Celebrating Healthcare Excellence: International Women's Day

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As part of the recognition of International Women’s Day, we have spoken to a number of female leaders within Bank Partners to learn more about their lives, careers, passions and personal experiences both as a woman in healthcare and in a leadership role.

First up, Gemma Shipley, Director of the Medical Workforce Hub at Barking Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust shares her story of growth and development.

How long have you worked in healthcare? How/why did you get into the industry? 

I accidentally fell into my job and working in the NHS… I always thought I would be a teacher, both my parents had spent their careers teaching in local secondary schools. After finishing university having studied Forensic Biology and whilst waiting for the teacher training courses to open for applicants, I temped at Essex County Council as a receptionist for their Learning and Development team. Whilst temping there, I was able to view their internal roles and applied for a training accountant role. And as they say – they rest is history!

I worked as a trainee accountant at the council whilst being supported one day a week at college, after a couple of years I transferred to my local hospital – the start of my career in the NHS, and I have never looked back. I moved to BHRUT as an Assistant Finance Manager and was supported by my team to progress to Senior Finance Manager. Having always been fascinated by the synchronicity between finances and service delivery - I enjoyed being part of a senior divisional team that impacted the services our hospital provides for our patients. I applied for an opportunity to be Service Manager for the trust’s Gastroenterology department, then moved to Care of the Elderly services before becoming Divisional Manager for Acute Medicine, which covered our Emergency Departments, Acute Medicine and Care of the Elderly services.

I was undertaking this role when the Covid-19 pandemic started, and like many of us, my role changed overnight. I found myself coordinating the redeployment of medical staff across the organisation to support with patient care. It was an extremely challenging time, but also a time where I felt patient care and staff wellbeing was at the forefront of decision making within the organisation. The success of this role was recognised by the Trust, and my role became permanent.

Every day is challenging, and certainly never a dull moment.

I’ve never looked back at my career in the NHS, although every July ahead of school summer holidays, I do find myself wishing I’d gone into teaching!

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a leader in the healthcare sector?

That there is often no one right answer or solution.

Leadership in healthcare is about hearing views from those who know best; whether that be clinicians, service leads, administrative teams or corporate support teams etc. We are ALL here with a wealth of skills and experience, and we need to use this to our advantage. Leadership is about creating safe forums to hear opinions to then take a decision on the most appropriate action.

What are you most proud of in your career?

Working through covid is a time I will never forget. The resilience that was required has certainly shaped me as a leader in the months since. I learnt a lot about myself, about leadership, about the organisation and services within, and about the people I spent a lot of time with. Not that I would ever wish to work through another pandemic, but I do miss the approach the organisation had for these months – one where bureaucracy was minimised, and staff were empowered to make decisions in the interest of patient care.

As the NHS celebrates 75 years, what do you think is the most important thing that either needs to change or remain the same in order to take the NHS into the future?

I firmly believe in the balance of NHS finances with service delivery. If one fails, so does the other.

If we run efficient services that puts the patients at the heart of the operational pathways, then it benefits both patient care and trust finances – for example, if we don’t ask patients to reattend on different days for services that could be provided on the same day (with careful planning!), then we save on administration and reception costs, and the patients save on their time and costs – especially car parking charges!

How can the healthcare industry in particular make changes that will make senior positions accessible and aspirational to female leaders?

The covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated that with the deployment of up-to-date IT infrastructure, the opportunity to work flexibly can be maximised. I have friends in other industries that can do the school pick-ups, and then pick up emails after their children’s bedtime. Recognising individuals for their outputs, rather than their time spent on-site can increase flexible opportunities. That’s not to say that face-to-face contact isn’t incredibly important, but a balance between the both are good ways to make senior positions accessible for all.

Despite 77% of the NHS workforce being women (nhsemployers.org), the NHS traditionally has a patriarchal leadership team, and whilst the position has improved in recent years, the gender divide continues and men dominating in senior roles still exists. We all have a role to play in acknowledging the issue and working towards maximising opportunities for aspirational female leaders.

I am so fortunate to work alongside so many aspirational female leaders and by increasing the numbers, this can only make the NHS an even better organisation to work for.

Gemma’s story is certainly an inspiring one, and demonstrates both the achievements the NHS has made in terms of gender inclusion and equality, whilst recognising the progress that still can, and should be made.

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