Resilience in the Face of Uncertainty
When the going got tough in March 2020, Erol Akdamar got going. As president of Medical City Healthcare, HCA Healthcare’s North Texas division, the role carries significant responsibilities, particularly amid a once-in-a-lifetime healthcare crisis. With a transparent spirit and steadfast strength, Akdamar led an unprecedented manned mission of brave doctors, nurses and hospital personnel of one of the largest HCA Healthcare divisions through the uncharted pandemic territory.
In his role, Akdamar oversees 16 hospitals, 11 ambulatory surgery centers, 42 CareNow Urgent Care centers, more than 5,000 active physicians, 6,000 nurses and 17,000 employees. As uncertainty swelled in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Akdamar resolved to do everything in his power to mitigate fear and panic. He immediately acted, organizing a weekly call with staff leaders to open direct lines of communication from the top down, an approach met with positive reviews from every level.
“My goal was to provide clarity about decisions, whether popular or difficult,” said Akdamar. “We communicated what we knew, what we didn’t know, what we were worried about, and explained the steps we were taking in real-time to reduce risk.”
These open-door conversations created a culture of trust, equipping leaders with the tools to communicate with individual hospital teams every step of the way. As a result, North Texans recognized the herculean effort by naming Akdamar one of Dallas-Fort Worth’s Most Inspiring Leaders of 2021 by the Dallas Business Journal.
“I’m extremely proud of how HCA Healthcare stepped up and led during the pandemic,” Akdamar reminisced. “The skills, compassion, and unwavering dedication of doctors, nurses and caregivers enabled Medical City Healthcare to care for more than 34,000 COVID-19 patients since the beginning of the pandemic.” Despite incalculable uncertainties and stops and starts along the way, Medical City Healthcare avoided layoffs and refused to furlough a single employee. “We leaned in and protected our colleagues’ financial stability by putting pay practices in place, all while caring for the community in which we serve,” Akdamar said.
Results-oriented by nature, Akdamar shines when serving others and making a difference at scale. With the third anniversary of the pandemic on the horizon, Akdamar will apply his experience in a new leadership role as the 2022 Chair of the Texas Hospital Association Board of Trustees.
A Legacy of Leadership
Well-known for his mantra of “excellence always,” Akdamar’s passion for health care and driven demeanor traces back to his familial roots. A native Louisianan, so many of Akdamar’s relatives made their careers in medicine that health care became affectionately known as the family business.
Most notably, his father, an immigrant from Turkey, became a fixture of gastroenterology at Tulane Medical Center as a renowned physician, GI department section chief and medical director. Some of Akdamar’s most memorable childhood moments trace back to Sundays spent in the hospital, parked in the staff lounge eating donuts while his father made his rounds.
“My father worked hard for everything he was able to achieve and had a high standard for himself and his family. I adopted his “excellence always” mantra that serves as a constant reminder to be exceptional in everything that I do,” Akdamar said.
As a teenager, Akdamar volunteered in the medical school and developed a deep calling to the vocation. That calling only grew louder when young Akdamar’s father was diagnosed with renal cancer. The beloved physician battled cancer for four years before passing away when Akdamar was only 19 years old.
Akdamar went on to study sociology at Louisiana State University, where he says his early career achievements were influenced by his role as an LSU Tiger cheerleader. Akdamar credits his time on the squad for his exemplary work ethic and molding his positive goal orientation. In his junior year at LSU, Akdamar discovered his career path after interviewing a vice president of operations for a hospital in Louisiana. “His personality and affinity for helping the hospital set and achieve goals, and ability to lead at a young age made a tremendous impact on me. I became determined to enter hospital administration,” Akdamar remembers.
After completing his undergraduate degree from LSU, Akdamar later obtained a Master of Health Administration from Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans. He further demonstrated his proficiency in healthcare management by becoming a Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives.
By the early nineties, Akdamar joined a joint venture with HCA Healthcare. The health care conglomerate demonstrated an interest in developing young leaders and provided numerous job opportunities across the country. Akdamar gained exposure to many roles and disciplines, including director of physician recruitment, operations, development, and managed care in Louisiana and Georgia. After spending three years as the chief operating officer of a hospital in Georgia, Akdamar experienced a full-circle, career-defining moment. He returned to New Orleans as chief operating officer for Tulane, the same hospital where his father dedicated his tenured career. His journey home to Texas began as Akdamar took the helm as CEO for St. David’s South Austin Medical Center. In 2010 he relocated to Dallas with his wife Dara, their son and twin daughters, to begin a new role as CEO of Medical City Dallas and Medical City Children’s Hospital. He was named president of the Medical City Healthcare system in 2013.
Akdamar leads with accountability, provides public recognition for exceptional work, and creates a culture of appreciation for a job well done. As he reflects on his career opportunities to this point, Akdamar has advice for burgeoning leaders. “To lead others well, you first must lead yourself well,” Akdamar said. “Spend time understanding who you are, as well as your strengths and challenges. From there, create a development plan to improve.”
“My father worked hard for everything he was able to achieve and had a high standard for himself and his family. I adopted his “excellence always” mantra that serves as a constant reminder to be exceptional in everything that I do.”Erol Akdamar
Over the last year as THA’s board chair-elect, Akdamar worked especially closely with THA’s outgoing president and CEO, Ted Shaw. Shaw speaks highly of Akdamar’s ability to understand the priorities and goals of THA, set direction, but then step aside to let the talented teams get the work done.
“Erol will look to the future to help clarify strategy and will be a key leader in setting that agenda,” said Shaw. “He has worked behind the scenes to drive and clarify direction around 1115 waivers, Inpatient Prospective Payment System, and other Medicaid strategies. He has a firsthand understanding of the financial implications within hospitals, and delivers that with a fair hand.”
A Strong Vision for 2022 and Beyond
Serving a myriad of roles on the THA board for the past 10 years, Akdamar is familiar with the strategic planning process required to set priorities for the organization. “I love the Texas Hospital Association. We are blessed with exceptional health care systems and leaders from across the state. When we collaborate and work together, it’s iron sharpening iron and we all get better,” said Akdamar. Most recently as chair-elect, Akdamar was responsible for the search committee that resulted in the appointment of John Hawkins, THA’s new president and CEO.
“When I started working closely with Erol, he was the vice-chair on the council of policy development,” said Hawkins. “The council ensures we develop good policy that allows us to speak with one voice. Erol was instrumental in making sure all voices were heard, and that policy was grounded in reality. He knows hospital operations but is also astute with political reality and what is doable in Washington and Austin.”
In close partnership with Hawkins, Akdamar is laser-focused on a handful of pressing objectives, including investing in a strong health care infrastructure and advocating for patients and providers across the state.
“Erol has been very helpful in mentoring me and challenging me while developing my vision for THA. We’re going to work well together. He has helped me and will continue to help me be a more effective leader,” said Hawkins.
Protecting State and Federal Funding
Health systems and hospitals rely on state and federal funding to keep hospitals strong and ensure all Texans can access top-of-the-line medical services. As financial pressures mount on the entire system, Akdamar is on a mission to help rescue the federal and state supplemental funds that are potentially at risk for reduction.
Reductions would have a devastating impact on vulnerable patient populations across the state, especially during a global health pandemic while the world so desperately leans on health care systems. “We’re still living with COVID-19,” said Akdamar. “At the same time, the labor market has tightened, the cost of labor is dramatically higher, and inflation is impacting health care as well.”
To combat these concerns, Akdamar underscores the importance of sharing community stories. Stories from the frontlines of the pandemic paint a realistic picture of what is happening in hospitals and highlight why increased funding needs are at an all-time high. “To go backward and withdraw funding is significantly problematic for the long-term viability of the system,” said Akdamar. “Particularly for rural and safety-net hospitals that are most vulnerable coming out of the pandemic.”
Akdamar is looking forward to broadening and deepening relationships with leaders across the state, pushing collaborative priorities forward in Texas, and being a strong advocate for hospitals and health care systems.
As he says, “Together we’re stronger. When it comes to saving lives, we stand together in solidarity and share the same mission.”