For much of its first 40 years, America’s Essential Hospitals and Essential Hospitals Institute have focused on creating practical tools to help essential hospital leaders live their mission. For Mini Swift, MD, MPH, vice president for population health at association member Alameda Health System (AHS), in Oakland, Calif., one such tool — a health care equity blueprint — reached her in a meaningful way, informing her hospital’s equity journey and kick starting her involvement in America’s Essential Hospitals. She shares how the association’s research tools and Essential Women’s Leadership Academy shaped her career.
Emily Schweich: Can you tell me a little bit about your career and how you came to Alameda Health System?
Mini Swift: When I came to Alameda Health System as a medical student, like so many others on our faculty, I just fell in love with AHS and its mission to serve underserved communities. During my training, I gravitated toward inpatient service and considered a future in specialty care. But during my chief residency, I had the opportunity to really dive into addressing the problems of frequent emergency utilization, emergency department overcrowding, hospital throughput, and political advocacy for the system. I really liked process improvement and decided not to pursue specialty training.
After a few years working as a hospitalist and working on inpatient quality improvement initiatives, I started feeling that, while I had a lot of experience inside an essential health care system, I needed more exposure to public health. So, I got my master’s degree in public health with a focus on health disparities. I began to think more about the ways that we could incorporate a public health lens with a particular focus on equity into our quality improvement activities. I also started a medication management program for patients with heart failure and spent the next decade working with patients that were experiencing complex medical conditions and had multiple social needs. It really shaped my desire to move more upstream into population health.
But it was work that I had done with my mentor, my coach, and colleagues in the Essential Women’s Leadership Academy that gave me the courage, support, and the roadmap to make the transition away from hospital operations. It has been thrilling to work with staff from across the organization and our community partners to improve system-wide health outcome at AHS.
ES: How did you get involved with America’s Essential Hospitals?
MS: It happened kind of gradually. Here at AHS, we’ve always had leaders who were aligned with America’s Essential Hospitals. But I was not aware of the association until about 11 years ago when we were beginning our system-level equity journey. At that time, what was then the National Public Health and Hospital Institute had released a health care equity blueprint for leaders, and I ran across it. I printed it out and looked at it constantly. I carried it everywhere. I carried it to work. It sat at my bedside. I looked at it all the time, and we eventually used it as one of the foundational pillars in our strategy. That is how I initially became aware of the organization.
A few years later, I was invited to deliver a presentation about our equity journey in San Antonio at the yearly conference. I attended other presentations and learned of the breadth of issues that America’s Essential Hospitals champions. It felt like being home. It was the first place that I experienced where virtually all aspects of care at AHS were being discussed through the lens of serving vulnerable patients specifically. So, I kept track of the organization and just started following it more closely. Then, I became aware of the Essential Women’s Leadership Academy when our CEO suggested that I consider applying.
ES: Can you tell me a little bit more about your experience in the Essential Women’s Leadership Academy?
MS: I was curious about what the program could offer. I had participated in other leadership development programs but none of them had a specific focus on women. I was thrilled to be accepted. What I found was a community of extraordinary women, colleagues from around the country in different areas of health care. It was so important to have a separate place to share and reflect on my own experiences, and to listen and learn from other female leaders about their leadership roles, values, principles, and approaches. I was also humbled by the generosity of the mentors who all lead important work but take the time to lift up others.
ES: Looking forward at the state of women in the C-suite and health care, what are your hopes for the future? Do you feel like things are shifting since you participated in the program, in 2016? Do you feel like the pandemic has brought on new challenges or perhaps new realizations for women in the C-suite?
MS: Definitely. The pandemic has shown us where the gaps are in our health care system. It has also, I think, shined an intense light on certain areas of society. I think there are many examples of how women are holding it together for their families, for their communities, and for their organizations. The disproportionate effect of the pandemic on women has been well documented. I think that we need think about how we can mitigate what we have seen and how to support women in the future as we move through it.
ES: Reflecting on the association’s 40th anniversary, what does America’s Essential Hospitals mean to you?
MS: Our mission at Alameda Health System is to serve all. Like other essential health systems, we have a unique role in our communities. America’s Essential Hospitals is a special place in which organizations across the county have a common vision for the future. It feels like a home of sorts.
ES: Is there anything you would like to add or anything that you wish I had asked you?
MS: I feel fortunate to be able to work at an essential health care organization. I was so lucky to have stumbled upon the health care equity blueprint and to have had opportunities to participate in such a foundational organization.
For more highlights from the association’s history, visit 40YearsEssential.org.