The corner office: Rush University Medical Center President Michael Dandorph on empowering others to take risks

A brush with death during his college years solidified Michael Dandorph's desire to build his career in healthcare. During the last 4 years, Chicago's Rush University Medical Center and the Rush system, of which Mr. Dandorph is president, has grown and improved across a variety of metrics.

Mr. Dandorph joined the medical center in 2013 as executive vice president for clinical affairs. Since being promoted to president in 2016, Rush University Medical Center has 

michael dandorphundergone significant growth in its clinical programs. It was ranked for four consecutive years among the top five academic medical centers in hospital quality by Vizient.

As president of the Rush system, Mr. Dandorph is responsible for overseeing the organization's continued growth and evolving strategy. The system includes Rush University Medical Center, Rush Oak Park (Ill.) Hospital, Rush Copley Medical Center in Aurora, Ill., and numerous outpatient facilities throughout the Chicago area. The system has annual operating revenues of greater than $2.2 billion and holds $3.6 billion in total assets. It employs about 11,000 people.

Prior to joining Rush, Mr. Dandorph spent 18 years with the University of Pennsylvania Health System in Philadelphia, where he served as senior vice president of strategy and business development. Before that he led the network development and regional expansion of First Option Health Plan, a provider-owned HMO in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. He earned a Master of Health Administration from New York-based Cornell University's Sloan Program in 1995 and a Bachelor of Science in sports medicine and movement science from William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., in 1990. 

Here, Mr. Dandorph took the time to answer Becker's seven questions.

Question: What's one thing that really piqued your interest in healthcare? 

Michael Dandorph: There are a couple of things. As I was growing up, I had a very close relationship with all four of my grandparents. I spent a lot of time with them as they were in and out of hospitals and nursing homes. They suffered from heart disease, stroke, cancer and dementia during the aging process. But my interest in healthcare grew the most when I was in college after I fell asleep at the wheel early one morning after driving through the night. I fractured my spine and suffered a collapsed lung and failing kidneys. I spent six weeks in Princeton Medical Center in New Jersey. The clinicians and staff not only cared for me, but they also cared for and bonded with my parents and family. It was a cathartic experience for us all. That probably piqued my interest in healthcare the most, demonstrating how impactful the entire care team impacts the lives of others.  It also helped me gain a level of resiliency and perseverance.

Q: What do you enjoy most about Chicago?

MD: I'm a transplant from the East Coast. The adjustment to living in Chicago has been incredibly easy for me and my family. There's a lot to like — the people are incredibly welcoming. There is amazing diversity, culturally and otherwise. I enjoy the arts, the lakefront, and the fanatic sports fans. Generally speaking, Chicago is a city that has a lot of opportunities and promise, given all the talent and resources across the metropolitan area. It's just hard to find a convenient mountain to satisfy our passion for hiking and skiing.

Q: If you could eliminate one of the healthcare industry's problems overnight, which would it be? 

MD: I think it would be a significant overhaul of the financing of our health system. I've seen economic incentives drive behaviors that at times get in the way of things like preventive services, or ways we might more holistically improve the health of the people and communities we serve. It's remarkable that we're a country with such an enormous wealth of medical talent and technology, yet we struggle with improving health status of populations. We also have significant health inequities in many pockets of the nation, including many urban and rural areas. I believe we need to better align the economic incentives for healthcare delivery in ways that allow us to better partner with others to address the social determinant issues contributing to poor outcomes, and achieve the systemic quality improvements we aspire to.

Q: What do you consider your greatest talent or skill outside of the C-suite?

MD: I think I can get people comfortable with taking risks and overcoming resistance to trying new things. It starts with developing relationships, listening to people's anxieties and concerns about risk taking and overcoming the fear of failure. Sometimes in life you just have to go for it.  I loved coaching youth sports for my kids to experience the thrill of team sports or helping them get comfortable taking the risks necessary to experience the exhilaration of things like downhill skiing or cliff diving. As a leader, I've developed an appreciation that influence is far more powerful than control, and is essential to enabling others to aim high. I've found it helpful in my relationships inside and outside the C-suite.

Q: How do you revitalize yourself? 

MD: I try to immerse myself with my family as much as possible, and like doing things that allow us to meet new people and experience different cultures. I have found the stories of others can be quite inspiring, especially when I have the opportunity to learn about their successes or the hardships they've had to overcome. It helps me stay jazzed about leading an organization with the passion of making such a big a difference in the lives of others.

Q: What's one piece of advice you remember most clearly? 

MD: I grew up in an Italian family, so I've received a lot of advice in my life [laughing]. But seriously, there have been a few pieces of advice that stick out. My mother once told me to always tell the truth and you won't need to have a good memory. And my dad taught me to never be afraid to challenge the status quo.

Another important experience in life was realizing when you can gain the shared commitment of individuals to work together for the success of a team, that team can achieve almost anything. When people on a team share common goals, they support one another, but also challenge each other in a way that helps the team excel. Trusting relationships really matter, and in teams, it's critical to getting that chemistry to work.

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement at Rush University Medical Center and the Rush system so far?

MD: One major accomplishment was working with our boards and leadership teams to position Rush as an integrated academic health system. Our governance and management philosophy allows us to all focus on a shared health system vision, while ensuring each entity in the system is supported to execute on specific strategies that allow us to fulfill our mission — to improve the health of the individuals and diverse communities we serve through the integration of outstanding patient care, education, research and community partnerships. In my heart I really do believe there's a bold and exciting future ahead of us, and an opportunity to do something truly distinctive and transformative for Chicago and the country.

We've also been recognized among the top five from a quality perspective across all academic medical centers in the country. We've achieved top decile performance in quality, safety and patient experience measures, and that is only possible through the talented and dedicated team members that make Rush such a special place.

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