Northwell CEO Michael Dowling leads with a passion for human connection: “I want to understand people.”

The innovative healthcare executive and gun violence prevention advocate will be receiving the 2024 National Humanism in Medicine Medal at the Annual Gala

On the road to achieving one’s dreams, there can be many naysayers. For Northwell Health President and CEO Michael Dowling, there was one particular critic during his teenage years who doubted his potential — and changed his life as a result.

Michael Dowling

The eldest of five children, Mr. Dowling grew up in humble beginnings. His childhood home in Knockaderry, Ireland, had three small rooms, mud walls and floors, and a thatch roof. There was no electricity and no running water. There was only one big fireplace for heat and a chamber pot for a toilet.

One day, when he was 16 years old, Michael was walking to a nearby farm to fetch milk. The farmer, Mr. Sullivan, saw him and announced that his own son was going off to university.

He looked at young Michael and uttered, “Isn’t it too bad that someone like you could never go to college?”

The comment stung.

In his memoir, After the Roof Caved In: An Immigrant’s Journey from Ireland to America, Mr. Dowling recalled that moment.

Mr. Sullivan “let the comment sit there, hanging in the air, as though the path of my life, a dreary path at that, had been predetermined,” Mr. Dowling wrote. “It was one of the most important things anyone ever said to me. In a strange way, I owe some of my determination to Mr. Sullivan.”

Michael Dowling as a child with his mother in Ireland

Mr. Dowling proved Mr. Sullivan’s assumptions wrong and went on to attend University College Cork.

After his first year of college, he took a summer job thousands of miles away, in New York City, to help pay for his tuition.

“The city felt so vibrant and alive. It was pulsing with a level of energy I had never experienced,” wrote Mr. Dowling. “Like any newcomer, I was fascinated by the diversity and scale, by the din, the endless flow of humanity, the bustle, the tall buildings, the air of optimism, the possibilities.”

Though he returned to Ireland to finish his bachelor’s degree, Mr. Dowling came back and made New York his permanent home.

In the decades that followed, Mr. Dowling rose to become one of healthcare’s most influential voices, taking a stand on societal issues such as gun violence and immigration that many health system executives shy away from.

As President and CEO of Northwell Health, New York State’s largest healthcare provider and private employer, he has helped build a $16.5 billion enterprise whose staff includes 83,000 workers across 21 hospitals and nearly 900 outpatient facilities.

In recognition of his innovative leadership at Northwell Health and his groundbreaking advocacy around gun violence prevention, Mr. Dowling will be presented the National Humanism in Medicine Medal at The Arnold P. Gold Foundation’s Annual Gala on June 10.

“It’s an honor to be recognized by an organization that is promoting what I consider to be the right thing,” said Mr. Dowling. “The Gold Foundation is promoting a principle that is the essence of health and the essence of us being part of a human community — humanism. You are continually reminding everybody that the human element of interaction is so key and so crucial to the well-being of individual health, family health, and community health.”

Mr. Dowling will be presented the medal this year alongside Dr. Afaf Ibrahim Meleis, an internationally recognized nurse scientist, sociologist, and transformational leader in global health and women’s health, and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a visionary pediatrician, activist, and author.

These three extraordinary leaders have placed the human connection at the center of their life’s work. Each of them has helped make care more humanistic for countless patients, family members, students, and healthcare team members. Together, they represent the 2024 theme of the Gold Gala: “Creating Healthy Communities through Humanism.”

“Michael Dowling uses his life experiences, his extraordinary leadership, and his bold ideas to tear down the walls between academic medical centers and the communities they serve,” Dr. Kathleen Reeves, President and CEO of the Gold Foundation. “His advocacy for gun violence prevention and improving access to the healthcare profession for young New Yorkers are just two examples of his deep commitment to community.”

Reimagining the healthcare landscape

At Northwell Health, Mr. Dowling leads a clinical, academic, and research enterprise that cares for more than 2 million people each year.

He prioritizes partnership in his efforts, with a focus on embedding the hospital system into the community. This ethos informed the creation of the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell, which was established in 2008, as well as the Hofstra Northwell School of Nursing and Physician Assistant Studies, one of the nation’s largest medical residency and fellowship programs.

Both Northwell Health and the Zucker School of Medicine are members of the Gold Partners Council, a group of leading medical schools and health systems that champion humanism in healthcare and support the Gold Foundation’s mission.

Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling with some of his 83,000 staff members who work across 21 hospitals.

Through Mr. Dowling’s leadership, Northwell Health is preparing the next generation of healthcare leaders for the future.

“Our idea was to build one of the most radical and innovative medical education institutions in the world,” Mr. Dowling said. “At Zucker School of Medicine, we start students out in a rapid EMT course and send them out in an ambulance so that from just about day one they interact with patients in their homes in a variety of stressful situations.”

Caring for patients in the first year of medical school is unusual, but at the Zucker School of Medicine, students earn their EMT license in the first nine weeks.

In addition, exams at the medical school are simulation assessments rather than the typical multiple-choice tests. Small-group learning replace lectures, and the graduate nursing and physician assistant studies are all located on the same campus.

This spirit of innovation is a hallmark of Mr. Dowling’s leadership.

Most recently, he led Northwell Health to partner with New York City Public Schools and Bloomberg Philanthropies to build a new high school in Queens devoted to healthcare education. The Northwell School of Health Sciences will educate up to 900 students in nursing, physical therapy, mental health, and diagnostic medicine. It is scheduled to open for the 2025-2026 academic year.

Mr. Dowling’s book, Leading Through a Pandemic: The Inside Story of Humanity, Innovation, and Lessons Learned During the COVID-19 Crisis, captures Northwell Health’s disaster preparation and shares these lessons for other health systems. The book was included in the Gold Foundation’s 2021 Reading List for Compassionate Clinicians.

Mr. Dowling has also held leadership roles across corporate and government agencies, including holding the position of Commissioner of the New York State Department of Social Services.

Trying to curb a public health crisis

“Our caring for people throughout the communities we serve takes different forms, including getting involved in divisive political issues when necessary,” Mr. Dowling said. “The U.S. gun epidemic is an example. There is no question in my mind that the 40,000 gun deaths in the U.S. each year constitute a public health crisis.”

Michael Dowling speaks at the Annual Gun Violence Prevention Forum, hosted by Northwell Health, which brings together leaders, advocates, and community members to discuss strategies for curbing the gun violence epidemic.

Physicians and other healthcare professionals have long raised concerns about gun violence, as they see the excruciating damage to human bodies in the emergency room regularly.

In a rallying call for action, Mr. Dowling took out a full-page ad in The New York Times in 2019 that urged U.S. healthcare leaders to join the campaign to address gun violence as a public health issue.

The response was tepid, but Mr. Dowling marched on with a deep commitment to reducing gun violence.

In 2020, he led the creation of Northwell Health’s Center for Gun Violence Prevention, which focuses on research, creating best practices for hospitals, and mobilizing a national coalition of healthcare leaders to depolarize gun safety and address the public health crisis. The Center for Gun Violence Prevention also built the Gun Violence Prevention Learning Collaborative for Health Systems and Hospitals, which includes over 600 hospitals across 38 states adopting best practices. The center’s goal is to “dramatically reduce gun violence so that it’s no longer a driver of hospital admissions for injuries or deaths.”

Northwell Health has embedded screening questions related to gun safety in its assessment of emergency room patients. Questions include whether the patient possesses a weapon at home and if it is stored safely.

Over time, more healthcare leaders have joined Northwell’s work.

The Northwell Health-initiated National Health Care CEO Council on Gun Violence Prevention & Safety has received support from more than 50 leading healthcare CEOs who have pledged to commit resources to containing the historic spike in gun-related deaths and injuries.

The Annual Gun Violence Prevention Forum, hosted by Northwell Health, gathers leaders, advocates, and members of the community for an open discussion on the gun violence epidemic and strategies for curbing its spread. This past February, 100 leaders gathered together in New York City. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton delivered the keynote address. The event was livestreamed by an audience of more than 2,000 changemakers from around the world.

“We are dealing with human beings.”

“Healthcare is a unique profession. We are dealing with human beings that have feelings, concerns, and fears,” Mr. Dowling noted. “It’s all about listening, it’s about understanding where the other person comes from. It’s about dealing with people with respect, empathy, compassion, and caring.”

Employees are also top of mind for Mr. Dowling.

For almost 20 years at Northwell Health, he has attended Monday morning sessions where he meets newly hired employees and answers their questions.

Mr. Dowling also makes it a point to regularly walk Northwell Health’s hospital floors and engage with staff, which can often include taking selfies with them.

In 2017, the health system launched the Innovation Challenge, a competition that funds employee-driven proposals that promote innovation in healthcare. Winning projects in 2023 — which received $1 million in funding from Northwell Health — were centered on using AI in navigating cancer care and incorporating bioelectronic medicine therapy in treating strokes.

Expanding access to mental health care

Addressing the epidemic of mental illness is a major part of Northwell Health’s work.

Michael Dowling speaks widely at conferences and events and connects with new Northwell Health employees in person during orientation every Monday. “I want to understand people,” he explained.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one in five children in the United States is diagnosed with a behavioral, emotional, or mental health disorder. However, only 20 percent of those who are diagnosed receive specialized treatment. For children aged 10 to 14, suicide is the second leading cause of death. For those aged 15 to 24, it is the third leading cause.

In response, Northwell Health launched a $500 million initiative to expand pediatric mental health services and access to care for children and teens.

The issue is personal for Mr. Dowling.

“I cannot help but wonder whether mental health services in Knockaderry in the 1950s and ’60s might have helped my father,” Mr. Dowling wrote in his memoir. “With the right intervention, could his life have been a happy one? Could he have learned to bring lightness and joy into our house instead of darkness and anger?”

It is such stories that drive Mr. Dowling’s work.

“I want to understand people,” he explained. “I want to understand what makes them tick. Because if I know you, I can solve whatever problem you may think you have. And vice versa. And we can solve it together.

Learn about the other two 2024 National Humanism in Medicine Medalists: Dr. Afaf Ibrahim Meleis and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. All were celebrated at the 2024 Annual Gala in New York City. 

Irene Zampetoulas, MPA

Communications Associate

Supports the Foundation's marketing and communications initiatives, including writing stories, updating social media, crafting our messages, and more.