During the month their mother spent in the hospital, Nancy Schlichting—a fifth-grader at the time—and her three siblings were not allowed to visit. Her low opinion of hospitals stuck with her until college, when she learned that hospital administration could be a career.
“I realized that hospitals needed to improve a lot, so that’s what drew me in,” she said.
Decades later, Schlichting is being inducted into Modern Healthcare’s Health Care Hall of Fame in recognition of her success in improving individual hospitals, entire health systems and the industry.
“Her unique ability to engage with any stakeholder
and have them feel like they are the most important
person in the room is truly distinct,
powerful and in a league of its own.”
Robert Riney, president of healthcare operations
and chief operating officer at Henry Ford Health System
She retired in 2017 as president and CEO of Henry Ford Health System, one of her great turnaround stories. When Schlichting arrived in Detroit in 1998, the system was losing money and, in her words, it looked terrible. By the time she retired, it had earned the Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award and a John M. Eisenberg Patient Safety and Quality Award; the system had grown by four hospitals and achieved strong financial performance; and the system’s strategic investments in Detroit were boosting the city’s comeback.
2021 Awarded the Dean Conley Award from the American College of Healthcare Executives
2020-21 Gubernatorial appointment as co-chair of Michigan Economic Recovery Council
2018-20 Executive-in-residence, Sloan Program in Health Administration, Cornell University
2015 Published “Unconventional Leadership: What Henry Ford and Detroit Taught Me about Reinvention and Diversity”
2015 Presidential appointment as chair of Commission on Care to transform veterans’ healthcare
Career in review
1998-2017 Various positions, including president and CEO, Henry Ford Health System, Detroit
1997-98 Executive vice president and chief operating officer, Summa Health System, Akron, Ohio
1996-97 President, Catholic Health Initiatives-Eastern Region, Philadelphia
1988-96 Various positions, including two years as president and CEO of Riverside Methodist Hospitals, Columbus, Ohio
1980-88 Various positions, including executive vice president and COO, Akron (Ohio) City Hospital
Concentrations in hospital and health services administration and accounting, Cornell University, 1979
Public policy studies, Duke University, 1976
Many admirers use words like “grit,” “courage,” “bravery” and “risk” to describe Schlichting’s leadership at Henry Ford, but one of her longtime colleagues there focuses on something else.
“Strategic and transformational initiatives under the leadership of Nancy are plentiful,” said Robert Riney, the health system’s president of healthcare operations and chief operating officer. “However, her unique ability to engage with any stakeholder and have them feel like they are the most important person in the room is truly distinct, powerful and in a league of its own.”
In light of that, Schlichting’s advice to healthcare leaders, roiled by the ongoing pandemic that has worn out the workforce, should not come as a surprise.
“Paying attention to the needs of the people in the organization is absolutely paramount,” she said. “When you do that, it sustains you through some really tough times.”
She recalls the grueling ordeal of laying off 15% of the Henry Ford Hospital workforce in 2002, part of a turnaround strategy during the dark days after 9/11. Many of those workers returned to the health system later.
“It’s true right now that a lot of people need a break so we’re seeing a lot of resignations,” she said. “But I think many of those people will come back, depending on how we treat them and help support them through this time.”
Her second piece of advice: Leaders must take care of themselves so they have the strength to take care of their organizations.
“They need to take some breaks,” she said. “Figure out a way to keep helping yourself, whether it’s exercise or nutrition or meditation—whatever helps you stay focused and calm in the storm so you can lead in a compassionate way.”
Schlichting’s career includes stints as a nurse’s aide, a hospital switchboard operator and work in radiation therapy. She took her first hospital administration job—chief operating officer of a 650-bed Akron (Ohio) City Hospital in 1983—at age 28. It was baptism by fire.
“It was right when DRGs were starting, and we were losing $1 million a month in that hospital at the time,” she said. “We turned that around very quickly, and I think I got this reputation as somebody who didn’t work in all the garden spots in the country.”
That reputation as a leader who can do hard things had been burnished for more than 30 years when, in 2015, President Barack Obama appointed Schlichting to chair a commission to examine how best to reorganize the Veterans Health Administration and deliver better care to veterans.
“People had seen the work and thought, ‘If you can do that, maybe you can do this,’ ” she said. “The Commission on Care seemed like a daunting task, but since we had done it in Detroit, I felt like, ‘Oh, that’s all possible. We can do it.’ ”
“She has helped guide our renowned organization through unprecedented
challenges and achievements with heart, wisdom and perspicacity.”
Dr. A. Eugene Washington, Duke University’s chancellor for health affairs and
president and CEO of its health system
Her long list of governance and other leadership activities for dozens of healthcare associations, community organizations, corporations and governmental entities includes current service on the Duke University Health System board of directors and Duke University board of trustees.
“She has helped guide our renowned organization through unprecedented challenges and achievements with heart, wisdom and perspicacity,” Dr. A. Eugene Washington, the university’s chancellor for health affairs and president and CEO of the health system, said in an email.
2022 Hall of Fame judges
President and CEO
American College of Healthcare Executives
Publisher, Modern Healthcare
Retired president and CEO
President and CEO
President and CEO
In Schlichting’s own assessment, her commitment to diversity has been a centerpiece of her career. “I am a gay female—not exactly what you would expect in many of the roles that I’ve been in over the years,” she said. “Because healthcare serves everyone and our workforce is so diverse, it’s really important to have leaders that reflect that.”
Her other top priority has been the healthcare sector’s important role in community development. “I saw the potential in Detroit and I saw the potential at Henry Ford Hospital,” she said. “And it was important to the community that we were able to not only survive, but really thrive.”
Lola Butcher is a freelance writer based in Springfield, Missouri.