We profile a young Muslim woman who is breaking down barriers in digital physiotherapy leadership
Imagine being at such an exciting part of your career journey, where many of your passions involve areas like physical health, community building, and empowering women. Then suddenly, as the world takes a pause in lessening physical interaction with other people in your day-to-day life, your job further justifies the importance of the work you do, as the world becomes increasingly virtual. That’s Heena Mahmood in a nutshell.
She currently works as a clinical change manager at Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust, and her area of focus and work is in digital health and physiotherapy; a way of working that didn’t always exist, but has proven to help so many of the people she helps and uplifts in her job.
Mahmood has been leading transformational digital health change projects in Yorkshire, such as a £20,000 investment for remote workers like herself. She is now on a secondment with Health Education England looking at the attrition rates in student courses.
I start by asking Mahmood a question that I’m sure many aspiring physios, who would like to be in her position one day, would also be keen to know: What are the benefits to an aspiring physio of working in a variety of different areas?
‘I would definitely say it’s always good to keep your options open and push yourself into areas that you otherwise wouldn’t always explore. Working in different areas of physiotherapy will give you further experience, awareness, and make you realise the importance of leaving your comfort zone once in a while. During my time starting out as a physio, I was always on rotation, so was used to constant change and movement. I went into each speciality thinking “is this one for me?” I never really felt completely settled. I would do one thing for a little or long while, and then move to the next one. It was a constant learning and adaptation curve.’
This reminds me of one of my favourite quotes - ‘life really does begin at the end of your comfort zone.’ So I ask her, if you look back to that time and where you are now, what have been some of the most important takeaways for you?
‘I’ve learnt so much along the way, even today,’ she says. ‘One of them is to not ever let challenges overcome you.
There’s a really nice quote by Muhammad Ali that says: “It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.” Of course, there will always be challenging times in your career. Just look at how the pandemic has affected so many jobs and lives; shocking the lives of many people, in terms of how to manage things emotionally, mentally and even physically.
‘Also I think it’s so important to have a community of people who can support and guide you and be a helpful advisor and listening ear. Being in networks like these propelled me into newer opportunities and different avenues such as digital healthcare.’
Speaking of community, Mahmood is one of the CSP members working with the Shuri Network on a survey to understand digital attitudes, especially from women from a minority ethnic group, in the healthcare student population. The work of Shuri Network aims to improve the opportunities in digital physiotherapy, particularly to women from a minority ethnic group, but also to other groups who are not as represented as they should be.
I ask Mahmood how she would describe the experiences and importance of communities like the Shuri Network.
‘It’s great to be part of this network. I do keep an eye regularly on some of the emails they send through to members like myself, but just before I joined the network, it was a no brainer that I would most likely be the only person of colour in many of the spaces I worked in. It did get quite frustrating always being a minority – because not a lot of people around me would understand. I am a Muslim – so important periods like Eid and Ramadan would often be overlooked, or barely mentioned. Building networks where people like myself can come together has been so helpful.’
Mahmood says she has taken a lot of time out to truly understand race equality, and why there is a difference between people of colour in Britain and white people. ‘This has enriched me with training presentations that have led me to speak at board level, explaining why it’s a problem that we don’t even have diverse leadership, and the dangers of not being reflective of the communities that we serve.’
Touching on her career journey, I ask if there is one thing in her career that came totally unexpected?
‘Definitely the move to digital healthcare – I never would have expected it. When you’re interested in a change or transition, often, you won’t really know where it’s going to come from. I’ve worked in different areas of physio for most of my working life. It’s been a new different world of working for me. I haven’t always been the best user with computer technology *laughs* – so it’s also been a little challenge at times too, so it’s been a real learning curve.’
‘My day-to-day is never the same. One of the projects I had was working on a software called Rapid – it automatically analyses CT head scans, which is a huge benefit for stroke patients. It’s such an efficient software and can be done in two minutes, in comparison to before the software, where it would usually take 20 minutes. I was really proud to be part of this project and to see something so innovative come to life like this in such a crucial time of healthcare – a pandemic.’ Since its launch last year, the software has helped over 100 patients just in the first month. ‘Another achievement I’m proud of was to lead an investment of £20,000 into infrastructure, to get physio and OT services set up for those working remotely like myself. It’s been such a challenging 12 months, but has also been the most rewarding,’ she says.
What would today’s Heena Mahmood say to Heena Mahmood five years ago?
‘I would have been 23 at the time. I would have told myself to continue to put myself forward for opportunities I was interested in, or think I may not have the confidence to go for it. Just go for it! Now you can see why that’s what I would advise others to do now. You’ll honestly grow and learn so much from grabbing newer opportunities.’
I ask her what readers of this conversation can do right now to make a difference in their future career, and she says:
Throw fear out of the window. Everybody, even the most experienced and confident physiotherapists still suffer from self doubt, imposter syndrome, and genuine worry as to whether they will be good enough for the next step.
‘If you have an interest in digital physiotherapy like I did, continue to develop those innovative and creative ideas, because it’s perfect for the work field I am in. There is no stereotypical criteria of what you have to look like, or where you have to come from, to be part of this “new wave”. Times are changing, and it’s time for people to move with it.’
And what a time for changing the way we work, while still having the impact to improve and help lives. Long may the work of Heena Mahmood continue, and provide an example that the face of physiotherapy, should be reflective of the faces we see in our ever growing and diverse communities.
Author: Hannah Ajala
The CSP says:
CSP digital and data lead Euan McComiskie said: ‘Physiotherapy needs more leaders like Heena, inspiring others by driving innovation and breaking glass ceilings as she goes.
‘Whatever the stage of your career it’s important to take opportunities like Heena has done and continues to do.
‘Like her journey to digital, you might just end up loving something you didn’t even know existed.
‘Join the digital and informatics physiotherapy group (DIPG) today to find out how leaders like Heena can influence your career.’
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