Parting thoughts from Emory leader Dr. Jonathan Lewin

Jonathan Lewin, MD, announced in November he will be stepping down from his leadership roles at Atlanta-based Emory University. Since 2016, he has served as the university's executive vice president for health affairs, executive director of the organization's Woodruff Health Sciences Center, and CEO and chairman of Emory Healthcare. In a December email to Becker's, Dr. Lewin shared his thoughts on the last five years, what he hopes will be the most enduring legacy of his tenure, and his plans for the future.

Question: What have been some of your biggest challenges and your biggest successes during your tenure at Emory?

Dr. Jonathan Lewin: My tenure at Emory has been one of amazing opportunities and equally unique challenges. We worked diligently as a team to develop clarity around Emory Healthcare's core purpose and true north over the past six years, and putting our patients and families, our people and our community first has resonated with all levels of our organization. Taking the time and effort to invest in our people and our future has also led to some of our biggest successes during this time.

Working with our leadership teams on both the health system and university sides of my roles has yielded significant impact. Since 2016, employment at Emory Healthcare and in the Woodruff Health Sciences Center of Emory University has grown to approximately 34,000, a 35 percent increase. Emory Healthcare has seen its annual total operating revenue reach $5.5 billion — a growth of more than 80 percent over the past six years.

For the 10th year in a row, U.S. News & World Report ranked Emory University Hospital the No. 1 hospital in Georgia; Emory Saint Joseph's Hospital ranked No. 2 for the sixth consecutive year; and Emory University Hospital Midtown ranked No. 5 for the third consecutive year. Emory Healthcare was also named one of the 10 most trusted health system brands in the U.S., and the only health system in Georgia, based on a recent survey conducted by the American Hospital Association (AHA), the Society for Health Care Strategy & Market Development (SHSMD) of the AHA and Monigle.

During my tenure, we have also developed external collaborations in order to increase patient access and improve outcomes while promoting the academic mission, including creating the Emory + Children's Pediatric Institute and an innovative collaboration with Kaiser Permanente. Along with the Emory Healthcare leadership team, we have led transformative change in how local health systems, businesses and governments collaborate and interact.  

Emory's Woodruff Health Sciences Center research enterprise has experienced 57 percent growth in external funding during the past six years, reaching a total of $847 million in awards for our 2021 fiscal year. The institution ranks among the most elite academic health centers in the nation. In terms of national NIH funding, Emory University schools are consistently in the top echelon –– Emory's School of Medicine ranks 14th, the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing ranks fifth, and the Rollins School of Public Health ranks fourth. Additionally, philanthropic support to the health sciences at Emory has more than doubled, from an average of $151 million to $309 million on an annual basis.

I believe that almost all healthcare leaders would agree that navigating the COVID-19 pandemic has been their main challenge over the past two years because of the uncertainties we have faced and the lessons we have learned. Our five-year strategic plan, launched in 2016, was paramount throughout the pandemic. Many of the elements in the plan — including investments in telehealth, systemness, clinical research and, most importantly, our people — have been critical to our pandemic efforts since March 2020. Most importantly, during my tenure, our full commitment to implementing a lean operating system and organizational culture has been critical in engaging and learning from the front lines and quickly disseminating best practices across the system.

Navigating the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly made us a stronger institution by rapidly accelerating our systemness, organizational learning and our adaptability. By focusing not only on our patients but also on our people, we have been able to ensure that our physicians, staff and researchers have all the tools they need to provide the best care, outcomes and scientific discoveries. The pandemic experience has confirmed that the same strategies we developed in good times have served us equally well during difficult times.

Q: This has been an especially challenging year in healthcare. What have been some of the biggest lessons you've learned as CEO during the pandemic?

JL: Leading through the pandemic reinforced the value of the fundamentals of good leadership: humility, empathy, adaptability and a willingness to listen to people at all levels of the organization. Investing in your people is always a good strategy and continues to be a key takeaway as a leader. Throughout the past year, our teams have been able to rapidly adapt and learn because we have concentrated not only on our patients but also on our people. We have doubled down on our commitment to making sure our physicians and staff are empowered and supported to move us forward. After all, the best way to take care of our patients is to take care of their caregivers.

Q: What are your plans following your departure from Emory?

JL: Once a new executive vice president for health affairs of Emory University is selected, I will step down from my leadership positions and will join the Emory University faculty. I am currently a tenured professor in the department of radiology and imaging sciences and a member of the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, with secondary appointments in biomedical engineering and health policy and management. I plan on returning to my roots in innovation, education and technology development and am excited to see where my academic interests lead me across the broad range of outstanding programs here at Emory University.

Q: Given what healthcare is experiencing in regards to misinformation, do you think that leadership teams at hospitals and health systems will design new roles dedicated to preventing the spread of misinformation and protecting workplace culture?

JL: As part of our role as medical providers, it is our duty to ensure that we provide accurate information to educate the public, prevent the spread of misinformation and protect workplace culture. I strongly believe that having dedicated people to be the sources of truth and accurate information is important for every healthcare system to combat the many active sources of false or misleading information that threaten the health and well-being of our society.

Our physicians and staff have worked hand-in-hand with our epidemiology team and across the university to provide current and accurate information in relation to COVID-19. We have provided interviews and reports to local, regional and national media on a variety of COVID-19 topics. Additionally, we have conducted town halls, webinars and live social media videos to provide the latest updates on the virus such as prevention tips and vaccination information, both in general and in pregnancy, and much more. To counteract misinformation more locally, we have provided individual support opportunities and small group sessions so that team members could talk directly with our experts and ask questions. I believe that meeting people where they are is the most effective way to create trust and positive change.

With regard to workplace culture during my tenure, we have instituted Emory Healthcare's new Office of Well-Being to focus on provider health and wellness and have appointed the health system's first ever chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer. I am hopeful that the promotion of a people-centric, inclusive, respectful and constructive culture will be the most enduring legacy of my tenure as the leader of the Woodruff Health Sciences Center and Emory Healthcare.

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