Dr. Elizabeth Nabel visited the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on February 15, 2017 as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Sarah Sholes/Harvard Chan School.)

Achieving Impact Through Collaboration: A Conversation with Dr. Elizabeth Nabel

By Chloe Slocum

In the era of health policy reform and transformative changes, a physician must lead through strategic collaboration and be willing to take risks. Dr. Elizabeth Nabel is one such leader. A distinguished biomedical researcher and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, she now serves as the President of Brigham Health, a position which she has held since 2010. Joining the Voices in Leadership Series at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on February 15, 2017, Dr. Nabel shared her reflections on leadership during times of change in health care and her experiences during an outstanding and vibrant career as a physician, research scientist, academic medicine leader, and wellness advocate.

Watch Dr. Elizabeth Nabel’s full talk with the Voices in Leadership series at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on February 15, 2017.

Throughout her career, Dr. Nabel has focused on promoting policies and initiatives that advance the health of populations through interdisciplinary research collaborations and patient-inclusive care delivery system design. As the Director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Dr. Nabel famously founded the Global Alliance for Chronic Diseases and launched the Red Dress Heart Truth campaign. In 2015, Dr. Nabel was appointed chief health and medical advisor to the National Football League (NFL), providing input to the NFL’s medical, health, and scientific efforts [2]. Dr. Nabel shared several insights from her exemplary career in academic medicine and public health.

Encouraging Innovation: America’s Academic Medical Centers

For Dr. Nabel, academic medical centers are indispensable. Emphasizing their impact on developing new models of accountable, high-quality care for vulnerable patients, Dr. Nabel highlighted how the combined mission of academic medical centers to perform cutting-edge research and serve communities at both a local and global level has proved central to her own work as a physician-leader. She says,

“I always knew I wanted to return back to lead an outstanding academic medical center […] Academic medical centers are really the jewel in the crown in this country. [They] are the training ground for the next generation of physician scientists that go on to populate not only public health schools and medical schools and hospitals, but pharma, biotech, [and] venture.”

Cultivating Collaboration: Health Initiatives and Advocacy

Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, right, sat down with Dr. Ashish Jha, left, at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on February 15, 2017 as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Sarah Sholes/Harvard Chan School.)

Having successfully spearheaded initiatives like the NIH Obesity Research Task Force and advocated for biomedical research to members of Congress on the Hill, Dr. Nabel made it very clear that leadership in health is all about partnerships — “building partnerships, building collaborations, building win wins”. Not only are these partnerships critical to advancing public health, they are intrinsic to the practice of medicine. She says,

“I think it goes back to that fundamental identity of being a physician. And that identity is to work collaboratively, to work across the aisle, to work for the betterment or the greater good of our patients.”

Moreover, Dr. Nabel stressed that collaboration on common goals such as advancing medicine and public health also requires “working with our political leaders […] to understand nuances in how we deliver care” at academic medical centers.

Opportunities to Have an Impact: The National Football League

Dr. Nabel described her motivations for advising the National Football League as extending beyond player health and safety. As a beloved national pastime, football clearly has a downstream effect that impacts collegiate and high school sports, and more importantly, young men and women. Nevertheless, she was candid about the challenges that came her way, saying that,

“It’s tough, I’ll be the first to admit. But […] leadership is about having an impact. It’s about being passionate about issues that are important to you. […] And engaging in that life work means that not everybody is going to agree with you. And you can choose to […] take a few risks knowing that you’re going to get knocked down in the process, but you’re going to pick yourself back up and you’re going to keep going.”

Embracing Diversity as Strength: Supporting Tomorrow’s Leaders

Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, right, answered questions from Harvard Chan student Dr. Suresh Pavluri, left, on February 15, 2017 as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Sarah Sholes/Harvard Chan School.)

In a climate of “significant political divide,” Dr. Nabel underlined the particular importance of academic medical centers in “proactively articulating to our patients, their families, our students, our faculty, our staff, that we welcome anyone who comes to us, that we benefit, we gain from a diverse community.” She also reflected on the need to accelerate women’s progress within the leadership of academic medicine, by addressing unconscious bias and actively encouraging women to seek leadership roles. Describing herself as “the eternal optimist,” Dr. Nabel left the audience with an inspirational charge:

“I think the idea […] is we’re all leaders, and we’re all in various stages of leadership throughout our life. And we can certainly be leaders in our own realm, our own right, right now.”

For more from the Voices in Leadership (@VoicesHSPH) series at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (@HarvardHSPH), visit www.hsph.harvard.edu/voices.

Story by Chloe Slocum, a physician who is passionate about health quality and equity and is pursuing a Master of Public Health in Health Policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Story edited by Sohini Mukherjee, a first year student in the Master of Science program in Global Health and Population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.