An interview with Michael Dowling, Northwell Health President & CEO
One of the unintended consequences of COVID-19 has been the media spotlight that has been placed on epidemiologists, infection control specialists, medical researchers, healthcare executives and of course, front-line staff. For many local and national news outlets, these healthcare experts have become a nightly staple. Although I wish it were under different circumstances, this media attention is a unique opportunity for the general public to learn more about healthcare and the role it plays in our daily lives.
If you live in the US, and in particular if you live in the Northeast, you have likely seen Michael Dowling, CEO of Northwell Health in the news during this pandemic. As a member of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s team, Dowling has been a key voice for healthcare. I recently had the honor of sitting down with Dowling to ask him about his media appearances and what advice he has for healthcare leaders who find themselves in the COVID-19 spotlight.
At the COVID-19 epicenter
Northwell Health is the largest integrated healthcare system in New York state and the 14th largest system in the US. The system employs more than 61,000 employees across 21 hospitals, four skilled nursing facilities, and over 450 ambulatory practices. Northwell treats 1.6 million patients annually and has treated 50,000 COVID-19 patients. To put it in perspective, that’s 21% of the state’s total cases.
As CEO of the system since 2002, Dowling has always been an outspoken healthcare leader. He has delivered numerous keynotes on healthcare equality, the future of healthcare, and access to care. A recurring theme in all Dowling’s appearances is his optimism. He believes that no challenge is insurmountable if we work together to solve them. That optimism is captured in his book “Health Care Reboot: Megatrends Energizing American Medicine” which he co-authored with Charles Kennedy.
Stick to the facts
It has not been easy for Dowling (or any healthcare CEO) these past few months. The pandemic that has continued to ravage the nation has become a highly politicized issue that has polarized the public. To help navigate this delicate situation, Dowling strongly recommends that healthcare experts remain “fact-based and data-driven”.
Dowling was careful to remain diplomatic as he pointed out that the US (and the world for that matter) is receiving a constant barrage of misinformation, and one key to victory against the virus is staying with facts and “weeding out the garbage” that can pollute rational thinking and responsible actions. He advised newcomers to the COVID-19 discussion to remember their role and expertise amidst the noise. “You have a lot of people who want to grandstand. Remember that you are the one on the ground doing the work, and stick with what you see, know, and understand.”
From what I have seen, this has generally been how healthcare experts have been leveraged by media outlets. After every story of a business owners expressing concern over the need to close their doors, the healthcare expert is brought on-air to explain why these measures are needed to help contain the virus.
Dowling stated emphatically that he plans to remain dedicated to transparency and correcting misinformation throughout this pandemic.
“People have a tendency to get frustrated during an emergency situation,” Dowling said. “It’s important to stay calm and remember that people are looking up to you as an example, especially your employees. They watch how you react, and you risk losing their confidence if you start acting emotionally. Be the rock everyone needs you to be.”
For Dowling it doesn’t matter if it’s a one-on-one meeting with a staff member or if it’s a nationally televised news program, he strives to remain even-keeled and logical.
Dowling has publicly expressed optimism since the pandemic’s early days and hasn’t changed that stance. He has consistently expressed his opinion that “we can defeat the virus if we work together”. With each interview he tries to highlight a new advancement in the fight against COVID-19. Sometimes its new research. Other times it’s simply a story about a clinician doing something special to help a patient suffering from the virus. He is always careful not to oversell his positivity.
Be open with staff
Dowling shared with me that he has walked every floor of every hospital in the Northwell Health system and visited every ICU every week (that’s 23 hospitals)! Visiting with staff and seeing first-hand what is happening on the front lines is essential during this chaotic time.
“You make the time to do it,” Dowling explained. “It is simply that important. You need to support and believe in your team. They’re healthcare experts, too, and they need to be heard and know that the organization and CEO has their back.”
Dowling has held video chats with staff and recorded chats with senior leaders that were distributed across the organization to help improve communication. And if anyone across Northwell health wants to meet with him, he always says YES regardless of who that person might be or what title they hold.
A refreshing voice.
Dowling’s optimism is refreshing, especially coming from someone who has been at the early epicenter of the pandemic in the US. I think he summed it up best with his simple statement: “No one wants to work with a pessimist.”
This article is part of the #HealthIT100in100