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Thomas Dolan, ACHE CEO
Thomas Dolan
Photo credit: ICDA 2012

ACHE Gold Medal Award: A diverse legacy

Longtime CEO transformed the ACHE

By Ashok Selvam
Posted: February 2, 2013 - 12:01 am ET

Over the past two decades, Thomas Dolan's dynamic leadership of the American College of Healthcare Executives transformed the professional association by anticipating and responding to the pressing challenges of 21st century healthcare.

Dolan gained national and international recognition for his numerous efforts to transform the ACHE during his 22-year tenure as president and CEO. He tirelessly advocated for diversity in the executive ranks and expanded educational opportunities for members while growing the number of local ACHE chapters.

For his exemplary service, the ACHE is honoring its longtime leader as he nears retirement, making him one of its two Gold Medal Award winners for 2013. ACHE Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Deborah Bowen has been chosen as Dolan's successor.

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During Dolan's watch, the ACHE in 2003 revised its code of ethics, a document that dated to 1941. Members must now sign the code each time they renew a membership. The organization also established an ethics self-assessment in 1997, an online measurement tool that asks members a series of queries on topics that include financial reporting, ensuring equitable treatment for patients of all socio-economic backgrounds, and whether there are appropriate systems in place to properly communicate ethics matters with the governing board.

Membership also has grown steadily, rising from more than 21,000 when Dolan became CEO to about 44,600 today.

He also serves as president of the International Hospital Federation, based in Geneva, Switzerland, and was chairman of the board of overseers for the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award program from 2011 to 2012.

Before Dolan took the top job at ACHE, he served as executive vice president for five years. Prior to that, the Evergreen Park, Ill., native worked seven years as the director of St. Louis University's Center for Health Services Education and Research.

Even when Dolan, 65, retires in May, concluding his nearly 30 years in leadership roles at the Chicago-based organization, he will still be involved, continuing his advocacy with the title of president-emeritus.

The ACHE became a force for diversity under Dolan's guidance. He points to a number of reports the organization has commissioned showing pervasive disparities in healthcare leadership opportunities for women and minorities, as well as some of the improvements the industry has achieved in recent years.

“If you'll look at your board, if you go to the (ACHE's annual meeting) this March, you'll see, for example, seven out of the 15 members are women, three out of the 15 members are people of color,” Dolan says. “We've tried to reflect society's diversity.”

That work will continue after Dolan leaves. The group is broadening its reach with plans to release a policy statement later this year on how healthcare executives can help lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender patients and employees feel more included.

“It's clear if you're going to run a successful healthcare organization, you're going to have to attract a potential workforce whose leadership will reflect those patients,” Dolan says.

Being an advocate for diversity means creating an environment where women and minorities feel their concerns are being taken seriously. Andrea Price, president and CEO of Mercy health system's Northern Region, Toledo, Ohio, says that's one of her mentor's greatest strengths. Price, who is African-American, says that when she first met Dolan in 2000, it was rare for anybody to show the passion for diversity that he displayed. His success stemmed from making people feel more comfortable, she says.

The ACHE recently announced plans for the Thomas C. Dolan Diversity in Executive Leadership Program to continue addressing barriers that have impeded diversity in the

C-suite. The program includes a scholarship to help cultivate diversity. It will kick off with a dinner honoring Dolan during the ACHE's annual Congress on Healthcare Leadership next month in Chicago.

Dolan also worked to eliminate the oral component of the Board of Governors Examination in Healthcare Management, a requirement of the ACHE fellow credential. While many members thought the move meant softening the credential and opposed the proposal, Dolan argued that dropping the oral test made the exam more objective.

That was a gutsy move, Price says. “He's vigilant and determined to always obtain feedback and address thorny issues. And through that, he's generated the support of a more robust ACHE organization,” she says.

American Hospital Association President and CEO Richard Umbdenstock says Dolan's progressive leadership shows how in tune he is with his members' concerns. Umbdenstock also notes how Dolan has partnered with groups like the AHA and others to extend ACHE's reach to influence policy change.

Umbdenstock says Dolan was far ahead of the curve in advancing professional networking. “Tom was into it before Facebook and 'friending' and stuff like that,” he says. “He's built the ACHE's leadership circle and their local chapters.”

Officials picked Dolan to head the Baldrige Award board in 2011, which Umbdenstock says “illustrates the respect those folks have, but even more so, it shows Tom's commitment to quality improvement.” An agency of the U.S. Commerce Department administers the awards, which recognize U.S. organizations, for-profit and not-for-profit, for excellence in quality performance. Healthcare organizations have been eligible for the honor since 2007.

Dolan notes how the quest for quality has changed since he entered the healthcare sector. He says there's no perfect formula or “silver bullet” to improving healthcare quality.

“I think that when I first got started we assumed quality, and that was unfortunate because, again, what we learned is that quality needs to be worked on continually,” Dolan says. “We also have the mistaken impression that the more quality you get, the more expensive it would be. But what we've learned is higher quality costs less.”

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