffreda (VP, Inclusive Growth & Talent Initiatives) to discuss supporting inclusive growth initiatives, Kaiser’s role in the community, and the importance of mental health.
Hosted by Francesca Ioffreda. Produced by Jenna Klym, Ramir Cena, , Nina Sharma, and Christian Rodriguez. Edited by Christian Rodriguez. and Ramir Cena
Learn from leaders doing the work across the Capital Region and beyond. These conversations will showcase innovation, as well as history and culture across our region, to bridge the gap between how we got here and where we are going.
About our guest:
Ruth Williams-Brinkley is president of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Mid-Atlantic States, Inc. In this role, Williams-Brinkley oversees all of Kaiser Permanente’s care delivery and health plan operations in Washington, D.C., and suburban Maryland, Baltimore, and Northern Virginia. The Mid-Atlantic States Region operates 36 medical office buildings and has 825,288 members.
Williams-Brinkley has more than 40 years of executive experience in health care. She joined Kaiser Permanente in November 2017, serving as president of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Hospitals of the Northwest. She oversaw all of Kaiser Permanente’s care delivery and health plan operations in Oregon and markets in Vancouver and Longview/Kelso, Washington.
Prior to that, she served as CEO of KentuckyOne Health, Kentucky’s largest integrated health system. KentuckyOne was a division of CommonSpirit Health, one of the nation’s largest nonprofit health systems.
Before joining KentuckyOne, Williams-Brinkley served as president and CEO of Carondelet Health Network in Tucson, Arizona, and as president and CEO of Memorial Healthcare System in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Williams-Brinkley serves on the boards of Travere Therapeutics, DePaul University, University of Phoenix, and the Clinical Center Research Hospital Board of the National Institutes of Health. She has been recognized by Modern Healthcare as one of the 100 Most Influential Leaders in Healthcare, one of the Top 25 Women in Healthcare, and one of the Top 25 Minority Executives in Healthcare, as well as one of Becker’s most admired CEOs in health care.
She holds a bachelor’s degree and Master of Science degree from De Paul University, and an honorary doctoral degree from Spaulding University in Louisville, Kentucky.
Francesca Ioffreda 0:13
Good morning and welcome to fresh take a virtual interview series hosted by the Greater Washington partnership that features business and community leaders who are taking action to power inclusive growth across our region. My name is Francesco Ioffreda. And I oversee the partnerships inclusive growth and skills and talent work. And today, I'm so honored and thrilled to be joined by Ruth Williams, frankly, a business and community leader, a mentor, a friend and an overall outstanding person. So Ruth, thank you for being here today. I won't steal Roos thunder, because we could spend the whole time sharing her accolades and accomplishments. But to provide a brief background, Ruth is the president of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan in hospitals of the Mid Atlantic states. In this role, she oversees all of Kaiser permanent his care delivery and health plan operations in Washington DC, suburban Maryland, Baltimore and Northern Virginia. Ruth has more than 40 years of executive experience in health care. She joined Kaiser Permanente in 2017, and served as the president of the Northwest. Prior to that she was CEO of KentuckyOne. Health, Kentucky's largest integrated health system reserves on a number of boards, including DePaul University, the University of Phoenix and the clinical center research hospital board of the National Institutes of Health. And she's received a number of awards and recognition, including being one of the top 25 Women in healthcare, one of the top 25 minority executives in healthcare, and one of the most admired CEOs in healthcare. So as you can see, very excited for today's discussion. And at the partnership, we are so thrilled to have been working with Ruth and the Kaiser team on our inclusive growth work. They've been a core member of our inclusive growth strategy Council, and they're just so foundational to this region's economic development. So Ruth, welcome to today's program. We're delighted to have you here. So let's go ahead and jump into our conversation, because we have a lot to cover. So, Ruth, for our guests listening here today who may not know you, well, can you tell us a little bit about your early career as a nurse and your pivot to healthcare administration, you've worked across the country, in healthcare and as an Executive leader in the field. So we'd love to just know a little bit more about your career path and what brought you to this region relatively recently.
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 2:47
Thank you, Francesca. And it is such a pleasure to be with you today. It is it you just bring out so much in your guests. And and I just want to thank you. And before I tell you, finance your question, I also want to congratulate you on the tremendous event last week, it was truly truly an honor to join you Vice President Harris, Secretary rimando and so many others, as you announced its historic commitment in support of underrepresented people. So thank you. Thank you. Thank you. So returning to your question about my background in Germany. Um, I grew up in rural Georgia in the segregated south, really, my family sheltered me from logic what was happening at the time, my grandmother was a teacher. And also, I think she just inner wisdom just jumped at us, Milan, where I grew up, and Howard grew up, I wasn't aware as aware. In retrospect, design should have been probably inequities and what we know today, however, today, as I look back, I can see there were many that existed. I went into nursing at the encouragement of my grandmother, she saw my passion for helping people and caring for the whole person and their families. And so, as many of us do, I've worked my way up the ladder from being a bedside nurse and taking on nursing leadership responsibilities, becoming a Chief Nurse and then becoming a Chief Executive Officer of Health System. Um, aye. Aye. All along the way. I did I have to say I felt some uncertainty with each new opportunity that we all have our insecurities. However, inside of that, I learned the value of saying yes to every single opportunity. I learned to never turn down an opportunity. My grandmother's still then and be alone with hard work. And I've done that consistently through my career and fortunately it is certainly well, now in keeping with that, between being a teeth nurse and teeth Executive Officer I had a took a role as a consulting consultant role of professional services, which gave me an important business background and experience that I didn't have as a Chief Nurse. So I that helped to round out. And I moved from providing care to overseeing the delivery of high quality care for for many reasons. So we have the influence the opportunity to influence more as a CEO, and leading the health system, I've been able to make a decision and take strict decisions and take strategic actions to help grow access to care for more people. So it's been good. I'm really proud of the work I've done. I'm proud of the people I've worked with, because you and I both know, and oh, smart that nobody does this alone. It takes a village. It really takes everybody. So I'm really pleased with that. And that's how I ended up being at Kaiser. Wow,
Francesca Ioffreda 6:25
Thank you so much for sharing a little bit about kind of your personal journey and your professional journey. You've clearly touched so many dimensions of the healthcare ecosystem. So you moved to this region in June 2020, during the height of the pandemic, so can you talk to us a little bit about your role at Kaiser during that time, and your goals as you read as you lead a new region and a workforce kind of during the the pandemic?
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 6:25
Yes. Well, I Yes, I did come here at the height of the pandemic. And let me just say, just getting on an airplane at that time was was quite a challenge. But I did it and, and it was a uniquely challenging time. It was essential to stem the tide of COVID of the COVID-19 infections. And we were all sort of a little bit frightened. We didn't really know what to do, science was evolving. And fortunately, we were working with amazing professionals, infectious diseases, disease professionals, it just was just a very interesting time, probably the most interesting time of my entire life. We had COVID-19, we had social injustice, we had economic crises, we have racism. And so it was a convergence of so many factors at once. And, and so we stayed Nam, nimble and follow the evolving guidance on care and infection prevention from the CDC, from our local and jurisdictional Health Department. And we also saw an increase incidence of social justice around the country against against many people, including memories of power. Unfortunately, all of this made it more important for me to be a strong leader as I entered this market. From my perspective, this strength equated to the business community and being steady, being steady for employees been steady for those who depended on us for care in a time of uncertainty. And with so much in flux, I was determined to demonstrate that steadiness to make sure that people knew that while we didn't know what was evolving in terms of the science, that that we would follow the science and that we continue to provide health care. And let me tell you, it was really important that that we were surrounded by some expert professionals on infectious disease professionals to nationally, certainly at the CDC and locally here at the NIH and so forth. But also our Permanente Medical professionals, it was really important that we work with them. And I can't say enough for how they worked with us to make sure our communities knew that we continue to take care of them, that we did not less than our commitment to equity, and that we worked with our jurisdictional leaders. It was a time of coming together. And as hard as it was, it really gave me the opportunity. And finally we'll meet people that I probably wouldn't have met for many months later. So as an important final thought on this particular topic, topic, I would be remiss if I didn't recognize everyone who push through this pandemic. And of course, I don't want to act like it's gone yet. We hope it's gone what we're seeing. But of course our frontline workers are nothing short of heroic. They were there for all of us. Many unfortunately got COVID themselves from the community and so forth. They hung in there. Just so proud of our folks, all of them acquisitions, acquisitions everybody, because we would not have been able to do this without them.
Francesca Ioffreda 6:25
Absolutely Ruth and I think your comments encapsulated so the confluence of factors that made the past two years such a challenge Gene time and especially to be at the helm of such an important kind of health IT health crisis. So we add there is the region are just grateful to have you at the helm and, and leading these efforts. And thank you to all the health care professionals for the tireless work throughout the pandemic. We would not be where we are today without their commitment and dedication. And I know as we go on, we're going to talk about some of the mental health questions which are so important during this time. Well, pivoting again, Ruth, I know Kaiser plays such a huge role in local communities, whether that's through small business support, providing access to capital to underserved communities, making financial investments, advocating for transportation projects, Kaiser has truly embedded itself in the community through these programs through initiatives to create a better way of life for residents. So can you talk to us a little bit about Kaiser's investments and communities and why that work is so important as we think about social determinants of health and your organization.
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 7:02
Francesca just a thank you for raising this issue. Because we know that while we we work with our with our members and our communities to take care of their health needs. We know that people don't live in our offices, they don't live in our facilities, they live in their communities. And so social determinants of health become hugely important to this work. And the work we do with the communities that we serve. As many of our listeners may know, or will know, these are the conditions that are out in the social business where people live, for people work where people learn that they play by the age, and that affects health. It affects the quality of life and our Manfra. Our goal is we want to give people the most healthy years that they can have. And and if you have your health, you can do so much. If you don't have your health, you are limited. And so when you have your health, you can lead yourself for economic stability, access to education, job opportunities, all the things that we want to do that make life just livable for us. So where there's less than that, then we see disparities kinds of fundamentally has been in this work forever, it is not new for us. And while we're seeing some progress, they're still inequities. They were made worse by the type of pandemic, quite frankly. And I think we've all seen that. So we know that because we saw those inequities really rise up and become more visible and become more acute. This tells us that it is not a time to stand still, there are so many basic needs that people have and some of the challenges that people are facing. When we think about what disparities and inequities are, they show the chasm between the quality of life and the opportunities for some as compared to the marginalization of others, and their communities and what they experienced. So that chasm is that divide. So if you're not affected by that, you may not see that you may not see it, you just may say this is all about nothing, but it is real. We see it, we work with them every day. So even today, at a time with so many medical advancements, staggering disparities persist, and they are often preventable pipelines. A healthy person, if followed by a provider consistently and supported over time, with interventions can have very different outcomes. And I'll give you one example. And this is a sad example. But it's true. Here in the US, black women are three times more likely to die during or after childbirth than white women. This means that the odds of her surviving childbirth are comparable to those women living in Mexico and
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 7:05
we can do better than that. And also black women are 60% more likely to experience preeclampsia in pregnancy. And preeclampsia is high blood pressure, but there doesn't hold syndrome that goes with that. There are 60% more likely to experience that white women. It's a leading cause of maternal death, according to the US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. So these these are these would make not they are figures that are documented, and they can't be contributed attributed to one issue. Rather, it's a confluence of factors. So our responsibility, we see our responsibility as to undo that damage where we can and to move upstream and prepare for future, the future gaps. So this is a time that we want to lean into this work to achieve social equity and support inclusive growth. As leaders. This is our charge, and I believe it's one of the most important things Things that we will do in our lifetimes. So supporting inclusive growth and access to basic needs such as care, affordable housing, economic opportunity, we can address the disparities and advance equity when we listen and plan for the people and involving the people who are most impacted. So this is an approach we are taking in a few ways. I talked about care, we want to be a trusted voice to educate and provide here versus in West Baltimore through a collaboration of good health great care. We bring America and behavioral health into our beloved barbershops and beauty salon spaces that are inherent with trust, quite frankly, where people don't. We offer care in our medical schools as well, of course, but we also work where we are. Another example would be our coffee business support communities. And we work with a program called intersect inner city capital connections, we often refer to it as I triple C, for we strengthen local small businesses to ensure that they too, can grow as we grow. So we do this in many places. One participant involved more congenial and saying this is a real person founded learning how, and she said that I took the seat offer a chance to scale her childcare business. With our support, she was able to have local employees who may live in neighboring communities to shop at local stores, and ways to everything is interconnected. And most people want to work, they want to contribute. They don't want to be on public assistance. Some needed but most want to work. So we want we are also working to make a difference in supply of diversity. This translates to our intentional thinking about resources with diverse suppliers. So last year, Kaiser Permanente as a whole spent $3 billion across our organization with diverse suppliers with 127 million of that right here, and I've made it my region, that infusion goes into communities that have been marginalized, to chip away at those disparities, or economic divides, is an integral integral piece of what we do, of who we are. And then we produce and preserve affordable housing, specifically along the purple line, as you know, the purple line that's been in development for some time, we're monitoring its progress, because we know that the new development it could draw could displace residents and businesses. However, to prevent displacement and offset dumps impacts. We have contributed $5 million in investment capital to support affordable housing along the corridor, and participate in the purple line corridor coalition. So I could go on and on Francesca, but these are just some of the things that, as you can tell, I'm excited about him. We're excited about them. So just keep things.
Francesca Ioffreda 18:05
Wow, Ruth, thank you so much for sharing those vignettes, sharing examples of the important initiatives that Kaiser is working on everything from meeting communities where they are in barber shops, to investing in small businesses to supplier diversity, it's just tremendous to see kind of the depth and breadth of the work that Kaiser is doing for our community. And you couldn't have said it better. You know, health is really a cornerstone to an individual being able to live a successful happy life. And inclusive growth really requires taking this holistic approach, because we know that any individual relies on access to safe, affordable housing, quality transportation, health care, education, capital, in order to be able to live a productive, happy life. So thank you for sharing and for all that Kaiser is doing. So diversity, equity, and inclusion is so central to the work of the partnership. And, you know, we thank you and the Kaiser team for supporting all of our inclusive growth initiatives. Can you tell us a little bit about Kaisers emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion, and how you as a leader, keep those goals central to your work and to the organization?
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 19:18
Well, again, I'm really glad you asked this Francesca because this connects so closely to our social determinants of health. And so I'm going to spend a little time to just give a flavor of what we've woven together. Equity is deeply ingrained in who we are. You've heard me say that this morning. So we are working to advance equity within the organization and in our care for our members. You know, I it's important to me that we don't just talk about diversity, equity and inclusion. We have to do something. If we're talking and not doing something, then we really haven't made a difference. So it's important to us to be intentional about ethics too. really believe in and commit to the work that we do and be accountable for making a difference. So we look at our data to drive our efforts such as some of the examples I shared about maternal and infant mortality and black women, those data tell us that we need to be doing more of it. It really just impacts me personally and professionally, that we have to talk about these statistics at a time like this. So our strategies are informed by what we learned from other public health leaders in our own research centers, which I talked about earlier on the study shows us the risk related to maternal and infant mortality. And the reason I box there, because if people don't get a good start in life, they're always going to be behind. And so we, it took me a while, I never worked with infants and children and when I worked clinically, and so but it took me a while as a professional to realize that if you don't get a good start as an infant, you probably not going to get the benefit of all that you should get in life. So Kaiser Permanente worked really hard on this. So we launched a national women's and children's health strategy, with several practices such as perinatal patient as a perinatal Patient Safety Program, and universal screening standards and treatment for mental health and substance abuse during pregnancy. I'm in addition, here in the mid Atlantic states, we are offering prenatal care for our members, our practice called centering, and this model has been shown to decrease disparities and birth outcomes, specifically a preterm delivery switch, which just sets a child back and sets everybody across the board. We are working to achieve equitable health outcomes for everyone, for all of our members through our care, our practices and our partnerships. We do this by eating and screening for cancers that disproportionately impact our black patients information leaving hypertension control and much more. And the impact i i am just, I'm just so happy to say this I research new research from Kaiser Permanente Research Institute in mid atlantic shows that from 2014 to 2017, patients ensured that Kaiser Permanente and mid Atlantic states had significantly higher life expectancies compared to patients in a national data set from the CDC. That is important, that increase was six years longer, six years for all of our members when compared with the national average. That's a significant amount of time, that we're giving people more helping us. And that's what I mean by doing something I like to say Talk is cheap. But this is actually doing something. We also hire diverse talent. When it comes to interviewing and hiring black tea. We're building an intentional talent pipeline of people who are diverse leaders, and who are diverse providers. This is important because when we adhere to systematized workers of racism, in our hiring, not only do we want the community we can do ourselves, we can't get the best of everybody. And we place people in categories before we know what they can contribute. So in contracts, we will get less than one word because we've already made assumptions about what people can do and what they can't. So we try to avoid through meaningful ally ship. We're working to be better advocates to build trust, and to ensure diversity. So we're doing a lot of things on my own leadership team. I always the best person for the job, and they will want to represent a diverse workforce. We have many efforts underway. And I will not tell you because I can't tell you that we've arrived, we're still struggling. But this is important to us. And we're doing everything we can to to to level that. When I refer to challenges, we have some challenges in level for those challenges, unrecorded inequities that occurred schools and universities among employers. So, you know, we've got a lot of work to do, we want to do our part. And we also recognize that we can't live alone, we analyze, we collaboration with others, and so you have to work with others to really achieve and lift, lift some of this to get us where we are.
Francesca Ioffreda 24:40
Absolutely, Ruth and I think what you just shared really reflects kind of best practices doing that scan internally, to make sure that Kaiser is operating consistent with its values, promoting diversity, equity and inclusion. I'll say from personal experience, every interaction we've had with the Kaiser team has really embodied kind of the dei values and the slate of people we've worked with has been so diverse. So congratulations there. And then externally really doing that assessment of health outcomes to understand where there are racial disparities where we can close the gap on things like, you know, maternal health outcomes, and congratulations to Kaisers work and really moving the needle, and kind of closing that delta. So thanks again. And as we started to talk about at the beginning, you know, COVID, has really taken a disproportionate toll on the health workers who have had to face this day in and day out, who haven't been able to stay in their homes and kind of shield themselves from the pandemic. So, talk to us a little bit, you know, supporting your employees and their mental health during the pandemic. I know, it's been such a core focus for you. So how have you dealt with some of the issues that healthcare workers have had to deal with around burnout, other mental health challenges, and just the toll of the pandemic to industry workers at large,
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 26:02
you know, contest of the pandemic took a huge toll on all of us, in addition to physical illness, it's training people to mental health is as you just mentioned, um, and it, you know, when you think about being a frontline worker, and having to, when we were at the height of the pandemic, and just all the PPE to get enough in it, to get out of it, go home to your families, I don't think people normally think about that, you know, when you talk to most, most direct care workers, they talk about having to change their clothes, and shower before they can go and talk to their families, or interact with their families, because they didn't want to bring the disease. And everyday be worried about that. And I'm not saying that's all people worried about. But that is a very visible thing. And so we wanted to make sure that we reinforced not only the safety, but also a culture of flexibility and kindness, and understanding that each person's situation was unique. We've wanted our teams to know that we saw them, we heard them, we deeply value them. And we're doing some things now that things aren't quite as tense to just interact with them more to let them know how much we appreciate them today, how much we appreciate all the done, how much their families have sacrificed. So we started something called healthy workforce, Portland, which really helps our employees manage stress, and helps them with them with their mental health, their anxiety, you know, you can imagine having young kids or if your parents are older parents, live with new adult with with some people haven't seen the parents in my two years. And you know, they, they were wondering about them, they were talking to them. And if you live in a home with small children who couldn't be vaccinated, be worried about them. So that's all stress that I don't think we think about every day. But it's a stress on the mental health of our health professional. So this, we include some mental health training for managers and for employees, to teach everybody how to reduce the stigma, and find a work environment where employees can speak openly about mental health. And then we created what we call a national rebound plan to help our leaders and teams feel and cope with the distress and trauma from the pandemic. I don't know that we will, it'll be a while before we see the true impact of this pandemic and all. It's done, you know, to negatively impact from our employees, but we are doing all we can to care for our employees and making their mental health a priority. It's it's tough, and I think we're gonna be dealing with this for a while. But we are trying to do everything we can to support.
Francesca Ioffreda 29:06
Thank you. I think you're absolutely right, the pandemic kind of fundamentally changed our society and has impacted all of us in different ways, personally, and especially with healthcare professionals. So appreciate you helping paint that picture of just how challenging it was, for many of them having to sequester themselves from their families and day in and day out kind of see the impacts of the pandemic. So Ruth to close our session and talking about purpose and mission driven work and your time here in the Washington region. I know you've you've been here around two years now, what do you think the region excels in what what excites you about the region? And then on the flip side, what do you think are some areas of improvement and ways that we can foster increased collaboration across sectors?
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 29:57
Well, let me just say I'll start With the headlines saying, We're the nation's capital, that's a big deal. That is a huge deal. So. So that brings a lot of cachet with it. And so we're uniquely positioned as a region because we are where we are geographically. And while I'll share some of our efforts with a sense of pride as our team, as remarkable as we are with this, what I believe we do, especially right here in mid Atlantic, is bring together all of the moving parts here, that's what we do with others, we don't do it alone, we do it with others, we try to create options for our members to get all the care they need. And we work with other providers, other hospitals, so we do a lot of collaboration. We give award winning doctors of technology and the space to provide what they buy, to do care. And as a region, you know, we've got so many assets working for us. First of all, we have people here, who have tremendous experience, international experience, national experience, we have people here from all over the country. And so we bring that talent here. We have people who've been in the military, we are very big veterans, with very rich with resources. And I think we're at a unique time to really start to just tap into these opportunities, the possibilities are infinite, we are just uniquely positioned to deliver so much. That was why I was so drawn to being here, this part of the country is unlike any other where you get cannot eat for goodness sake, where we have some of the foremost physicians and we've got wonderful health care organizations, researchers, dynamic companies, service learning government and community leaders, we have so many natural assets. So I believe that this partnership, what you're doing for the principle of what we're all doing together, we can address these unleash these initiatives and tap into all the talent we have, you know, and the natural assets we have. So I, I am pleased to see that what we're doing through the greater Washington partnership is pulling is to pull these assets together to make them into something because when they're interwoven, there's so much stronger. So I look at just I just stopped with the people assets, but then you got the physical assets, the government, so we've got a lot to build on. So bravo, to Ray Washington partnership for bringing us all together. Because we are proud to be a part of this work, and PowerPoint, what we've set the table for the future.
Francesca Ioffreda 32:48
Ruth, thank you so much. That is music to our ears at the partnership. And to me as a DMV native, you know, I I couldn't agree more. Our region has so many incredible assets, such a diverse population, educated populace, so culturally risk rich, we are the seat of government, but we also have a thriving private sector. And we have people coming together really leaning in around this topics of racial equity and inclusive growth, with the recognition that our region will be stronger, if we're more inclusive and more equitable, will be more resilient will be faster growing. And we'll be able to harness the potential of all of these historically underserved groups and will be stronger together. So we are so fortunate to have leaders like you in our region to learn from to set the example and we're just so grateful to be working with you and Kaiser.
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 33:39
Thank you, Francesca. Thank you. It's been a pleasure talking with you. It's been a pleasure knowing you. And I'm just thank you, just simply.
Francesca Ioffreda 33:51
Thank you, Ruth. I'm looking forward to continued collaboration and to seeing that all the all that you will do and thank you again to Kaiser for your investment in the community and for all that you've done to shepherd us through the past several years.
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 34:04
Unknown Speaker 34:05
thank wonder. All right. Have a great day.
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 34:08
Thank you. You too. Okay.