Wilhelmina (Wil) Delostrinos and her family immigrated to Seattle from the Philippines in the early 1980s. They came to America for two reasons: a better education and access to better healthcare, especially for her grandparents, who both had chronic health conditions.
“I am the oldest of five children,” says Delostrinos. “Both of my parents had to work full-time, two jobs each, to support our large family.
Her parents could not afford to miss any work, but her grandparents, who did not drive and did not speak English, needed someone to accompany them to their medical appointments.
“As the oldest child, it was my responsibility to take a day off from school to accompany my grandparents on public transportation and to their doctors’ appointments,” says Delostrinos. “I was 11, maybe 12 years old, navigating healthcare for my grandparents, filling out complicated insurance forms, and trying to understand complex terms and the healthcare system itself. I had to do it—my grandparents needed me—but it was one of the most difficult things I have ever done.”
Delostrinos would accompany her grandparents to the International Medicine Clinic, also known as the refugee clinic, at Harborview Medical Center. There, native Tagalog speakers helped translate for her grandparents. “That took some of the pressure off me,” she recalls.
She also remembers feeling safe at the clinic. “I had been bullied when I first came to America, because of the way I spoke (English is my second language) and the way I looked. The clinic was a safe space.”
Delostrinos ended up volunteering at the clinic full time during her summer breaks. Eventually, after earning her nursing and biochemistry degrees from the University of Washington, she returned to Harborview as a nurse. That was the beginning of what has become a trail-blazing, purpose-filled career in healthcare.
We sat down with Delostrinos to ask her about her role at Premera, her experience as a leader in healthcare, and her thoughts about women of color in leadership. Here’s what she shared with us:
Q: What is your role at Premera?
A: I am the Director of Medicare Advantage. My primary responsibility is to lead Premera’s Medicare Star Rating strategy—the quality scorecard used by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for Medicare Advantage plans across the country. The scorecard measures clinical outcomes, medication management, effectiveness of operations, access to care, and experience with the health plan and its providers. I also help lead strategic projects, such as product management and member experience.
Q: You began your career in healthcare as a nurse. What drove you to make the switch from clinical work to administration?
A: Through my experiences at Harborview—first as a child accompanying my grandparents to the refugee clinic, then as a volunteer, and eventually as a nurse—I saw a lot of inequities in the health system. People of color were often the ones without good insurance and with limited options. And the administrators—the people who had the power to make changes in the system—were often white and male.
When Harborview finally hired a white, female CEO, I intercepted her in the hallway and begged her for just ten minutes of her time. She gave me the ten minutes and I said to her, “I want to do something about the inequities that I’m seeing. How do I get your job?”
Since I already had a clinical background, she advised me to get a business degree. She said, “We face enough barriers already, as women in a male-dominated field. Get the things that you know they can’t take away from you. Earning a degree means you were trained for that job. They can’t take that away from you.”
I took her advice and earned my Master’s in Health Administration from the University of Washington just as the new President, Barack Obama, was focused on improving healthcare equity, quality and affordability. I knew I wanted to be a part of that. In my previous role at Kaiser Permanente, I focused on quality of care. Now, at Premera, I am focused on affordability, and learning how to marry the two. My goal is to provide equal access to high-quality, affordable care for all Washingtonians and reduce inequities in healthcare.
Q: Some might say it took guts to approach the CEO of Harborview and ask for advice.
A: It did, but my parents always taught me that you won’t know unless you ask. The worst thing that can happen is that someone tells you no. Being the oldest of five children, I always played the role of leader. I was never afraid to ask.
Granted, it was only when Harborview hired a female CEO that I had the courage to ask for advice. Even though she wasn’t a person of color, she was a woman. I needed to see someone like me in that role.
Q: Were there many examples of female healthcare administration leaders who were people of color?
Not at all. Healthcare leadership is still a white dominated field, especially in Washington. I had to reach out to people out of state to find mentors who were people of color. There were very few women of color in administrative positions in this area. So I told myself, “I’m going to pave the way.”
Q: What do you think can be done to get more women, especially women of color, into leadership positions?
A: We need to let people know about careers in healthcare administration—go into communities of color and let people know that it’s an option for them. And then we need to support them with pathways to achieve their goals.
Mentors and sponsors are also so important. Beginning early in my career I surrounded myself with amazing mentors and sponsors who helped me get where I am today. One of the most pivotal moments with a sponsor came early in my career, when my boss, a white woman, asked me to take her place in a leadership meeting. She told me, “I want you to have my seat and represent our division.” I protested at first. I told her I felt I hadn’t earned a place at the table. But she told me, “I want you there. Show them what you’ve got.” And she gave me her seat. Not only was I the youngest person and one of only two women in a room of 12 people, I was also the only person of color. But she believed in me and took a chance on me, and that gave me the confidence I needed.
Q: What advice would you give to a young person just starting out in their career?
A: Being a leader isn’t about knowing everything. It’s about constantly learning and adding layers of knowledge. It’s about identifying the next barrier, then putting yourself in a position to remove it.
It’s also important to stay connected to your purpose. I try to stay very connected to why I got into healthcare in the first place. Every morning, before I log on to work, I spend five minutes reflecting on why I’m doing this. My culture puts elders in the highest regard, so it was natural for me to focus on Medicare, out of respect and to give back to my grandparents and my parents. My work is very much in line with my culture and my beliefs, what I’m passionate about, and why I came to America.