Madeline Bell Leads the Way at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

Almost a decade ago, Madeline Bell became the first woman in the top executive post at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Her only regret: not selling herself harder.

“I really want women to think they can have whatever opportunity there is and aspire to whatever job they want,” says Madeline Bell.

Yet, more than a decade ago, Bell needed a nudge in that more assertive direction. At the time, the former pediatric nurse was perfectly happy as chief operating officer at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Then the calls started. “I had people reach out from other hospitals to interview me for the CEO role,” she says. “But I didn’t see myself in the CEO role until other people did.”

During Bell’s nine-year tenure as top executive, CHOP has continued its expansion outward from its University City base. It now has satellite locations in New Brunswick and Cape May, New Jersey, and as far west as Lancaster. The jewel of its expanding universe is the CHOP Specialty Care Center in King of Prussia, which includes a surgical facility, a day hospital for oncology patients, the CHOP Home Care Program, and specialty services of all kinds.

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CHOP also has a symbiotic relationship with Main Line Health that puts its physicians and pediatric care professionals in the system’s four hospitals. “People realize you have to be accessible to all communities,” Bell says. “It’s important, whenever possible, to grow. Pediatric subspecialties are in short supply—you can’t have one on every corner. But we want to be where the populations of children are.”

For Bell, the pediatric ward has always been a “hopeful, positive, invigorating place.” “Children have their entire lives in front of them,” she says.

Bell works long hours at CHOP, but that hasn’t prevented her from serving on myriad boards, including the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia (which she chaired). She also hosts the weekly podcast Breaking Through With Madeline Bell, offering insights on the healthcare industry and celebrating the work being done at CHOP.

Now in the fifth decade of her career, Bell shows no signs of slowing down. Dan Hilferty spent two years with Bell on the chamber’s executive committee. “She was a star,” says Comcast Spectacor’s chairman and CEO. “She rolled up her sleeves and collaborated with other CEOs. That solidified my view of her as a world-class CEO.”

Growing up in Broomall, Madeline Bell graduated from Marple Newtown High School before going on to study nursing at Villanova University. In the fall of her senior year at Villanova, she’d applied to work at CHOP but was waitlisted. So she prepared to spend the summer of 1983 with friends at a house in Stone Harbor, New Jersey. Just before the fun began, she received a call from CHOP, offering her a job that required her to work nights. “I still had fun,” she says.

Bell had wanted to be a nurse for as long as she could remember—and she’d always wanted to be in pediatrics. “I really liked working with children,” Bell says. “Adults have surgery, and you have to convince them to get out of bed. Children are the opposite. You have to try to keep them down. There’s a lot of hope in pediatrics. You can help families learn to take care of their children.”

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For Bell, the pediatric ward has always been a “hopeful, positive, invigorating place.” “Children have their entire lives in front of them,” she says.

After three years in a clinical role, Bell transitioned to discharge planning at CHOP, where she helped families prepare for their children’s hospital departures and arrange care at home. Looking back, Bell calls the move from bedside to office “exciting and scary.” She spent three years in that position before moving to Main Line Health, where she served for six years as director of case management and maternal-child services.

In 1995, CHOP lured her back, and over the next two decades, Bell held a variety of administrative posts in a gradual climb to CEO that was hardly linear. “Many times, I took a lateral job to learn something new and be challenged or work for somebody who could teach me something,” she says.

Among Bell’s various titles at CHOP: director of home care and case management and vice president of patient access and clinical services. In 2010, she was elevated to executive VP and COO. Five years later, she became the first female CEO in CHOP history. Bell’s nursing background was noteworthy, showing that the top spot could go to someone who wasn’t a physician. “I think women are underrepresented in leadership roles, and I feel it’s my job as a female CEO to help them take these steps,” she says. “There’s always been a bias. Often, it’s unconscious among people when they’re filling leadership roles. My advice is: Don’t let it trip you up. If you can see yourself in a certain way, it’s easier for others to see you that way.”

Main Line Health CEO Jack Lynch knows Bell pretty well. In 2022, he worked with her to complete an affiliation deal that brought CHOP’s pediatric care to Lankenau, Bryn Mawr, Riddle and Paoli hospitals, plus other offices throughout the system’s sphere of influence. They often vacation together with their spouses along the Sassafras River in Maryland. “Deep down, she’s a nurse,” Lynch says. “She cares about people and wants children to get the best care in the area. She’s a kind-hearted, compassionate leader. She’s never forgotten where she came from.”

Madeline Bell
Madeline Bell

“Deep down, she’s a nurse. She cares about people and wants children to get the best care in the area.”
—Main Line Health CEO Jack Lynch

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Lynch insists he’s seen Bell relax. “You can’t go full speed all the time,” he says.

But even Bell’s husband, Louis, an attending physician and associate chair for clinical activities at CHOP, admits that his wife has a high-revving motor.

Bell admits her energy can be exhausting to people. Louis helps her temper that—especially when the couple is on vacation. The two have seven grown children. “He’ll say, ‘Maybe we need to do two things, instead of eight things, today,” says Bell, who loves to paddleboard and play pickleball.

Bell is also knows not to hold too many people to the same pace she’s established for herself. “You want to be careful as CEO that you’re not pushing people too hard or expecting too much,” she says.

Bell has a few ways of connecting with those who work with—and for—her. One is monthly meetings with CHOP employees. In February, she connected with 50 of them as part of the hospital’s “A Good Catch” program, which recognizes those who identify and report things that may be harmful to patients. Another is her podcast, where she interviews those in the CHOP universe.

Bell has also proven she possesses the vision and leadership necessary to guide CHOP’s growth, which has been substantial during her tenure. A prime example: its $289 million specialty care facility in King of Prussia, which opened in 2022. “We’ve grown exponentially,” Bell says. “A lot of the growth is about locating ourselves near people. King of Prussia is a perfect example of that. It makes it a little easier for families.”

CHOP has also been part of some smaller, lesser-known projects in the area. At the old Provident Building in West Philadelphia, they’ve opened an outpatient pediatric services facility. And their South Philadelphia Community Health and Literacy Center houses a branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, a recreation center, and a playground. “It brings health, wellness and literacy under one roof in a diverse neighborhood,” says Peter Grollman, CHOP’s senior VP of external affairs.

The CHOP success story was tempered somewhat this past September, when the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article detailing Bell’s $7.7 million compensation, which was the highest among the region’s nonprofit health system CEOs. The article juxtaposed that figure with the money CHOP had spent on charity care over the past few years. The total—$7 million over three years—was lower than Bell’s salary. The story also compared it to the $16 million spent by St. Christopher’s, another area children’s hospital. The insinuation: Bell’s salary and benefits were taking money away from patients. “We do so much for the community and children who are underserved,” Bell says. “I could talk for hours about the money we spend and resources we put toward the community. That wasn’t mentioned at all [in the story].”

CHOP board member Greg Davis believes Bell’s value to the hospital system warrants her salary. “[Bell] is a visionary and mission-oriented leader that excels at tackling the complex issues facing child healthcare today,” noted Davis, Vanguard’s chief investment officer and a managing partner, via email. “Her firsthand experience on the front lines brings an authentic humanity to the position that energizes me and the rest of the board.”

Hilferty was CEO of Independence Blue Cross for 10 years, so he knows something about salaries for top execs. “CEOs of large, complex organizations—from publicly traded corporations to world-class health institutions—are compensated in a way that matches their level of leadership and what they mean to their institutions,” he says. “She’s worth every penny.”

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