Dr. Joanne Conroy Builds Resilient Health Systems Through Innovation and Compassion

Early in Dr. Joanne Conroy's tenure as a healthcare leader, a three-year-old girl was brought to the pediatric emergency room suffering from an asthma attack. While receiving nebulizer treatments, the end of the device became detached and a young intern hooked it into the wrong port by mistake. Shortly afterwards, the little girl died in her father's arms.

"The family was devastated. The institution was devastated. The nurses were crying when I sat with them. And, the individual who erred in connecting those pieces of equipment… Well, as you can imagine, their life was changed forever. They quit medicine," Dr. Conroy recounted. "That's what happens when you have adverse safety events. There are many, many casualties. I think we need to get closer to it, so we can actually feel it emotionally. You can't forget there are humans behind all of this."

That awful day solidified Dr. Conroy's commitment to building resilient health systems through her role as a leader in every position in which she has served.

Dr. Conroy came full circle at Dartmouth. Dr. Conroy received her undergraduate degree in chemistry from Dartmouth College and was the recipient of a Robert Sloan scholarship from Singer Corporation. She received her medical degree from the Medical University of South Carolina.

Dr. Conroy currently serves as the CEO and president of Dartmouth Health, the largest private employer in the state of New Hampshire. Dartmouth Health is a nonprofit academic health system that includes a 396-bed flagship teaching hospital, a multi-specialty group practice employing more than 1,000 physicians, the Visiting Nurse and Hospice for New Hampshire and Vermont; The Dartmouth Cancer Center, Dartmouth Health Children's Hospital, four affiliate hospitals, and 24 ambulatory care centers.

Prior to arriving at Dartmouth Health, Dr. Conroy served as CEO of Lahey Hospital and Medical Center, a large, integrated delivery system with more than 1,400 physicians, 18,000 employees, $4 million in grant funding for medical research, and $2 billion in annual revenue. From 2008 to 2014, she served as Chief Health Care Officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), representing the interests of approximately 350 teaching hospitals and health systems.

She is board certified with the American Board of Anesthesiologists, attained a Certificate of Added Qualifications in Pain Management, and is a diplomate with the American Academy of Pain Management.

She currently serves as the chair-elect designate of the American Hospitals Association (AHA) Board of Trustees. Dr. Conroy will be chair-elect in 2023 and become the 2024 chair of the AHA.

Dr. Conroy is a member of the AHA Executive Committee and Operations Committee. She chaired the AHA Task Force on Primary Care in 2021.

Of her success, Dr. Conroy suggests, it is important to understand an organization's stakeholders and politics. She added, "While many view focusing on workplace culture '"the soft stuff', changing the culture is necessary to improve outcomes and retain staff."

Dr. Conroy recognizes that long before the COVID-19 pandemic, but especially in light of the resulting "Great Resignation", it's imperative for healthcare workers at all levels to know that they're coming to work every day to make a difference in people's lives. With over 13,000 employees working in a market of approximately 1.4 million people, she makes it a priority to understand why people are engaged or disengaged in the workplace, what can be fixed, and to continue to work toward improving the areas that seem unfixable.

"We know that when your engagement scores drop, your error rates go up. We need to focus on creating a culture where people can surface concerns so we can address them quickly," Dr. Conroy said.

She also made it a priority in the health systems she leads to integrate the mental healthcare, of staff, into the culture. For example, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dartmouth Health hired a behavioral health provider to work with the residents for check-ins and counseling. The program has been in place for nine months and will remain a part of the workplace culture; also offering time and space for staff at other levels throughout the system.

In addition to evolving the experience and implementation of patient care, Dr. Conroy is also a champion for gender equity and an advocate for women in leadership in all sectors of healthcare. Her commitment to elevating women leaders, led her to found Women of Impact, an organization dedicated to moving women into leadership positions, in healthcare.

"If we're looking at the trajectory of women in healthcare leadership positions, it would take 100 years for us to reach parity in the C-Suite. We're not waiting that long," Dr. Conroy said. "I have had people say, 'you shouldn't do the "woman" thing.' I've always ignored that and when I've done bold things around promoting women, it has positively affected not only me and my career, but the women around me."

Dr. Conroy is a friend of JHF and of its CEO and president Dr. Karen Wolk Feinstein, who is a member of Women of Impact. Their friendship and professional collaboration are filled with mutual respect, admiration, and appreciation. Of Dr. Feinstein, Dr. Conroy said, "Karen is a force of nature! What I love about Karen is she is not afraid to be outraged. So many of us have to kind of watch and walk this kind of political diplomatic line. Karen does not feel bound by that, and she uses the Jewish Healthcare Foundation as a platform to get outraged about things that we should be outraged about."

She noted Dr. Feinstein and JHF's passion for all areas of healthcare but especially on issues concerning maternal mortality, patient safety, and women's reproductive rights.

"Karen has the ability to really activate people in a positive way, and it supports what the Jewish Healthcare Foundation was set up to do. She's been an incredible steward of those resources and has taken it seriously in terms of her commitment to improving health and the Greater Pittsburgh area as well as nationally."

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