Dartmouth Health CEO talks leadership and more

As CEO of the largest healthcare organization in New Hampshire, Dr. Joanne Conroy of Dartmouth Health has four guiding principles in her leadership style: authenticity, integrity, responsibility and commitment to a greater whole.

Conroy discussed her leadership style and more during a July 26 presentation with FedPoint CEO Paul Forte at FedPoint’s offices in the Pease International Tradeport.

According to Conroy, leaders of organizations become better leaders when they are tested by difficulties. One of theirs was the Covid-19 pandemic.

“You learn leadership through experience and you scald yourself a little,” she said, noting that she has several books on leadership in her home library. “I have a few scars. But they actually make you a better leader when you have to deal with really tough situations.”

She cited a personal experience with her late husband as she spoke about the need for authenticity, her first leadership tenet. She was on a business trip and had a difficult phone conversation with her husband.

“I realized I was managing him like any conflict management person from across the country, and I realized that wasn’t very authentic,” she said. “It’s not healthy for a person or a relationship, whether it’s a marital relationship or a business relationship. So you just have to be authentic with people, which sometimes means being honest in a very positive way, but just being as honest and straight forward as possible and respecting the individual.”

When she spoke about integrity, she spoke of the need to follow through. “When you make a promise, you fulfill that promise, which means if you can’t keep it, let them know why you can’t and when they can expect that promise to be fulfilled. It’s really important,” she said.

Referring to her third leadership milestone — taking personal responsibility — she noted, “We all make decisions, and sometimes people blame others for where they are. And let’s face it, we make choices that put us in the positions we are in.”

According to Conroy, thinking outside the box is particularly important when it comes to work in the healthcare sector.

“We’re in it because we’re committed to something bigger than ourselves,” she said. “It is not personal or financial gain that drives us; it cares about other people and creates a healthcare system that works for both providers and patients; it is committed to the big picture. And that’s actually what keeps people going.”

Summarizing her thoughts on her signposts, she said: “Those are the four principles I have and I’ve tried to put everything in my behavior and decisions through that lens to make sure they’re the right ones. ”

Dartmouth Health is New Hampshire’s only academic healthcare system and the state’s largest private employer, with more than 13,000 employees. It serves patients throughout northern New England, provides access to more than 2,000 providers in nearly every area of ​​medicine, and serves its flagship hospital, Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC) in Lebanon, to a network of hospitals, clinics and nursing facilities throughout Granite State’s North Country and to Vermont.

On the same day as the FedPoint discussion, it was announced that US News & World Report named Dartmouth Health as New Hampshire’s top hospital in its 2022 US News Best Hospitals rankings.

Conroy, President and CEO since 2017, when the company was known as Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health until this year, was invited to speak at the company’s Distinguished Speakers Series at FedPoint headquarters.

FedPoint administers the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program (FLTCIP), the largest group long-term care insurance program in the country. It currently oversees policies for more than 265,000 federal civilian and military personnel.

Until its rebranding in 2020, FedPoint was known as LTC Partners, a wholly owned subsidiary of John Hancock Life & Health Insurance Company. The company is located on Arboretum Drive on the Newington side of Pease Commercial Port.

The company employs several dozen registered nurses who provide care coordination services to applicants and family members, and nursing was one of the topics Conroy and Forte discussed during their question-and-answer session. At the end of the presentation there was also time for questions from the audience.

One question addressed what is known as the Big Layoff – a term applied to workers who have gone out of work during the pandemic and have either left the workforce altogether or left one job to find another. The question specified nurses.

“We’ve had a bubbling nursing crisis for probably 10 years. We tracked the fact that we probably didn’t train the nurses in the numbers we needed. Covid has accelerated it,” Conroy said. “I think nurses have made choices not to work in an inpatient unit; They’re looking for something that gives them a little more balance.”

Conroy would like to see a model for nurses that offers more flexibility over where and how many hours they work, a model similar to what airlines use for flight attendants. “They figured out how to match a talent pool across a really broad spectrum to their needs,” she said. “Onboarding, the skill list for many nurses is a lot longer than flight attendants, but they still figured out how to do it with a pretty big talent pool. We should be able to figure out how to do that.

“We should be able to train people on basic skills people need to have and figure out how to mobilize them and actually move them from hotspot to hotspot,” she added.

Another focus of Conroy’s discussion was the mental health of the organization’s employees.

Forte asked about a West Coast psychologist that Dartmouth Health had hired during the worst of the pandemic in response to staff emotional distress.

“We knew they would probably benefit from a free psychologist who isn’t paid by the hour. Her job was just to manage this group of residents — about 400 residents — and really work to improve their mental health and well-being,” she said. “We talk about how we’re going to do this for the rest of our staff because just having someone to talk to is so well received by residents. And it’s not just Covid, it’s not just taking care of Covid. It’s something they have that’s going on in our lives outside of our jobs.”

“I think every dollar that we put into trying to just listen to people and help them be resilient is money well spent,” she added.

The politicization of medical care, which has increased during the pandemic, is not new, according to Conroy. The country experienced the same kind of polarization during the 1918 flu epidemic, often referred to as the Spanish flu.

“People attacked each other on the street for wearing masks,” she said. “I think it’s a kind of pandemic psychology that we probably didn’t appreciate that happened in 1918. But if you read the letters that people wrote back then, it was actually very similar to what we went through during Covid.”

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dr Dartmouth Health CEO Joanne Conroy, left, and FedPoint CEO Paul Forte, right, participate in a question-and-answer discussion during a presentation to be held at FedPoint’s offices in the Pease International Tradeport. (Photo by Paul Briand)

Conroy received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Dartmouth and a medical degree from the Medical University of South Carolina, where she completed her residency in anesthesiology and served as an attending.

Before coming to New Hampshire, she was CEO of Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, Massachusetts. Prior to Lahey, Conroy served several years as Chief Health Care Officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, DC

Conroy is set to become president of the American Hospital Association in 2024.

As for the future of healthcare itself, Conroy believes that techniques like telemedicine are not only here to stay, but are a way to keep healthcare costs down.

“We didn’t really do telemedicine before Covid, and then we suddenly realized we could,” she said. Meeting remotely with a telemedicine practitioner is especially helpful for people with mental health issues, Conroy says.

“It helps the patient. Our no-show rate is almost zero,” she said, adding that she removes what she called “the stigma” that sometimes comes with visiting an office.

“Many adults are really happy to be able to conduct their telemedicine visit from the comfort of their own home or private location, rather than actually going to a psychiatrist or psychologist’s office,” she said. “I would say we have a lot of our older patients who like telemedicine. I haven’t actually seen my primary care for about three years and you realize how much you can actually achieve with a telemedicine visit.”

The cost benefit of a telemedicine visit, Conroy said, is fewer lab tests.

Healthcare facilities cannot consider themselves working in isolation, Conroy said.

“We have this mantra that nobody needs to worry alone,” she said. The same mantra applied during the pandemic, when some hospital CEOs in the Granite State struggled to find beds for the growing number of Covid patients.

Using the New Hampshire Hospital Association as a coordinated means of communication, Conroy said: “We met every day to talk about beds for patients, intensive care beds and ventilators. And we had this mantra: No CEO worries in New Hampshire alone.”

For example, when Elliot Hospital in Manchester experienced an overflow of Covid patients in its emergency room, Dartmouth Health stepped in to help find beds, Conroy said.

“It’s been a huge help for her to regain her balance and continue caring for patients in this community,” she said. “I think that’s the role of health systems: working together in our region.”

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