Northwell president and CEO Michael Dowling believes the future of health care starts one day at a time. As an advocate for veterans’ rights and a champion of gun reform, Dowling takes an all-encompassing approach to patient care that is rooted in education and prevention as much as state-of-the-art treatment.
“The way I look at health care is through the eyes of customer service” Dowling said. “We treat customers—patients and their families—and that is the day-to-day of health care. When you’re a provider, like us, you’re face-to-face with customers all the time. They are not numbers on pages, we have a different view.”
For Dowling, the human factor is essential in the future of treatment and Northwell’s continued growth. Dowling, who has served as CEO for New York State’s largest health system for nearly two decades, spends every Monday morning meeting personally with approximately 180 new hires at Northwell’s headquarters for its Beginnings program. During those two hours, each new employee joining the staff of more than 70,000 has the opportunity to get to know Dowling, asking questions that range from, “What are the greatest challenges you face right now?” to “What is your favorite restaurant?” The goal is to illustrate the connectivity within departments at Northwell’s health system, which includes more than 220 primary care practices and 23 hospitals, with more ambulatory care centers on the way.
“I want to impress upon them the importance of what they do, it is not just a job,” he said. “I emphasize that while we use technology, it has to be blended with the human aspect of care. Every hire, from the guy who parks the car or works in the kitchen to the chief nurse, comes. Because everyone is important. When a family pulls up to our hospital with a sick relative, the person who meets them to park the car is important.”
An immigrant from Ireland, Dowling’s career began didn’t begin in the health care industry, but rather in higher education and public service. For 12 years he oversaw health, education and human services for former New York Governor Mario Cuomo.
Before his public service career, Dowling was a professor of social policy and assistant dean at the Fordham University Graduate School of Social Services, and director of the Fordham campus in Westchester County. It’s a background that instilled the gravity of how prevailing social issues play in overall public health.
“We are focused on wellness and prevention, not just treating people when they’re ill,” he said. “We spend a lot of time on lifestyle and behavior. We have to be proactive.”
Dowling is well known for advocating for health policy issues in Washington, D.C. and New York. Last August, Northwell unveiled an ad campaign urging other hospital executives to advocate for gun control. Dowling called the matter a public health issue, and wants to see the health care industry break its silence on gun violence and advocate for gun legislation. Putting his money where his mouth his, in December, Dowling announced that Northwell Health would invest $1 million in efforts related to gun violence prevention, and challenged other health care systems across the country to do the same.
“I have been frustrated by the inability of many health system CEOs to stand up and talk about the issue of gun violence,” Dowling said recently at the forum. “CEOs can’t be silent anymore, not on an issue this big. If you have the courage and strength to run a big health system, you should have the courage to stand up and talk about this. My goal is to get all major health systems in the United States to pledge their support.”
For his continued efforts, Dowling was recently named to Modern Healthcare magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in Healthcare” for the 13th consecutive year.
The recognition honors individuals in health care who are deemed by their peers and the senior editors of Modern Healthcare to be the most influential individuals in the industry, in terms of leadership and impact.
Dowling ranks 44th on the latest list of the nation’s most prominent health care CEOs, elected officials and government administrators, in the company of Amazon chairman and CEO Jeff Bezos. Northwell Health was also recently selected as a 2020 Military Friendly organization. In addition to being one of the largest employers of veterans, Northwell Health has implemented several programs to aid veterans.
One example is the first-of-its-kind Unified Behavioral Health Center in Bay Shore, jointly operated by Northwell and the Northport VA Medical Center, which helps military veterans and their families cope with the emotional burdens they face when they return home.
This year, Northwell will continue its growth, adding roughly 40 new ambulatory surgery, cancer and imagery centers to meet demand across the island. There will also be construction to increase the number of beds at existing facilities.
“It takes a long time to reach these goals,” Dowling said. “If you want to do something today, you have to envision where you are five years from now. We grow every year.”
Despite the serious issue impacting health care, including ongoing concerns about accessibility and affordability, Dowling takes an optimistic stance. In his book, Health Care Reboot: Megatrends Energizing American Medicine, Dowling makes a case that a series of powerful trends are leading the nation’s health care system towards greater quality, safety and most importantly, patient care.
“The ultimate issue is how to make sure health care is as accessible as possible,” Dowling said. “What I mean by accessible is making it easy to get to and providing the best care possible. At the end of the it is the human aspect of care that really matters.”