Michael Dowling, the president and CEO of the Great Neck-based system Northwell Health, has pledged $1 million to combat gun violence as a national public health crisis and invited other large health systems to match the investment.
Dowling, who served seven years as New York State’s director of health, education and human services under former Gov. Mario Cuomo and also served as commissioner of the New York State Department of Social Services, addressed more than 170 attendees at Northwell’s Gun Violence Prevention Forum on Dec. 12 in Manhattan.
“I have been frustrated by the inability of many health system CEOs to stand up and talk about the issue of gun violence,” Dowling said. “CEOs can’t be silent anymore, not on an issue this big. If you have the courage and strength to run a big health system, you should have the courage to stand up and talk about this. My goal is to get all major health systems in the United States to pledge their support.”
Dowling asked conference attendees and other health care leaders to pledge their support for change by signing on to a call to action that would “lay the foundation for the public health education/awareness campaign on gun violence.”
“As guardians of public health, it is our responsibility to address public health crises in our communities – whether it be gun violence or the opioid epidemic,” Dowling said. “Clinicians are the ones on the front lines of this fight. The good news is that we can save lives through education, awareness and advocacy.”
Among the conference’s speakers was Marisol Martinez, a survivor of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who has since worked against gun violence through musical performances.
“Living in the aftermath of a mass shooting is incredibly isolating,” said Martinez, who continues to receive therapy for post-traumatic stress.
Sandy and Lonnie Phillips founded a victims’ support group after their daughter and 11 others were killed in the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting. Since then, they have traveled to 15 mass shooting sites to build a support network of survivors, victims and families.
“Trauma therapy support is often left out,” Sandy Phillips said, addressing those gathered. “We saw the opportunity to activate survivors.”
Also speaking at the conference was Dr. Sheldon Teperman, director of trauma and critical care services at New York City’s Jacobi Medical Center and a longtime advocate for assault-weapon bans and other gun reform legislation.
“The sound of screaming babies (wounded or killed by gunshots) in my trauma center continues to haunt me,” Teperman said. “My voice was not loud enough to bring about change, but the health care community as a whole has broad shoulders.”
In a news release, Northwell Health said that the organization would be “reaching back out to attendees to organize work groups on education, prevention, advocacy, research and other areas,” and hoped to report progress at a follow-up conference next year.
Dowling has been outspoken on gun violence as a public health crisis, having run advertisements in The New York Times over the summer and written an editorial in the August issue of Becker’s Hospital Review on the subject.
“True leadership means having the personal courage to speak out and take the heat, particularly on issues that are affecting the health and wellness of our communities,” Dowling wrote. “If there was a disease that was killing as many people as guns in this country, we would be mobilizing a national response effort. It’s inexcusable for us to remain silent.”