Unity Through Diversity: Five Women Executive Directors Help Point the Way

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For the first time in the history of U.S. O&P five major national organizations have women executive directors at the helm, which reflects the growing trend of more women entering the profession.

Although each of these organizations has a different focus, representing different aspects of O&P, they are increasingly recognizing the value of unity in amplifying the voice of O&P, a relatively small player in the large, complex national healthcare scene. In the first of a two-part series, The O&P EDGE speaks with executive directors Eve Lee, MBA, CAE, American Orthotics & Prosthetics Association (AOPA), and Chellie Hollis Blondes, the American Academy of Orthotists & Prosthetists (the Academy) about their backgrounds, experiences, and visions for their respective organizations.

In the second installment, we will share accounts of the three women heading the organizations that comprise the certification, accreditation, and educational oversight for the profession, Catherine Carter, American Board for Certification in Orthotics, Prosthetics & Pedorthics (ABC); Claudia Zacharias, MBA, CAE, Board of Certification/Accreditation (BOC); and Robin C. Seabrook, National Commission on Orthotic and Prosthetic Education (NCOPE).



For the second time in its 102-year-old history, AOPA is being led by a woman executive director, Eve Lee (previously Eve Humphreys), MBA, CAE.


A newcomer to the O&P profession, Lee served as executive director for the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America and prior to that as senior membership director for the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery before starting her position at AOPA in November 2018.


She holds an MBA from the University of Maryland University College and a bachelor's degree in political science from Randolph-Macon College.



Lee notes that even before she was hired, there was an effort within AOPA and the other members of the O&P Alliance to address issues relating to workplace equality, sexual harassment, and discrimination. These efforts resulted in a strong open letter to the O&P profession on these issues. (To read the statement, visit https://bit.ly/2VQYHoq.)


"There was a recognition on the part of the AOPA board that we as AOPA needed to be more welcoming and more intentional in our inclusion and diversity efforts," Lee says. She points out that the AOPA board has become more balanced in terms of female members. Currently there are six women on the 14-person board. "We're really trying to create a more inclusive environment within our profession," Lee continues, noting that this not only includes gender but also ethnic and racial diversity. She notes that although AOPA hasn't yet instituted a formal policy, these efforts include such practical matters as creating content for the National Assembly program, inviting speakers, and choosing committee chairs and panel members, encouraging more diversity among AOPA's member volunteers, and attracting more diversity among people considering an O&P career.



When asked if she sees AOPA's role in O&P changing in the future, Lee says, "There always will be some changes when there is new leadership, such as a new executive director. But I don't think people in the profession are going to see a sharp left turn in terms of AOPA's direction. We have a strategic plan in place that is very sound and there is an enthusiasm and a momentum within the profession that is very positive." She aims to be sure that "AOPA as an organization remains focused and aligned around our priorities in advocacy, research, and education, and that all of our organizational resources are coordinated around those strategic initiatives."


She continues, "What I am excited to see is a collaborative effort among the O&P profession to create a unified voice; there are some really great opportunities to make advances for the O&P profession and with a unified voice, we can take advantage of them."


Although the various organizations haven't always been on the same page with one another, Lee sees momentum moving toward consensus in matters of common interest, such as advocacy, research, better patient outcomes, and cost effectiveness of O&P care. "That doesn't necessarily mean that we would agree all the time, but we'll have a willingness to find common ground through understanding each other's position." She adds, "In other fields that I've worked in, especially within healthcare, when you have several organizations working within one profession, that's not easy but it's possible. There's real strength in numbers and collaboration."



Along with the National Association for the Advancement of Orthotics & Prosthetics, AOPA focuses strongly on advocating for O&P to legislators, policymakers, and governmental and regulatory agencies. A priority for Lee as executive director is to work with legislators, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and other governmental agencies, bringing along AOPA members when possible. She also represents AOPA on several coalitions and other organizations.


Much of AOPA's research efforts support advocacy initiatives with scientifically valid research. "One of the things that attracted me to this organization in particular was that all of our efforts in this area are supported by evidence-based data," Lee says. "We work with partners like RAND [Corporation] to identify gaps in research that will improve patient care and the way that care is delivered."


AOPA's Orthotics 2020 and Prosthetics 2020 research programs have been developed to identify where research is needed. Thus far, the prosthetics program has produced research from RAND that shows the economic and quality-of-life benefits of microprocessor-controlled knees compared to non-microprocessor-controlled knees; using Medicare data, a research study by Dobson DaVanzo & Associates, a health economics and policy consulting firm, showed the cost effectiveness of O&P care; and a more recent Dobson DaVanzo study confirmed the continued cost effectiveness of O&P care.


"Each of those initiatives includes a medical advisory board that meets twice annually to identify research gaps to focus improving patient outcomes through increased mobility," Lee says. Current Orthotics 2020 research is focusing on orthotic interventions for osteoarthritis, stroke, traumatic spinal injuries, and plagiocephaly.


Lee says she and her team work closely with David Boone, PhD, a board member and chair of AOPA's Research Committee, to identify strategies to support research, identify credible researchers through grant programs, and move the research forward.



Lee believes that her leadership style has been shaped by learning from others. One particular CEO Lee worked with greatly influenced her management style, she says. He favored a collaborative style. He knew his strengths and weaknesses and was not afraid to share them with his team. He believed in inviting others to the conversation, empowering them to create success within an organization, welcoming their ideas, and even inviting disagreements with his ideas, Lee says. "And I learned the kind of CEO I wanted to be." She points out that AOPA has had a long-tenured, "incredibly knowledgeable" staff. "If I came aboard and decided that my ideas were the only ideas, then I would be putting the organization at a disadvantage because I would be cutting off any ideas that would come from this knowledgeable, professional, and experienced staff."



Lee grew up in the big city and in a small, rural town before leaving home for college. She has lived in the Washington DC area for more than 25 years. She and her husband, Ted Lee, stay busy with a family of five. "Our family life centers around making sure that everybody has what they need in order to be happy and successful in their endeavors, whether that is work, school, or fun. We work hard to create a balance. We enjoy spending time together as a family." Lee's children are Paige, 16, Joe, 14, and Jill, 12. The family also includes Madison, a golden retriever, and rescue dog Gonzo, a pocket-size Lab.

Chellie Hollis Blondes

A Career Devoted to Advancing O&P

Chellie Hollis Blondes has devoted most of her 23-year career to the Academy, and her passion for the organization, its mission, achievements, and growth are evident.


After graduating from Clemson University in 1988 with an English degree, Blondes started her O&P career with ABC, then called the American Board for Certification in Orthotics & Prosthetics, where she supported exam administration. Blondes left ABC for other healthcare-related associations that included the American Nurses Association. Four and a half years later, a phone call from Seabrook about a job opening at the Academy brought Blondes back to the O&P profession. Blondes led the Academy's Education Department for 20 years and in December 2016 was named executive director. She is currently working on her Certified Association Executive (CAE) certification.



When asked about the most important changes she's seen at the Academy, Blondes answers, "One of the biggest is growth. The Academy is focused on advancing the O&P professional at all stages of their career, from providing students and residents with networking and exam preparation opportunities to stellar continuing education opportunities for certified practitioners, pedorthists, technicians, and mastectomy fitters."


Educational and professional growth opportunities provided by the Academy, with many offering continuing education credits, include: the Paul E. Leimkuehler Online Learning Center; webinars; videos; a peer-reviewed research journal, the Journal of Prosthetics and Orthotics; The Academy TODAY; specialized scientific societies open to members; critically appraised topics, which are standardized summaries organized around a clinical question; and other resources.


"Another change I would say is the increasing emphasis on patient care," says Blondes. "It's always been a caring profession, but it's evolved. It's not about devices so much anymore as it is about the person, the patient you're actually treating—what works for that patient in their life."


Blondes continues, "One of the biggest changes has been seeing so many women now in the [O&P] schools and entering the profession. That's been a dramatic and obvious change."


Another major change Blondes has seen is the advancement in education requirements for certified prosthetists and orthotists. "When I first started with the Academy, not everyone even had a bachelor's degree; some had an associate degree or even just a high school diploma and could take short-term courses for certificate programs. Then there was the transition to a bachelor's degree, residencies were instituted, and then in 2012, the transition to a master's degree—so that's been a huge shift in how practitioners are prepared."



Blondes is married to Cliff Blondes, and they have a son, Graham, 17.


When asked if anyone inspired her in her life or career, Blondes answers: "My mother, not only because she's my mother, but she showed me how important it is to find your passion. She went back to work when I was about 11 and found a way to rise from being a receptionist in a technology company to vice president of human resources. Watching her grow professionally while being a caring, loving mother sent a very powerful message to me—there is always an opportunity to learn, advance, and grow."

Look for the second installment of the two-part series on the women executive directors in May.

Miki Fairley is a freelance writer based in southwest Colorado. She can be contacted via email at miki.fairley@gmail.com.