How Dartmouth-Hitchcock CEO Dr. Joanne Conroy leads differently

Joanne Conroy, MD, CEO and president of Lebanon, N.H.-based Dartmouth-Hitchcock and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health, sends a weekly newsletter to staff titled "Joanne's Journal."

It commonly features blurbs about timely issues, the latest news from the health system and some insights into Dr. Conroy's life.

After one edition of the journal included excerpts about gender equity, the impact of tragedy and even a story about Dr. Conroy's cats, one young catheterization lab technician said, "I just don't understand."

The new employee went home and thought about the journal in more detail. He returned to the hospital the next day with an 'a-ha' moment: "Women lead differently. She leads differently. And I'm pretty happy with that," he said.

And, the rest of the team agrees.

Dr. Conroy is a steadfast female healthcare leader who works every day to improve employee engagement, build a respectful culture and ensure patient safety at all the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health facilities.

Prior to joining Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health as chief executive in 2017, she served as CEO of Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, Mass.; chief health care officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C.; and CMO, executive vice president and COO of Atlantic Health System in Florham Park, N.J.

Dr. Conroy is also board certified in anesthesiology and has a certificate of added qualifications in pain management.

Recently, Dr. Conroy spoke with Becker's Hospital Review and answered our seven "Corner Office" questions.

Editor's Note: Responses have been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Question: What is one thing that piqued your interest in healthcare?

Dr. Joanne Conroy: I considered multiple career paths growing up, including law, medicine and even science. I was a chemistry major at Dartmouth College. Throughout my academic career, I thought a lot about what my strengths were and felt that healthcare would be the right first step. In all honesty, as probably many 22- or 23-year-old people would say, I was about 51 percent sure it was the right step. But once I started medical school and really dug into the science behind healthcare, I knew it was a great fit.

After taking a physiology and a pharmacology class, I began to understand how medications work and how they keep people healthy. I just found learning the science fascinating. I was so intrigued. But beyond the science, I became incredibly engaged when I started my clinical rotations. During my rotations, I quickly learned about the incredible trust that patients have in their providers. They will trust that you're going to respect their privacy and help them find the path back to being healthy. It's a privilege we have in healthcare to participate in those important times of life. Whenever anybody says, healthcare is too difficult or the payment system is unfair, I like to remind them that when you deliver a baby or hold a dying person's hand, you quickly realize that it is not about how you get paid — it's really about participating, being present and helping people in vulnerable points in their lives.

Q: What do you enjoy most about New Hampshire?

JC: New Hampshire is a state that carries an incredible rural charm. Once you get north of Concord it is just beautiful wilderness, and I love that. I also like the fact that people come here for a specific reason. They come here because of various opportunities or to have access to outdoor activities. I don't think I've met a New Hampshire resident yet who doesn't ski, snowboard, hike, road bike, off-road bike, fish, hunt or skate. It's just one of those states where people really enjoy being in the outdoors. I love that.

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

JC: The healthcare problem that keeps me up at night is workforce. We are going to need more people taking care of more patients. Although we will likely be able to take advantage of new technology to address some of those needs, there are so many aspects in healthcare where you need a patient and a provider face-to-face. I worry about the supply of nurses, social workers, physicians, housekeepers and technical personnel required to run a healthcare enterprise.

At Dartmouth-Hitchcock, we began thinking of apprenticeship programs to pull people into the workforce, and we've had some tremendous successes doing that, where we actually pay people to go to school. They work toward their certification after completion of the program within our facility. We have been able to bring some single moms back into the workforce who were trying to figure out how to re-enter. We are also now looking at transportation and housing, which are barriers for our workers.

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

JC: I love golf. I consider it one of my greatest skills because I play from the men's tees. I drive, usually about 180 yards. My second shot is usually about 140 to 150 yards. I can play with male colleagues and not have to go up to the ladies' tee, and I found that is helpful in setting the balance. Almost every time I've gone golfing with male colleagues, I go up to the first tee and somebody says, "Well the ladies' tee is up there." And I just say, "You know what, I play from the whites" and I drive off the tee and then that's it. End of conversation.

I started playing in 2003, when I was working in a hospital in New Jersey and everybody golfed between April and October. It seemed like I was the only one working on Monday afternoon. At one point I said, "Forget this. I'm going to learn to play golf." So, I took lessons for an entire year, 8 a.m. every single Sunday, even if there was rain, sleet or snow. I went to this 9-hole course, with a fabulous instructor, who was also Sergio Garcia's swing coach. I was very deliberate then, and I've been deliberate since. I now go to golf school every year with a bunch of women in South Carolina. It's four days, with six hours of drill and then we play 18 holes. We shower, eat, we go to bed, get up and do the same thing again.

Q: How do you revitalize yourself?

JC: My family is from rural Maine, so the way I revitalize myself is by going to the lake house up there. I purchased a lake house in 1997 about a half mile from my mother's lake house and my brother's lake house. We just love to go up there with our families. Even though we don't get to go there year-round, just thinking about the time we spend together there is really rejuvenating. There is no internet or TV at the lake. It is all about being with your family and swimming, water skiing and hiking.

Q: What is one piece of advice that you remember most clearly?

JC: So, this is a piece of advice I received when I was a first-year medical student in South Carolina. The banks in South Carolina opened at 10 a.m. and they closed at 12 p.m., and then they reopened at 2 p.m. and closed at 4 p.m. It was southern banking in 1979. I remember needing to deposit a check. I came home from that experience irritated. I said to my first husband, "You know I don't have time to wait in line. It took forever." I then said, "I'm a medical student. I have more important stuff to do." My ex-husband turned to me and said, "You know what? If you think you're better than anybody just because you're a doctor, you don't deserve that degree." I've never forgotten that. Now I tell people that an MD does not mean major deity. It's a privilege to receive a medical degree, and it doesn't make you better than other people.

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement so far at Dartmouth-Hitchcock?

JC: I would say really engaging with the employees. I think they've had some turbulent times that made them distrustful of the organization. People need several things in order to be happy employees. First, they need a sense of safety and security. They need to know that if they work hard, they will have a job. The second thing they need is a sense of connection to purpose. People are really driven by purpose in their roles. The third is respect. Everybody's working hard, and we're working for patients. People need to respect each other. So, I have worked with my team to create this environment where people feel safe and secure and where they feel more connected to our purpose. We, as an organization, make that connection through every single communication we have.

We've also been focusing on an environment of respect. We were one of the early founding signatories for Time's Up Healthcare, an initiative which really focuses on respect and eliminating harassment and disrespect in the workplace.

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