Veteran Healthcare Executive Celynda Tadlock On Gender Bias In Medical Diagnosis

By Isabel Wong

While pay gaps, the glass ceiling and women’s right to vote or drive are often brought up in discussions of gender equality, bias also exists in healthcare systems around the world, according to veteran healthcare and insurance executive Celynda Tadlock.

Veteran healthcare executive Celynda Tadlock is also dedicated to living a healthy life outside her job. (Photo: Courtesy of Celynda Tadlock)

Having over two decades of leadership experience in some of the biggest names in the US healthcare and insurance industry such as Aetna, Express Scripts and Anthem, Tadlock is equally committed to living a healthy life and empowering special needs children with specifically designed fitness programs.

In person, Tadlock’s humility and compassion came as no surprise as she always makes sure she allocates adequate time out of her busy schedule for the causes that she cares for.

Despite boosting productivity by embracing cultural diversity, Tadlock pointed out a problem that the US healthcare industry needs to work on is tackling gender bias in diagnosis. Lynk caught up with her for a candid conversation about what inspired her to work in the healthcare sector, and what she thinks the sector can do to provide women around the world a safer environment.

L: Lynk | C: Celynda Tadlock

L: Are there gender barriers in the US healthcare & insurance industry? 

C: From a US insurance industry standpoint, I am not aware of gender barriers for women.   One reason that can be speculated stems from the fact that women are the primary decision makers for the family when it comes to choosing a health benefit plan. This in part may be due to the fact that women access the healthcare system more than men. Also, women have traditionally been the advocates for the wellbeing of their families. As such, it can be suggested that healthcare payers focus upon access, convenience and costs of services that women most often seek for themselves and their children.

From a US healthcare standpoint, researchers have been examining how gender may affect healthcare in recent years. Findings have shown that patients with the same complaints are assessed, diagnosed and treated differently based on their gender. It is also often assumed that males and females are the same when the sexes do have differences that need to be addressed. When both genders are not offered equal treatment and care for the same medical conditions or when different manifestations of disease are not considered based on sex, the clinical outcomes can vary.

L: Access to reliable healthcare systems is also important to girls and women in the journey of empowering them. In your view, what are some of the most pressing issues the healthcare industry will have to address in order to provide a safer environment for women?

C: In order for the healthcare industry to achieve a safer overall environment for women, it is important to develop programs that reach beyond traditional women’s health needs. While women mostly access the healthcare system due to their reproductive and sexual health needs, they are more likely to need treatment for chronic health issues such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, mental illness, diabetes and osteoporosis.

Patient safety requires a system that reflects a level of compassion and vigilance for patient welfare. One way to improve safety is to learn about causes of errors and use the knowledge to design systems that make errors less common and less harmful when they do occur.  Cardiovascular disease is a good example as heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States. They often go undiagnosed in women due to the lack of typical signs and symptoms that are present in men. The symptoms for women can be much harder to detect and therefore, some common heart disease symptoms among women such as acid reflux, normal aging or influenza are seen as less life threatening.

Tadlock mentioned gender-biased medical diagnosing is one of the most pressing issues the healthcare sector has to address. (Photo: Courtesy of Celynda Tadlock)

A study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that when women receive the same treatment as men, their odds for survival are the same. The increased danger for women lies in the response to their heart attacks, not in the heart attacks themselves. As such, a safety opportunity is to design systems that can recognize the potential for heart attack in women more readily and as a result provide complete and timely medical evaluations and treatments.

L: What are the other gender-related issues you care deeply about? And what do you think the world should do to tackle those issues?

C: More research is needed into painful female medical conditions. The way medical providers perceive complaints from both genders should also be addressed.  Due to our nation’s opioid overdose crisis, there is important work occurring across US healthcare and insurance organizations to reduce addiction potential and support addiction treatment. Programs are focused upon shortening the day supply for opioid prescription medication, eliminating inappropriate prescribing, and reducing the post-overdose number of deaths.

Equal attention is needed to support alternatives to opioids for the management of chronic pain in women. Although women comprise most of the diagnoses of chronic pain, many feel their pain is not initially taken seriously by healthcare professionals.

On how the world can tackle gender-related issues, Tadlock said acknowledging that gender bias exists is a key first step. (Photo: Courtesy of Celynda Tadlock)

Acknowledging gender bias, conducting research, and educating healthcare professionals and the public are all good initiatives for the world to address gender-related issues. The first step is to acknowledge that gender bias exists. While women who have heart disease may not be properly diagnosed and treated, men who have depression are also much less likely to be diagnosed and treated. Worldwide medical research is also fundamental in helping to ensure that everyone, regardless of gender, receives the best medical care possible. 

Finally, educating both healthcare professionals and the public to be more aware of how certain medical conditions may present differently in men and women is also a key area for the world to work on.

L: For girls who want to achieve professional success, what will be your advice for them? 

C: Work hard, get a good education, continue to learn new things every day, surround yourself with people much smarter than yourself, live a healthy life and give back to the community.

I grew up in a very small, rural town that did not have a strong education system or access to medical care. My mother would often take me to see the local independent community pharmacist for minor medical recommendations. During these visits, I gained a respect for community pharmacy, and developed a passion for helping people which would later be combined with my academic strengths in mathematics and science to pursue a career in healthcare.

Tadlock expressed that giving back to the community is also an important part of leading a successful life as she is deeply committed to supporting special needs children. (Photo: Courtesy of Celynda Tadlock)

Working hard was instilled in me from a very young age. My family did not have the financial means to afford me with a college education so I worked very hard in school, worked many part-time jobs, and made time for involvement in extracurricular activities and community service. I was able to obtain scholarships, student loans and continue working part time to attend college and professional school. Experiential learning made a significant influence on my direction within healthcare. I was able to do an international internship at Hiroshima University Hospital and gained a passion for healthcare systems which shaped my career in the US.

Surround yourself with knowledgeable people that bring a diverse skill set. Throughout my career I have taken pride in surrounding myself with people that are much smarter and different than myself. This has allowed me to build very strong and diverse healthcare teams.  I have been fortunate to have a number of mentors who have invested in me along the way, and served as a good sounding board for my career. I have also been a part of a number of national organizations such as Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy (AMCP) and Pharmaceutical Care Management Association (PCMA), which have provided many networking and leadership opportunities throughout my professional journey.

Tadlock and a girl with special needs at an event. (Photo: Courtesy of Celynda Tadlock)

Finally, living a healthy lifestyle and giving back to the community are extremely important,  especially when working in healthcare. I am diligent about healthy eating, fitness, and wellness.  Being a part of an organized community of individuals at a local gym that is focused upon helping everyone be their best self has been a great source of support for me.

My family and I are involved together with a local ministry called SHINE Special Needs Ministry to support children with special needs and their families. I have recently been given the opportunity to combine my passion for fitness and special needs children together by coordinating a respite that allows children to participate in fitness games and activities while their parents can have a much needed break.

L: What role does the corporate world play in terms of developing and empowering more female talent?

C: To help female talent grow, consider providing opportunities for cross-cultural exposure, mentoring, and stretch assignments. 

Cross-cultural exposure is key to developing awareness and openness to varying opinions and leadership styles. Mentoring opportunities, especially early in the career path, can play a critical role in talent growth. Finally, providing exposure and training for challenging roles by engaging talent in stretch assignments is also important to growing female talent. These strategies combined allow females to round their skill sets and be prepared for higher level future roles and opportunities.

This interview is a part of Lynk Elite Expert Women interview series, click here to learn more about the initiative.