Michael Dowling: 'Every single US hospital leader should be screaming about what an abomination this is'

Americans and global leaders have responded to the May 24 shooting at a Texas elementary school with heartbreak, anger and calls for change to better fight gun violence. But if you're paying attention, the calls out of healthcare — from trauma surgeons, pediatricians, nurses, leaders and more — carry a distinct type of exasperation and sorrow. 

"I'm in one of my hospitals now, sitting with some staff talking about it — it's just so frustrating," Michael Dowling, president and CEO of New Hyde Park, N.Y.-based Northwell Health, told me over the phone early Wednesday morning. "This does not represent what the United States stands for — that we allow people who should never be allowed to carry a gun to do so and walk into a school and kill fourth graders."

The attack by a lone 18-year-old gunman at Robb Elementary School in the small town of Uvalde, Texas, has left at least 19 students and two adults dead. Students in the school, grades 2 through 4, were two days away from summer vacation. 

Unlike many other known threats to our health, seeing the medical community condemn mass shootings still seems to leave some Americans doing a double take. It's increasingly difficult to see what has them confused. 

In 2016, the American Medical Association declared gun violence a public health crisis after a lone gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53 more in a mass shooting in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Even after the declaration, healthcare professionals and leaders continued to defy insistence from gun rights advocates that gun violence was not within their specialty or expertise. Or as the National Rifle Association put it in simpler terms in 2018: "Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane." The #ThisIsOurLane movement started then. The attempt to silence medical professionals ironically made their calls for action louder.

As healthcare professionals responded to the ongoing public health emergency of COVID-19, the arms race grew and gun buying intensified — "a surge in purchasing unlike anything we've ever seen," as one gun researcher at the University of California, Davis, put it. People who already owned guns bought more, and people who had never owned a gun bought them too. In 2020, firearm-related injuries were the No. 1 cause of death of children and teens, according to the CDC

Every day, 321 people are shot in the United States, and more than 40,000 Americans die from gun violence each year. Yet some healthcare executives still fear that taking the position that gun violence is a public health crisis will throw them into political turmoil given how toxic politics are in this country. It's one position for the AMA and its 250,000-plus members to take, but another for an individual leader who may be the face of an organization in their community. There are risks of offending board members, donors, elected officials and other constituents ⁠— including patients. But here's the thing: There will always be a reason to delay, to soften language, to wonder if this mass shooting is the one to react to.

Mr. Dowling urges his colleagues to step it up, noting how hospital and health system leaders can be ambassadors for gun safety in their communities, given the influence they wield as the largest employers in many communities.

"This is about protecting people's health. This is about protecting kids' lives. Have some courage. Stand up and do something," he said. "Put the interest of the community in the center of what you think about each and every day. Our job is to save lives and prevent people from illness and death. Gun violence is not an issue on the outside — it's a central public health issue for us. Every single hospital leader in the United States should be standing up and screaming about what an abomination this is.

"If you were hesitant about getting involved the day before May 24, May 24 should have changed your perspective. It's time."

Northwell established The Gun Violence Prevention Learning Collaborative for Health Systems and Hospitals, a grassroots initiative that gives healthcare professionals the space to have open dialogue about the impact of gun violence, share best practices and collectively take action. Learn more here

 

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