Michael Dowling on a turning point for healthcare CEOs

Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling remembers the skepticism he encountered when elevating gun violence as a public health issue a few years ago. Now the fight is onto bigger conversations and pursuits. 

Mr. Dowling recounted the early days of New Hyde Park, N.Y.-based Northwell's advocacy and coalition-building in his opening remarks for Northwell's fifth annual Gun Violence Prevention Forum Feb. 27. 

About five or six years ago, Mr. Dowling said, doubt was in high supply in the healthcare community toward their role in gun violence prevention efforts. Many people questioned the role of hospital or health system CEOs in the cause and signaled ambivalence about how squarely gun violence fit into the category of public health. There was much apprehension about staying in one's lane.

"I remember calling many people across the country — CEOs of healthcare organizations, many of whom I've known and respect — and asking them to get involved," Mr. Dowling said. "They were fearful, nervous. 'This is too big an issue. It's too complex. It's too politically complex. My board won't like it. You don't understand my community.'"

The lukewarm reactions didn't make Mr. Dowling shy away from the cause; they had the opposite effect. "Where are healthcare CEOs in the fight against gun violence?" he asked in a 2019 column with Becker's. "If there was a disease that was killing as many people as guns in this country, we would be mobilizing a national response effort. It's inexcusable for us to remain silent."

By 2020, firearm deaths in the U.S. reached record levels and guns had surpassed car crashes to become the leading cause of death among children.

Mr. Dowling credited optimism for sticking with the cause and working to change the conversation. In 2020, Northwell formed the Center for Gun Violence Prevention and was awarded a grant by the National Institutes of Health to study gun violence and establish and implement a first-of-its-kind protocol to universally screen and counsel those at risk of firearm injury. 

In 2022, Mr. Dowling's outreach efforts led to the creation of the National Health Care CEO Council for Gun Violence Prevention and Safety, which now includes 53 executives of some of the largest hospitals and health systems in the country. That same year, more than 1,000 hospitals and health associations joined a campaign led by the system that encourages parents to ask about gun safety. 

"The argument now about whether or not it is a public health issue that's no longer the issue," said Mr. Dowling. "Everybody now says it's a public health issue." 

Outside of Northwell, Mr. Dowling points to "a surge" of gun violence prevention activity across the U.S. over the last five years, with greater collaboration among community, government, business and healthcare leaders and activity by hospitals and health systems. Points of progress include city-specific gun violence prevention initiatives with hospital involvement, legislation like the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, and the first White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention. 

"Look back over the history of most major issues that have been accomplished," Mr. Dowling said. "It's not one big effort or initiative at one time. It's all the small things. There's been progress." 

Northwell's half-day forum Feb. 27 coincides with the 30th anniversary of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, who will speak at the event and share his perspective on the bipartisan legislation, lessons learned from it, and calls to action for communities and organizations to address the gun violence epidemic today. 

Other speakers for the event include Rob Allen, CEO of Intermountain Health; Megan Ranney, MD, dean, School of Public Health at Yale University; and Steve Sumner, MD, senior advisor for the CDC's Division of Violence Prevention. More information and its virtual streaming is accessible here

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