The 3 health system vital signs Dr. Joanne Conroy monitors as CEO of Dartmouth-Hitchcock

Joanne Conroy, MD, CEO and president of Lebanon, N.H.-based Dartmouth-Hitchcock and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health, became accustomed to monitoring her patients' vital signs during her clinical career as an anesthesiologist.

Now, as CEO, she said she focuses on her organization's vital signs — people, patients and operations.

Dr. Conroy has served as Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health CEO since 2017. Before joining New Hampshire's only academic health system, she was CEO of Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, Mass.; chief healthcare officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C.; and CMO, executive vice president and COO of Atlantic Health System in Florham Park, N.J.

Dr. Conroy is also board certified in anesthesiology.

Here, she shares her priorities for 2022, discusses the most pressing problem CEOs are facing and reveals what she deems the top skills CEOs need to thrive in today's healthcare environment.

Editor's Note: Responses have been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Question: What is the most pressing issue facing hospital CEOs amid the latest COVID-19 surge? 

Dr. Joanne Conroy: We are definitely feeling the strain of staffing shortages that are impacting our system, as well as hospitals and healthcare systems across the nation. Our team members are putting in extra time, extra work, extra energy and extra care for our patients and each other as we work to meet this challenge, which impacts all areas of our operations. Our workforce has been a strategic priority for many years, and we have taken steps to proactively plan for our needs now and into the future by establishing a workforce planning program that informs and makes possible our strategic, financial and operational plans. The fact that more than 99 percent of our colleagues have complied with our COVID-19 vaccination requirement speaks volumes about their commitment to support our patients, and we're working to find ways to support our employees at all stages of their careers and attract new talent to our hospitals and health systems. This is an acute problem, but it is also a long-term challenge that we cannot fail to address. 

Q: What are the system's top priorities for 2022? 

JC: Even as we continue to navigate the unprecedented challenges brought about by the pandemic, we have to continue to move forward and plan for the future. Recruitment and retention of staff in a range of roles across our system will continue to be a top priority. We are also focused on the availability of affordable housing for our employees and our community; it will be very difficult to convince talented people to relocate and come work for us if affordable housing remains scarce.

As the most rural academic medical center in the country, expanding access to care in the communities we serve — and with an emphasis on addressing COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy and resistance in those communities right now – will always be at the top of the priority list. We are making major capital investments in this area because we are committed to providing the best care available, as close to home as possible. Earlier this year, we opened a new ambulatory surgery center at our community group practice in New Hampshire's largest city, and construction is progressing on a new 212,000 square-foot patient pavilion that will provide much-needed new inpatient beds at our flagship hospital.

We will also continue to expand telehealth services. Our important work on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging is progressing. The more diverse we are, the stronger, happier and healthier we will be as colleagues, caregivers and as a community.

Q: How is the system working with state and federal stakeholders to further pro-hospital, pro-healthcare initiatives, resources, funding and legislation?

JC: We are fortunate to have a close working relationship with our state's congressional delegation, who continue to do remarkable work to advocate for policies and funding to support the healthcare needs of all of our patients. We are a member of the Washington, D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center, and work with them and other advocacy organizations on relevant programming and national initiatives, including and especially those that highlight the unique challenges facing rural health providers. I am a board member of the American Hospital Association and am involved with other organizations that help set priorities and inform policymaking. And we also work closely with our New Hampshire state leaders on public health issues at the local and regional level, such as the ongoing opioid and mental health crises, vaping and, of course, COVID-19-related issues.

Q: What skills are essential for health system CEOs to thrive in today's healthcare landscape?

JC: During my clinical career as an anesthesiologist, monitoring a patient's vital signs was a critical component of my job. Now, as a CEO, I've learned it is important to continually monitor your hospital's or system's vital signs — our people, our patients, our operations. Effective and regular communication, always with transparency, is essential. The pandemic has served to reinforce that we can never compromise on our conviction to always "follow the science" and use evidence-based information for decision-making. And, I can't emphasize enough having not just a willingness to collaborate, but an enthusiasm for collaboration and partnership. Static thinking prevents us from advancing our mission; the development of new ideas and strategies is essential to success, and those ideas come from listening and dialogue with colleagues who have the broadest range of perspectives and experiences.

Q: What advice would you offer to another health system CEO and why? 

JC: I think the most important thing we can do as leaders is to empower our talented teams to do their jobs, first by continually reinforcing the trust you have in their abilities and, secondly, by ensuring that they have the tools they need to succeed. I would also encourage leaders to always be learners. That means staying interested, staying curious and staying open-minded. Most importantly, it means you have to really listen — to your patients, to your community, to your team. Lastly, it's hard to overstate the importance of preparing and planning. The pandemic has taught us a lot about the benefits of having a plan in place before a crises hits. It's a lot easier to modify a solid, existing plan in real time than to try to "build the plane while you're flying it" when you're deep in the weeds.

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