Build better, put people first, and learn through listening: How healthcare innovators are driving systemic change
Leadership is a key driver in health outcomes—since 2020, it’s been on clear display how good leadership in healthcare means the difference between life and death.
For leaders of privilege with positional power—who may have been able to ignore systemic inequities in the past—massive public health challenges and a national reckoning with racism brought longstanding problems into focus.
But particularly in times of turmoil, bold leadership can pave the way to systemic change—from large healthcare systems to startups and everything in between.
At RockHealth.org, we are called by the opportunity to reimagine how innovators are equipped with the resources, reach, and recognition needed to create a better future. This work entails learning from and with an ecosystem of leaders who accept the challenge of systems change head on every day. Whether they are innovating in medicine, design, technology, or investing, these leaders ask different questions, work on deeply entrenched problems, and change mindsets so that those same problems don’t repeat themselves.
I recently spoke with several such leaders at Aspen Ideas: Health as moderator of the panel “Leading the Way to Better Health”. This accomplished group is shifting the state of U.S. healthcare so that outcomes improve and people can thrive. Throughout the conversation, their stories pulled forward examples of how bold leadership can make a difference:
Dr. Paula Johnson MD, MPH, current President of Wellesley College, former professor at Harvard Medical School, and founding director of The Mary Horrigan Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology has led groundbreaking research on women’s health that has advanced the field’s understanding of how best to build solutions for women. To do so, she had to trust her own vision early on in her career. When she initially set out to create an interdisciplinary program at the intersection of public health, healthcare delivery, and women’s health, Paula said she was told numerous times that such a thing would be impossible, mostly because academic medicine at the time was so siloed. “I think what was a transformative moment for me was gaining all the credentials, but then [developing] an interdisciplinary program in a very traditional setting.” Paula shared. “What we were proposing was quite different; it was about the commonality of looking at sex and gender and women’s health across departments and thinking much more collectively as an academic division about how we were going to [build] a very different paradigm.”
Persevering despite the obstacles, Paula built and launched the Connors Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in 2002 with a mission to improve the health of women and transform their care. In March 2014, Paula and her team convened healthcare leaders for “Charting the Course: A National Policy Summit on the Future of Women’s Health,” in Boston—a groundbreaking gathering that galvanized more action for women’s health. Her leadership on equitable healthcare outcomes also resulted in policy change at the National Institutes of Health to support more women’s health research. Looking back, what made the difference? Paula said it was having colleagues in leadership who were “excited by the possibility and the vision” and worked with her to invest in that vision. But none of it would have happened at all if Paula hadn’t recognized the opportunity to build differently—and better.
PUT PEOPLE FIRST
Today, Andy Slavitt is Founding Partner of Town Hall Ventures, a healthcare firm that invests in underrepresented communities. Across various points in his career, he served as a COVID advisor to the Biden White House and also led Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) under President Obama. During the water crisis in Flint, Michigan in 2014, Andy had hard leadership decisions to make. CMS had given every youth in Flint healthcare coverage until age 18, but all of the lead pipes across the city still needed to be replaced. The question was, who was going to pay for it?
While Andy’s organization wasn’t the obvious payer, he knew he needed to do the work to convene the right parties and get the lead pipes removed. “We all lead in our own way every day in so many ways, but occasionally we have moments where we want to crawl under our bed and say ‘make it stop.’” Andy says. “That’s a disguised leadership moment… Those moments, when it’s really scary, are when you need to step up.” And so he did—Andy put people first because it was the right thing to do, and found the money to pay for the removal of the pipes. This is an example of quiet, courageous leadership we can all learn from.
LEARN THROUGH LISTENING
As Founder and CEO of Incredible Health, Dr. Iman Abuzeid leads a team dedicated to “matching the right nurse with the right role at the right employer.” Iman founded Incredible Health based on the simple idea that listening to nurses could lead to better health outcomes.
When it comes to shortening the distance between the C-suite and care providers to advocate for nurses, Iman spoke to the power of learning from data gathered from the frontlines. “Once you bring in the [reporting], that’s when [change] starts to happen,” she said. What’s unsustainable—for nurses or about the business model—reveals itself. Incredible Health’s work shows that what’s good for nurses is good for business.
Iman’s vision of listening to nurses led to increasing their pay and enabling more flexible schedules—addressing a critical challenge of the healthcare system by improving job satisfaction and retention.
In the healthcare and entrepreneurial community, it’s popular to celebrate quick wins and buzzy headlines. But it’s the leaders like Paula, Andy, and Iman—who build better, put people first, and learn through listening—who drive forward advances that can lead to long-term change.
Systems change work is a collective effort—and is pushing us at RockHealth.org to reimagine how opportunity and innovation is fueled; galvanize healthcare leaders to design new ways of building solutions; and celebrate and support a community of game-changing innovators. Learn more about our work in building a more equitable future at RockHealth.org.