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Adapting to Changing Strategic Priorities in Healthcare

Samantha Hunter
Published:  03/30/2021

Person typing on a laptop with a stethoscope on the desk

“When you work in healthcare, you deal with crises on a daily basis. It’s how you react to them that defines you. You don’t put up the white flag, you don’t retreat. This is not going to beat you,” said Michael Dowling, president and chief executive officer of Northwell Health, New York’s largest healthcare provider. 

In the first session of the Leading Forward 2021 Executive Summit, Michael Dowling and Brian Lally, senior vice president and chief development officer, discussed how Northwell Health’s strategic priorities have changed in the past year and how philanthropy can adapt to support the system’s evolving funding needs. 

At the height of the pandemic Northwell Health treated 3,500 COVID positive patients in the system at one time. By July, it treated over 50,000 patients and to-date has treated over 190,000 patients. It goes without saying that COVID has disrupted all businesses and industries but it disrupted healthcare in a different way. It significantly accelerated changes in healthcare, including the growth of telehealth, an increased understanding of behavioral health needs, and a spotlight has been put on inequities in access to care. A few themes held throughout the session.

Communication is important for donors and staff

Now, maybe more than ever, it’s critical to build a culture in your organization amongst your employees, your board, and your donors. You want to build a culture of commitment and dedication for employees while making sure your board and your donors understand the day-to-day reality of frontline workers. 

While most non-essential staff are working remotely, it’s important to make sure you are communicating with staff and donors about what is happening each day. People want to be connected to the mission and the work that’s being done. Many donors are interested in the business but they’re even more interested in the organization’s mission. If that message comes across, you’ll build loyalty among your donors and employees. 

By keeping culture and the organization's mission front and center, Northwell Health saw employee engagement jump to the 91st percentile, the highest increase ever. They were able to provide bonuses to all frontline employees that worked with COVID patients and an additional week of paid time off. 

They also received tremendous support from the community and donors by engaging with local partners. Over 1,200 businesses and companies provided supplies and meals to Northwell Health and each received a handwritten thank you response. By keeping a strong connection between the community and the healthcare community Northwell received $36 million in donations from 18,000 donors as well as over 1 million pieces of medical supplies and PPE donated to-date. 

Innovation and creativity are necessary

During a crisis, innovation and creativity blossom because you are forced to do things you wouldn’t normally do and think quickly. You have to act and don’t have the luxury to deliberate and analyze decisions. Organizations have to be willing to take risks and think differently to succeed. 

Moving forward, flexibility and a hybrid working model will be the new normal across all industries. All non-essential employees managed the entire COVID crisis remotely. The challenging part will be maintaining the culture your organization has. As mentioned earlier, communication is key to keeping people connected and engaged. 

As a whole, the healthcare system needs to focus on prevention and wellness just as much as treating illness. We’ve seen it start to shift with the rollout of the COVID vaccine. There has been an increased focus on reaching “the customer”, or in this case patients, to explain the importance of getting the vaccine when eligible. Healthcare needs to be customer obsessed and realize we’re in the customer service business.

If done well, philanthropy is front and center of innovation and creativity by supporting organizational shifts. Philanthropy plays a huge role in making employees and the community feeling connected to the organization’s shifting priorities and part of the team. 

Continue to focus on health equity

Health equity has always been a priority in healthcare, but COVID has demonstrated that there is a bigger gap than has ever been acknowledged. Rightfully, there is currently a focus on reducing vaccine hesitancy but when we’ve reached herd immunity, that’s when it’s critical to maintain a commitment to those communities. 

Think beyond and broaden what we define as ‘health’. The problem isn’t solely solved through traditional medical care, like opening a new urgent care center in an area with limited access to healthcare. While that undoubtedly is needed and has a measurable impact, it’s important to not think so narrowly. 

The loss of a job is ill health. Scholarships for children who could otherwise not afford higher education, has an impact on the entire family. It’s been known for decades that social determinants of health have an upstream effect in healthcare, but there is an opportunity now to think about it in a different way. 

Go into communities and listen. Forming partnerships with local organizations that have been doing this kind of work will show that you are listening and want to truly understand the problem. Working with others to build coalitions that focus on employment, affordable housing, education, reducing gun violence, coupled with increasing healthcare delivery is key. 

To support this, the development work needs to be done upfront. Funding isn’t unlimited so it’s important to start developing opportunities for board members to think big about doing something very different than before. 

Think about the next phase 

“It’s all a matter of optimism and raising the bar. The pandemic has changed everyone. We all think differently now. It demonstrated our fragility, but also our strength of what we can do in a very difficult time. If we learn from it, we will be able to do better moving forward,” said Michael.  

Join us for the next Leading Forward session to take part in meaningful conversation about how to elevate your organization through philanthropy.

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Meet The Author

Sam Hunter headshot
Samantha Hunter
Association for Healthcare Philanthropy

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