Health Equity

One key to success as a woman physician leader: Authenticity

Kevin B. O'Reilly , Senior News Editor

When Susan L. Turney, MD, took over as CEO of Marshfield Clinic Health System nearly a decade ago, she scarcely could have imagined how a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic would test her leadership abilities to the limit.

Dr. Turney is retiring this month as CEO of Marshfield, which is a member of the AMA Health System Program that provides enterprise solutions to equip leadership, physicians and care teams with resources to help drive the future of medicine.

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Ahead of the big move—which coincidentally takes place as the AMA celebrates Women in Medicine Month in September—Dr. Turney reflected on some of the keys she’s learned over her career as a practicing internist and CEO of Marshfield, an integrated health system that has 65 clinical locations and 11 hospitals spanning more than 45,000 square miles of northern, central and western Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

With women health care leaders still too rare, Dr. Turney’s shared some of her hard-won wisdom with younger women physicians. One key, she said, is to strive for authenticity.

“Be yourself. None of us is really obligated to carry the mantle of all women as it relates to our career trajectory,” Dr. Turney said during a recent epsiode of “AMA Update.”

“If you want to be a leader, go for it,” she added. “If you want to practice medicine full-time and aren't interested in leadership, that's fine too.”

The message, she said, “really is that we are in a place where women can do—and they can be—whatever they want.” At the same time, women physicians “don't need to feel that undue pressure to achieve just because we're women.”

Dr. Turney added that “there's no greater gift really in the world than to do what you want to do. And women, all people, should feel free to really feel as free as they can to pursue what drives their passion and enriches their lives.”

Dr. Turney, who also did her internal medicine residency training at Marshfield, said that mentors have been vital to her career success.

“I would not be where I am today without mentors, sponsors, people who cared about promoting me,” she said. “When I was a young physician, more experienced physicians would help me become a better clinician. And when I entered the leadership ranks, I always reached out to more experienced leaders for advice. And I think it really is a matter of putting yourself out there and asking for help, networking. People want to be helpful. And they generally want to see people succeed. That's really been my experience.”

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Dr. Turney, who also served as CEO of the Wisconsin Medical Society, believes organized medicine “is a pathway for us to really impact our patients and communities for positive change.”

And, she added, “being very involved in the AMA throughout my career, it's bodies like the AMA that are really so incredibly important for really collectivizing the positive change and the momentum that we really need to see in health care.”

The complexity of the health care system means, Dr. Turney said, that “we have to have people that are willing to come together. We have to work for that common cause.”

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One lesson Dr. Turney wishes she’d taken to heart earlier in her physician career is the necessity of taking the long view.

“There are clearly going to be some really intense stressful periods of life, both personally and professionally. Those moments don't last forever,” she said, noting that there is value in learning “to just take a step back.”

“When you've got your feet to the fire a bit,” it can be hard to reflect “that a day from now, a month from now, a year from now, you won't even remember what it that was stressing you out so badly at that moment.”

AMA Update” is your source for physician-focused news. Hear from physicians and other experts on trending public health concerns, practice issues and more—because who’s doing the talking matters. Catch every episode by subscribing to the AMA’s YouTube channel or listen to all AMA podcasts at