Michael Dowling: Healthcare leaders' great return to normalcy

A new year marks a new beginning, and time for leaders' return to what matters most. 

In keeping with the holiday season, most of us spent the past few weeks celebrating with family, enjoying the company of old friends and making new ones. It was a joyous time as we rehashed old stories and reflected on the past year and state of the world. 

As with many families, conversations in my home touched on the terrible circumstances in the Ukraine, the COVID-19 situation in China, the massive snowstorm in Buffalo, the changing nature of work and, of course, the rising cost of living. Being a celebratory time with children, we also talked about the RSV virus that has affected tens of thousands of young kids.

As I sat listening and, of course, participating in these discussions, and as a leader in healthcare, I began to think about the following: How many families and their children are now able to celebrate as a result of the great work of healthcare providers and medical science? How many are flourishing because of successful surgery? How many are still alive because of the great care provided by our hospitals and ambulatory sites? Among adults, how many survived COVID-19 because of the vaccines and medical care they received?

Last summer, I personally grew familiar with one family's ordeal. The couple had twins, born prematurely and underweight. Their odds of survival were low and they spent multiple weeks in intensive care, both intubated. Yet, as we celebrated the holidays with their parents, the babies were healthy, happy and looking forward to a bright future. They were living, breathing examples of the miracles of science and the dedication of excellent providers. On a national scale, I am sure there are thousands of families like this one. 

We should all be proud to be in the business of healthcare and appreciate the special responsibility and obligation we have. This special role was so evident during the height of the pandemic — but is also evident in the work done each and every day in our facilities.

There is power in the ordinary. In a fast-moving, loud and polarized world, normalcy can sometimes seem radical. This year, leaders should embrace it. Keep focus on the everyday work that can too often go unsung. Help ensure the value of healthcare is not defined by its highest highs or lowest lows, but by the millions of moments between the two in which lives are improved, health is restored and suffering is spared. 

As we begin a new year, healthcare leaders must elevate the good occurring every day with an attitude of pride, optimism, resilience and innovation. Normalcy does not mean status quo or resistance to change. It is about keeping focus, staying the course, and putting in the work. We must not grow overwhelmed by the dark shadows caused by international instability, the toxicity of our politics, or the gloom and negativity so often highlighted by social media and the news. 

We have to deal with reality of course, but we must not be distracted from doing what we know is important and right — enhance equitable access to care, improve quality outcomes, promote efficiency and productivity, focus relentlessly on the social determinants of health, and invest in the health and wellbeing of our workforce. The coming year will be a test of our leadership as we adapt and transform our organization to a new post-COVID world.

Then there is a leader's commitment to health beyond the walls of their organization. Hospitals and health systems are, in most communities, the largest and most important employers. As a result, we as leaders have a special and larger responsibility, not just internally to our organizations but externally to the broader community. Like it or not, what we say and do has influence. How we use that influence in the coming year is important. 

We must, in my view, be willing to take public positions and become more responsible advocates for the things that truly matter. All of these are in line with health and wellbeing: 

  • The importance of unity and the idea of community. We are all interdependent while much of our politics emphasizes differences and division. We must highlight our common and shared interests.
  • The imperative of civility and decency in our public discourse. "Outrage" should not win.
  • The need to build trust and promote the importance of resilience and responsibility, not entitlement.

Certainly, we run the risk that controversy and criticism may result from our broader engagement. But that is the price of leadership. We must stay true to our vocation.

Michael Dowling is president and CEO of Northwell Health, the largest healthcare provider and private employer in New York State.

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