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Embracing Disruption in Healthcare: Insights from Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling at the Zarb School of Business

Michael Dowling

From unprecedented competition and consolidation to breakthroughs in research and telemedicine, healthcare is in a state of disruption. For industry leaders, navigating this disruption to improve patient care means leveraging change, embracing innovation. Take Michael Dowling, CEO of Northwell Health, for example. Dowling’s career has included positions in government, insurance, and healthcare administration.

As CEO of one of the largest health systems in the United States with more than 30 percent market share and over 11 billion dollars in annual revenue, Dowling’s leadership drives a culture of innovation and growth across nearly 70,000 employees in the New York Metro area.

At an exclusive event held by Hofstra’s Zarb School of Business , Dowling spoke to students and health care professionals about the intricate demands on healthcare today. Despite the challenges, he remains passionate and optimistic about the future of health care. (see full video here)

Here are some insights from this exclusive event:

Balancing the demands of the field and the business of healthcare is a challenge.

“Healthcare is very multifaceted and multi-dimensional,” Dowling said. “[Northwell] provides all aspects of healthcare at all levels, from A to Z. We are an educator—one of the largest academic teaching places in the United States. We are also huge in research. But in addition to that, we are also an employer—the biggest private employer in New York State. So, we suffer from all of the issues that other employers suffer from because we are also an employer as well. The costs of healthcare, for example, that affect all other employers affects us as an employer too.”

Healthcare, as a business, has a unique mission and function. 

As a leader in healthcare, you need to be conscious that it’s a business. But it’s also a business with a very unique function. “You’re dealing with life,” Dowling said. “You’re dealing with people’s well-being. You’re dealing with health. You’re dealing with people in distress each and every day. If you get a phone call in the middle of the night and there’s a real disaster this can be a serious life-and-death situation so [while it’s a business] the mission part of healthcare is extraordinarily important.” 

We have a responsibility to the community.

“We are in a business that takes care of everybody irrespective of circumstance,” Dowling said. “We do not turn people away.” This responsibility to the community can put extra strain on an organization, particularly if you’re also responsible for being innovative, he noted. Research hospitals need to find a way to balance these priorities and move healthcare forward, and it’s this realization that is driving new ways of doing things.

The evils of consolidation in healthcare have been exaggerated.

Healthcare continues to go through a period of consolidation similar to other industries. And while many bemoan consolidation, it can be a very good thing. “In healthcare, and especially in our region,” said Dowling, “There would be parts of Long Island and the region that would be negatively affected today if we had not taken many of the hospitals that were in terrible condition then and merged them with us. So, there’s a positive aspect to consolidation. I know some of the rhetoric out there suggests that it is all negative. It is not all negative. In fact, I would argue that it’s mostly positive.”

Still, competition can come from any direction.

“In the New York area, we compete against hospitals such as NYU, Mount Sinai, Columbia Presbyterian, and to an extent Montefiore Medical Center,” Dowling said. “I would call them traditional competitors. We know what they do; they know what we do. We observe them all the time, and we know exactly what they’re thinking about.” But competition in healthcare is fierce today and can also come from unexpected sources. “Amazon is a competitor. Google is becoming a competitor. CVS is a competitor, and Walgreens. Every venture capital group out there wants to be involved in healthcare. Keep this in mind,” he said.

Healthcare is still a very rewarding field.

While some changes in healthcare seem discouraging, “to be in a position of actually doing something each and every day, whatever the action you take, [where you are] actually going to improve the life of somebody else is something unbelievable,” Dowling said.

Embrace change as a challenge and accept the opportunity it offers.

“My first job was milking cows,” Dowling told the students. “When I was 16, I was working in steel factories in the south of London to make money for my family. I’ve been in government. I have been in the health insurance business, and I have been now for the last almost 25 years in the provider side of the business. Know this: When somebody opens up a door for you, you walk through it. You take advantage of it. You don’t sit around and say, ‘I don’t think I can do this. I think this is too difficult.’ You grab it, and you go for it. You give it your best shot. And when you give it your best shot, you find out that you’re going to do it better than most other people thought you [would].” Healthcare is a challenging field. But it’s also exceptionally rewarding. Step up to the challenge, Dowling advised.

Watch the event:

Looking for a door into healthcare? Northwell Health and Hofstra University have partnered together to offer students externships in leading health organizations in the New York metro area.