Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling. (Image via Northwell’s Facebook page)

Northwell Health wants the healthcare industry to take a stand and address gun violence as a public health issue.

It’s a thorny topic to willingly wade into with a full-page New York Times ad, but Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling thinks the voice of the healthcare industry can get things done, according to Northwell’s top communications executive. 

In the Times ad, Dowling penned an open letter to other healthcare leaders, urging them to combat gun violence and support policy ideas like universal background checks and investments in mental healthcare.

“It is time for healthcare providers to use our collective voice, the power of our lobby and the financial weight of our $3.5 trillion industry to combat gun violence in America,” Dowling wrote. “Unlike our responses to other public health emergencies over the past 20 years, the healthcare community has failed to respond sufficiently to the nation’s gun-violence crisis. To protect the health and wellness of our communities, we should be fueling the public outrage needed to stop this mindless bloodshed.”

The letter proposed awareness training to help police, attorneys and family members spot the red flags of gun violence before it happens and investing in mental health without stigmatizing those who have conditions.

Terry Lynam, chief communications officer at Northwell, said the medical network is also developing an action plan on gun violence, which will lay out policies it supports and other ways it can contribute, like pursuing research on gun violence.

“Our CEO feels strongly that as healthcare providers, we have an obligation to preserve and protect life,” Lynam said. “Providers have responded very aggressively and successfully to past public health crises, whether it’s flu outbreaks or the HIV/AIDS crisis, but, from his standpoint, there’s a level of frustration with the fact that healthcare CEOs have not been more vocal in advocating for common sense gun laws.”

Beyond urging industry leaders to speak up, Northwell is also hoping to motivate healthcare employees to use their own voices. Lynam notes that there are 18 million people nationwide employed in the healthcare sector. Northwell itself is the largest employer in New York state, with about 70,000 employees. “We’re trying to recognize the power of numbers,” he added.

Northwell wanted national reach with its call to action, which is why the hospital chose an ad in the Times. Lynam said the health system is also planning to run spots in health trade magazines. 

After this first ad push, most of the work will be behind the scenes. Dowling sent separate letters to about 30 health CEOs and representatives from the American Hospital Association,  international group the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, the Greater New York Hospital Association and the Healthcare Association of New York State. 

Being in New York, Lynam said Northwell has an advantage over health systems in more politically conservative states, where the blowback for supporting gun-control policies could be harsher. 

“In our constituency, it’s less of an issue for us,” he noted. “In [Dowling’s] discussion with peers in other parts of the country, like Texas, that’s a real concern. Many are concerned that taking a firm stand on this issue would draw criticism from their board, from donors, from local elected officials. But our CEO’s view is that leadership doesn’t hide. Leadership means taking a stand on important issues despite the fact that you might get some heat as a result.”