Dr. Saadia Sherwani on her first 6 months as Northwestern Memorial's chief medical officer 

Saadia Sherwani, MD, has always had diversity in medicine at the forefront of her mind.

After 22 years at Chicago-based Northwestern Medicine as a cardiothoracic anesthesiologist, she was appointed chief medical officer of Chicago-based Northwestern Memorial Hospital in April. 

Nearly six months into her new role, she sat down with Becker's to reflect on her roots, greatest achievements and goals for the future. 

Question: What piqued your interest in healthcare?

Dr. Saadia Sherwani: Growing up in the family that I grew up in, I think that community service and volunteerism was something that was always such a focus. An interest in medicine and healthcare sort of came as a natural evolution to the way I was brought up. I think that the transition to more of an administrative focus on healthcare came as a result of asking questions and trying to solve problems that we deal with on a day-to-day basis as physicians. 

My focus historically has been in the operating room because I'm a cardiothoracic anesthesiologist, and that is literally where my home is at work on a day-to-day basis. So trying to solve the daily questions and issues that we face and trying to come to a solution so we can more optimally care for our patients was always something that came that was interesting to me. I sort of built on that little by little, and my focus became larger and larger as a result of it and really led me to where I am right now. 

Q: What has been your biggest accomplishment thus far? Whether it be in your career in general or at Northwestern? 

SS: There are a couple of things that come to mind. I think that one of my proudest accomplishments at NM thus far has really been the work that I was able to do during the pandemic. So throughout the pandemic I held several leadership roles with a variety of teams, managing through crisis management. So as an example, in the first initial surge, I led a team of physicians, nurses, administrative leaders and specialists from many different areas, process improvement facilities, biomed, etc., in creating inpatient capacity for the surge that we were experiencing. We had to really rapidly plan for an unknown volume of patients that had an illness that we never really experienced before. And we had to create a really tight executable plan to convert our ORs and other nontraditional environments into intensive care units. For example, we converted the inpatient floor to an ICU in a mere 30 hours. All of this work was so awe-inspiring to me. Everyone working together, guided by this principle of really optimizing in an unknown circumstance and environment. It truly demonstrated the values that we always discussed in sort of noncrisis times. And so to me, that was a really remarkable experience. 

The other thing that I'm incredibly proud of has been my focus on developing a diverse leadership team. So back in 2009, I was in the perioperative space; I was a medical director, and I was the only woman medical director in that area. As I developed more progressive leadership roles in that environment, my circle of influence grew bigger and bigger, and I was able to make very intentional, deliberate decisions about elevating people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives into leadership roles within the perioperative space. What I'm really proud of right now is that in surgical services, 50 percent of our medical directors are women. And in fact, 30 percent are underrepresented minorities. Creating the diversity in this area and department has made us so much stronger. I really do believe that diversity of opinions, perspectives, backgrounds really creates an environment to achieve our most robust solutions to problems.

Q: If you could eliminate one of the healthcare industry's problems overnight, what would it be and why?

SS: One of the challenges that the healthcare industry is really experiencing since the COVID pandemic is really talent acquisition. We too have experienced the Great Resignation as in many different fields. And we along with others are experiencing challenges with recruitment, especially within our employees. And so if that were something I could with a magic wand resolve right now, that would be the one I would choose. That certainly is our focus, along with so many other healthcare arenas. 

Q: What are your goals for the next six months as chief medical officer of Northwestern Memorial? Next year?

SS: I'm new to my role as chief medical officer here at Northwestern, and I've been in the role since April. And my focus historically has really been in the perioperative space. My goal is to really gain knowledge of all the excellent care that we provide throughout our organization. And really over the next six months, I want to meet with our physician and nursing administrative leaders to really understand their challenges and how we can continue to improve care.

Q: What is the best leadership advice you have ever received?

SS: There's so much great leadership advice that I've received over the course of the years here. I think that one thing I would say is that you don't really have to be in a senior leadership role to really impact change. It just starts by asking questions, meeting people [who are] developing solutions, and creating change in your own local environments. And as one circle of influence grows, you're able to address more challenges more broadly. But really, I think it doesn't take a senior leader to create change, that's for sure. I think it really does start from the front line. 

And the other [thing] is something I had shared with Becker's in the past. And I think that one of the things as a large academic medical center, we are constantly experiencing lots of complex issues, and needing to focus on multiple things at the same time. So, I really think that it's very important to take a step back every now and then, and really focus on the why and why we're here to do what we're here to do. Because I think otherwise, if we don't take that step back and really remember why and the meaning of why we are here, I think we can easily get focused on the distraction and head down rabbit holes. I think it's important to do that and take a step back, because I think it can be really restorative [in] … a complex environment and help us focus on the things that are the most important.

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