Northwell Health’s Michael Dowling Discusses Gun Violence, Public Health and Courage in Leadership

During Fair360, formerly DiversityInc’s virtual Top 50 Announcement Event on May 5, 2020, president and CEO of Northwell Health (No. 1 on Fair360, formerly DiversityInc’s Top Hospitals and Health Systems) Michael Dowling took part in a fireside chat with Fair360, formerly DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson about his unapologetic approach to discussing gun violence and other public health issues.

Dowling is known for being straightforward in addressing social issues — especially those, like gun violence, that affect public health. In a 2019 Newsday article, Dowling said “courage is an inherent ingredient in leadership.”

In his conversation with Johnson, Dowling said leaders must take accountability for their actions and have the courage to talk about issues honestly. He said he believes leaders need to be “constructively disruptive” in their outspokenness.

“You can always let your voice be heard just to be annoying or just to be heard, but what you’ve got to be able to do is actually speak about something that’s important to the public health and important to the community that you work in,” Dowling said.

Leaders of major health systems have the platform to amplify their voices, but Dowling said it is important for them to ask themselves how their voices can make a difference. “We have a responsibility to do something for the good of the public on an ongoing basis — not just only manage our organization,” Dowling said.

However, when it comes to managing an organization, Dowling said it is important for leaders to show up for their employees and be on the frontlines. Dowling has had both frontline and manual labor work experience and said that although he now sits in a CEO office, he strives to remain humble and connected with his workers.

“Don’t let the title of CEO get to your head. Leadership is about action; it’s not about the title you hold,” Dowling said.

While gun violence continues to be a major threat to public health with an average of more than 36,000 Americans dying each year, COVID-19 is another more recent problem that has been slamming the U.S. health care system.

During this ongoing COVID-19 crisis, Dowling has visited Northwell’s hospitals and interacted with the doctors and nurses on the frontlines despite his advisers cautioning him about the risk of exposure. He said he felt it was necessary to show his support to doctors, nurses and staff, saying they appreciated his presence and the solidarity and unity of purpose it brought.

“I have taken more selfies in the last six weeks than I’ve ever taken in the last five years because everyone wants to say, ‘You understand. You understand what we’re doing. Thank you for being here,’” Dowling said.

In addition to the coronavirus pandemic, Dowling said he also sees racism and sexism as contributors to public health crises. He said when organizations — especially in health care — don’t access the talent of a diverse array of individuals, they fail to reach their potential. Dowling said when sexism and racism constrain who is able to offer their skills, then the company and society as a whole fail to reach their potential.

According to a 2017 Johns Hopkins University study, firearms-related injuries account for $2.8 billion in emergency and in-patient care. Johnson raised the question of whether better prevention and management of gun violence could have helped preserve the bandwidth of hospitals now overwhelmed with coronavirus cases.

While Dowling said he was not sure if fewer gun violence cases would result in more funding and resources for hospitals during COVID-19, he believes gun violence points to a bigger issue in the healthcare industry.

Because hospitals treat people in the midst of physical and mental distress, hospital workers see the various effects of gun violence — whether it be from suicides, domestic violence, gang violence or other causes. Gun violence also disproportionately affects poor communities and communities of color. Dowling said he believes gun violence greatly affects hospitals and should be viewed as a public health issue.

“I am a little distraught by the fact that an awful lot of leaders in health care are not speaking out about this … For some reason, they don’t want to stand up and say one of the biggest killers, one of the biggest causes of physical and emotional distress is gun violence,” Dowling said. “If we’re interested in saving lives, gun violence is a major, major issue that we have to stand up against.”

Dowling suggests that leaders can stand up against gun violence without questioning or challenging the Second Amendment, especially since both gun owners and non-gun owners agree on the necessity for increased safety measures.

As people are now set on flattening the COVID-19 curve, they can also think about reducing gun violence by promoting universal background check and education around gun safety.

“We need to be preparing our schools and our local communities for what happens if you have an issue. We need to educate more about the dangers of guns,” Dowling said.

Dowling’s advice for other leaders who want to speak up for the cause is to educate themselves on the problem and engage with local organizations already addressing the issue. Because of COVID-19, society is changing, and leaders can take these changes as an opportunity to do some self-reflection.

“Get interested in something, even if it’s not gun violence,” Dowling said. “We all now have to look for a new normal because of COVID. The world is going to change. Politics will change. Government will change a little bit. Health care organizations will change. So, I, as an individual have to change.”