A Fireside Chat With Dan Woods, CEO of El Camino Health

by | Mar 5, 2021 | Alliances, Thought Leadership

Foreword: The following is an abbreviated transcript from the latest in Fogarty Innovation’s series of casual, in-depth conversations aimed at discovering the person behind a transformative medtech leader. If you would like to see the entirety of the interview in a video podcast, please click here.

When we think about the frontlines of COVID-19, we need look no further than our next-door neighbor, El Camino Health, which was on the forefront of the pandemic as one of the first hospitals to have a known community transmission COVID-19 case. As such, it became the standard setter in best practices for other institutions.

Of course, it takes an innovative and passionate individual – someone who is always looking for a better way – to lead during times of crisis, especially when that person is responsible for patients’ wellbeing. El Camino Health not only created a highly effective model to treat coronavirus patients, but played a critical role in keeping its community informed. This couldn’t have happened without a visionary leader, Dan Woods, who played a crucial role in setting the facility up for success.

Dan brought 25 years of experience in healthcare when he joined El Camino Health in 2018, with an illustrious career that has included serving as president and CEO of Wellstar Kennestone Regional Medical Center; senior vice president at consulting firm Verras Healthcare; vice president of operations at Northwestern Memorial Healthcare; president and CEO of NM Home Health Care; and multiple leadership roles during a 12-year tenure at the University of Chicago Hospitals and Health System.

Andrew Cleeland, CEO of Fogarty Innovation, had the pleasure of talking with Dan and following is an excerpt of the lively conversation.  

Q. Tell us about yourself. Tell us about how you grew up, where you grew up. What was it like as Dan as a kid and did you have any formative experiences? 

A. I grew up in a small town in the Midwest, in Northeastern Iowa. The town was about 2,000 people and to give you a flavor of my graduating class, it was roughly 83 people; the town in essence was a family. I inherited many of the Midwest small town family values, like being humble and the strong work ethic – growing up in a rural community people work very hard, which I am not afraid to do. 

What helped shape my future is when we hosted an Australian foreign exchange student for a year. He was like a brother to me and encouraged me to go overseas myself as an exchange student. Right after high school, I went to the Philippines for a year. You can imagine that after growing up in a small town, this experience exposed me to a lot of things, meeting inspiring people and showing me the possibilities and potential that exists. It opened my eyes to what I was capable of and it really changed me. I had already been accepted to a small unknown private college, but when I was away talking to people, I changed my direction and went to a state university in Iowa as an undergraduate student.

Q.  One of the things that’s really important for us is mentorship and mentoring. How did mentoring help shape your career?

A. Earlier in my career, as a general manager and CEO, I joined a formal group of CEOs, which served as a sounding board and allowed me to actively learn from their experiences. The group also had a coach that acted as a mentor, and this is where I learned that as a mentee, you have to be truthful and vulnerable to learn and keep growing. This is what I would consider to be true, active learning. 

After this very impactful experience, I would say I learned a lot from CEOs that I’ve met throughout my career. For example, when I was talking to a relatively new CEO at one of the medical product companies in North Chicago, I went to congratulate him on his new position and to ask him what he was going to do and how many “home runs” he was going to hit. Surprisingly, he responded that he wasn’t swinging for the fence. He told me that every quarter was going to be better than the previous quarter; they were going to get better established; and he was going to hit singles and doubles every time. So that’s what he did. He took that organization, stock value, shareholder value up immensely. 

I’ve found a lot of value in reaching out to other CEOs and asking them specific questions, then adapting those learnings of what works well in their industry. I even do that by watching the CNBC CEO interviews.  

Q. Why did you join El Camino Health?  

A. If you take a look at my history, El Camino Health is one of the smallest organizations that I’ve worked for, but when I came out here and met with the physicians and the community, coupled with the reputation of Silicon Valley, I saw a tremendous opportunity to work with highly qualified, intelligent physicians and innovators. As an entrepreneur at heart, I liked the idea of combining my experience with the innovation that we have here (in Silicon Valley) and improve the delivery and quality of healthcare. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity in our Valley and I would love for this district to have the healthiest population in the United States, if not the world.  

Q. What is your leadership style? You’ve described it as loose, tight, loose – what does that mean?  

A. When you’re providing direction to the organization and specifically to individuals, you need to allow your team to establish their goals and how they want to execute them to advance the milestones and mission – and then we agree on them. Throughout the year, as long as they’re on track, I stay loose. But if we are off track and not hitting our targets, I get very tight on the details to make sure we’re on the trajectory we want, and then I’ll be loose again. This is a process I have developed in the past 10 years because you can’t manage everything. 

Q. 2020 was a very tough year for everybody. We’ve heard wonderful things about El Camino Health and its leadership during COVID-19. What was it like to be part of this experience?

A. When you’re in an environment of great uncertainty, it’s certainly a little bit scary – you don’t have all the answers. So again, I reached out to as many people as possible to figure out what their approach had been. In reciprocity, we shared information – since we had one of the first known cases of COVID-19, the CDC came out to us, and we were able to share information they could share out in turn. So we were blazing new trails. 

One of the interesting things we did to minimize the amount of uncertainty, was pull in a best practice from the military. When a disaster happens in a hospital, you set up an incident command center designed for a short-term period. But then what do you do? In my conversations with the generals and the commanding officers, I wanted to learn from them – how do they approach large events like this? So we established a central command that was predictive in nature and that was active for a long time. 

Q. You were also very active communicators, and some of that shone through in your leadership actions.

A. Yes; I’ve learned it’s a natural human characteristic to fill in the blanks with unfavorable information during a crisis. So I had to become what I considered an authentic truth teller of information. When we first started, there were rumors in the community that we saw on social media that the hospital was completely filled with COVID patients, which was very incorrect – at that point in time, maybe 8% of our entire patient population were COVID cases. So we had to countermeasure and provide information that you typically wouldn’t share.  

When you are a community hospital, there’s a unique and trusting relationship so we knew we had to provide transparent information that was front and center; we also linked back to local and national sources, but we wanted to be that first source of truth for people to find. 

Q. How did COVID change El Camino Health?

A. I think this crisis has brought our workforce together. To use a sports analogy, when you get amazing support from the community as we did, like from Fogarty Innovation having meals delivered to the hospital, it’s like you’re playing on the field and the crowd is cheering you on. And that gave us motivation and it spurred endurance and tenacity.  

Q. You have been a strong supporter of Fogarty Innovation. Why?

A. I love entrepreneurship and solving problems, and it goes back to where I started my career, blending healthcare and innovation. That’s why I love the idea of working with Fogarty. There are roughly 4,850 hospitals that are similar to us in the U.S., so if one of your companies can introduce a successful device in our organization, you just now opened up the door to 4,850 other hospitals that could have the same opportunity. 

El Camino Health has had a history of being innovative as well. For example, we invented the first electronic medical record partnering with Lockheed and worked with Dr. Fred St Goar on the Mitraclip, which was a huge success.

I want to provide the most contemporary medicine to the residents of our community, and you’re in the business of creating new ways to do that. It’s a partnership that goes to my heart and core.

If you would like to see the entirety of the interview in a video podcast, please click here.

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