Northwell CEO Michael Dowling is reimagining the business world post-COVID

Michael Dowling is CEO of New Hyde Park, N.Y.-based Northwell Health. He spoke with Becker's July 30 about the health network's annual Constellation Forum, scheduled to take place Aug. 5. The conference will feature healthcare insights from business leaders, scientists and philanthropists.

Editor's note: Interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: What do you think are some of the biggest questions hospital and healthcare CEOs are asking themselves right now?

Michael Dowling: Well, I think the big overarching question is how do we reimagine our business based upon the learnings of the past 18 months so that we can better prepare for the next five years. I am currently in the process of putting together strategic goals for the next five years because the one thing that COVID did is that it forces you to rethink, which is a very good thing. So that's an overarching issue. 

The second issue that I think people are focused on right now is since the last 18 months, depending on your location in the country and how affected you were by COVID directly, people are trying to get their budgets back in order for the end of the year.

Q: What are your biggest goals and priorities for Northwell over the next year or two?

MD: One is to look at our whole emergency management infrastructure and supply chain infrastructure so that we are even better prepared if and when we get another pandemic. 

The second big one is, how do we trigger our organization to move into the digital world in a much more aggressive way with the use of technology, especially regarding the consumer-provider connection? We've always, in healthcare, talked about information technology, but how do we become more consumer-focused and what role does technology play in that? That's a big issue for us. We'd like to accelerate that effort over the next six months.

Another one is, we did an awful lot with staff during COVID. We invested heavily, more so than we ever did before, in enhancing the security, the safety, the spiritual, physical, and mental health of our employees. And that was a good thing. Now the question is, how do we maintain and enhance that effort, that commitment to inspire staff, motivate staff, keep them physically and mentally healthy so we have employee engagement and satisfaction. That's a big issue. Every single day in our organization, right now, we have celebrations for employees and we give out gifts as a 'thank you' for what they did last year, but those kinds of efforts that we've always been engaged in, I believe will be accelerated more so.

We have a medical school and nursing school and other education programs so another one is, what do we need to do on curriculum enhancement in those areas as a result of what we've learned over the last year?

And then the last one, which is a big priority for us, is COVID disproportionately affected communities of color more than other communities and raises the whole equity diversity issue. And now the question, and we're spending a lot of time on this and we will be very proactive on it, what do we do in those communities going forward that makes a real sustainable difference? We've always been involved, but we have to dig deep down now and say, OK, we can't just talk about it.

Those are the big bucket items that we're doing. We're working on our budget now for '22, and we just started that process four weeks ago. We'll have our budget done by November. And of course the goal is to get us back, given all of the disruption that occurred last year, to a strong financial position as much as we possibly can and as quickly as we possibly can.

Q: You have the Constellation Forum event coming up on Aug. 5. Can you share a little bit about that?

MD: Yes, we started doing this four years ago because I wanted to make sure that we could bring people to New York from other parts of the country for a very intellectually stimulating meeting. This is all about bringing different people from different businesses together to think anew about what it all means now, as we are starting the reconfiguration of our business world post-COVID. What kind of partnerships do we develop? What kind of relationships do we need to enhance? How do we maximize the use of technology in a positive way? We have some very good speakers and players on it, and hopefully we'll be back doing this in person next year. So this is a virtual conference about thinking differently, thinking about innovation, and you know, what's great about this is you sit in a room with very bright people that come up with unique ideas. You'll walk away with five new things you didn't think about before you walked into the room, because every exchange you have and every encounter you have with people, you're changed by it. So we will come out of this meeting next week with some ideas, different things to do, different relationships and partnerships. And hopefully everybody comes out of it with an optimistic, positive attitude that we're very fortunate. We're very lucky. The future is bright. There's nothing we can't achieve. We managed a pandemic. Imagine what we could do going forward when we don't have a pandemic.

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