The Debrief: Michael Dowling, CEO of what might have been Laudica Health

Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling.

In healthcare administration, Michael Dowling has done it all. A 20-year veteran of the former North Shore-LIJ Health System, now Northwell Health, he’s been New York’s health and human services director and commissioner of the state’s Department of Social Services. He was a senior vice president at Empire Blue Cross/Blue Shield and even taught social policy at the Fordham University Graduate School of Social Services, where he was an assistant dean. A “young 66” come November, Dowling has no retirement dreams – “I definitely plan to be around at the end of September,” he quips – and some busy days ahead: Rebranding the multibillion-dollar economic engine that is New York State’s largest private employer “isn’t for the faint-hearted.” He continues:

ALL’S NORTHWELL: The reaction has been very positive. I have not heard one negative reaction. People from around the country have been unanimous in congratulating us on the new name. Internally, most people had been anticipating this for quite some time. They didn’t know what it would be, but people knew a new name was coming, so that helps with the transition.

NAME THAT HEALTH SYSTEM: We had a list of 600 names and it’s a very, very complicated process. You’ve got to go with a name you can trademark, and when you go through the list you find 99.99 percent of the names you might think of are already taken. Then you’ve got to pick a name that the leadership of the health system thinks fits, something that’s easy to say, that has meaning, that reflects where we are and where we want to go.

REJECTAMENTA: One of the names we rejected, for instance, was Sterling Health. Many companies already use it. Another was Laudica. Some people liked it – like “laudatory,” etc., kind of a Latin root – but it was too confusing. How do you even spell it?

NORTH BY NORTH BEST: The Northwell name, we felt, best represented our past and our future. We liked keeping “north” in the name because it’s part of our history and it signifies going north, going up, moving in a positive direction. But “well” is what we’re really focusing on, conjuring up the wellness space and not just the illness-treatment space. When you see it in the context of our new marketing and rebranding effort starting in January, it will resonate big-time.

NEW FOCUS: We’re a very different organization than we were when we did the (1997 North Shore-LIJ) merger. Long Island Jewish was the 11th hospital to merge with the system. It had a very strong reputation and a good brand. As part of the negotiations, to have a successful merger, we agreed to put the two names together. But a lot has occurred since then and the name became too geographically constraining. People thought we were Long Island only. We had to break out of that.

SLOW AND STEADY REBRAND: Signage, business cards, dozens and dozens of different programs … there’s a lot to do. You take it one bite at a time. Our major priority will be to reposition the message of the health system: innovation, entrepreneurship, doing things differently. It’s a two- or three-year process, but you’ve got to just bite the bullet and do it. All of the signage and the names of these programs will eventually change, but we’ll focus first on our major facilities.

CARE PACKAGE: Selling insurance has an awful lot of components to it – you have to have the right physicians in place and a broad network, etc. I don’t think the name immediately helps us sell CareConnect, but it definitely won’t hurt. At least it doesn’t represent that CareConnect is only geographically on Long Island.

INSURANCE PLAN: CareConnect is larger than I anticipated it would be at this point, but I didn’t expect it to be profitable yet. I do see it continuing to grow. When we initiated it, I was very clear with everybody I spoke to that this would be a seven-year process before it became profitable. Look at any insurance company started from scratch at any time over the last 30 years: It took many years to become financially successful. It’s one of the reasons people are scared to start these things, but I would rather try than sit back and be nervous about what might happen.

GROWTH STRATEGY: There is lots of turbulence in the insurance marketplace, which is filled with super-mergers and other changes. We’ve got to figure out how to take advantage of those disruptions, by being smart and being able to move quickly and watching for whatever fallout might exist. Our price is right and we can manage people’s care well, and our excellent customer service is what distinguishes us from other entities. There’s nothing to stop CareConnect from continuing to grow.

EXPANSION TEAM: With everything going on in healthcare now, all these consolidations and partnerships being discussed by us and other people, who knows how things will evolve over the next two or three years? As opportunities arise, we’ll take advantage of them.

GOLDEN YEARS: Retirement is something you think about when you don’t enjoy what you’re doing. There have been no more exciting times in healthcare than these times – all of this turbulence and craziness is very exciting. I love to figure out how to succeed in a complex marketplace like this. I made a long-term commitment to this organization, and I’ll be here for many years to come.

Interview by GREGORY ZELLER