Leading Through Crisis


Q&A with Doug Lawson, Ph.D., CEO of St. Luke’s Health

The events of the past two years tested Texas hospitals’ infrastructure, economy, resilience, and, most thoroughly, its health care workers and leadership. Texas Hospitals sits down with the 2021 Earl M. Collier Award winner, Doug Lawson, Ph.D., CEO of St. Luke’s Health, to reflect on the turbulence and leadership lessons learned.

What drove you to pursue a career in the health care industry?

I’m a fifth-generation Texan, from Tahoka, Texas. For generations, my family made their livelihoods from the land. As farmers, we relied on the weather and the grace of God to give us a good year. It’s a tough existence, and West Texans are the very definition of salt-of-the-earth. We’re stoic people who don’t complain much about anything and wouldn’t think of calling a doctor unless it was really something serious.

“The beauty of working with 11,000-plus dedicated and well-trained health professionals is that we are incredibly nimble at responding quickly to crises. And so, we were able to move very quickly to overhaul daily procedures … We accomplished that through a multi-faceted communications strategy, partnering with other hospitals and community organizations to deliver a unified message about our new reality.”

I witnessed people suffer from health conditions that resulted from their environment, from their occupations, and frankly, from not taking better care of themselves. Growing up, I dreamt of becoming a football player and got the chance to play college football while attending Texas A&M University, but I also knew I wanted to make my mark somehow in the healing professions and in a leadership role where I could make a difference.

I eventually earned a Master of Science degree in health care administration from Trinity University and later, a Doctorate in leadership from Dallas Baptist University. This led me to where I am today, overseeing St. Luke’s Health, where I’m privileged to work with some of the world’s most dedicated, innovative and brilliant leaders and practitioners in medicine.

Please recount the initial days of the COVID-19 pandemic and the first steps you took to lead your teams through the uncertainty.

In the early days of the pandemic, we did not have a full understanding of what we were facing. What we did know was that communication and collaboration would be key in combating the spread of COVID-19. The beauty of working with 11,000-plus dedicated and well-trained health professionals is that we are incredibly nimble at responding quickly to crises. And so, we were able to move very quickly to overhaul daily procedures, such as complying with masking requirements, practicing social distancing, limiting visitors, and putting a hold on all non-necessary procedures. We had to ensure that our staff, patients and the community understood and complied with these rapid changes. We accomplished that through a multi-faceted communications strategy, partnering with other hospitals and community organizations to deliver a unified message about our new reality. We reached out to the news media and increased our presence and messaging on social media to connect with people where they were, that is, at home and online. We also increased the frequency of our internal communications with our employees via virtual town hall meetings, weekly newsletters and even our own app, to disseminate important information but also to listen closely to employees’ concerns and questions, and give them a place to vent, too, where they would be heard.

Now that we are two years into a pandemic and one year post-Winter Storm Uri, what are the biggest leadership lessons you’ve learned?

First and foremost, the importance of clear, fast and empathetic communication was our biggest lesson. In short, we learned that clarity, speed, transparency, compassion and detail in our communications were among our best defenses against COVID-19. In the early days of the pandemic, it became quite clear how the virus shed light on the inequities in people’s health and their access to care. Forging partnerships with other organizations was paramount in our reaching underserved communities. As the vaccines were first becoming available, we were able to partner with Texas Southern University – an Historically Black College and an important beacon in Houston’s Black community – to inoculate thousands of at-risk community members, including super seniors and those hardest hit by the pandemic.

The lessons we learned about speedy, transparent communications – and the systems we put in place to communicate with our own employees – also helped us tremendously in dealing with the added devastation of Winter Storm Uri in 2021. Many of our hospitals’ employees were without power and water, yet they continued caring for patients. As just one example of being able to respond quickly, we directed the hospital’s Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) to provide meals for all employees and their families. FNS leaders were able to work with catering agencies and restaurants to secure 50,000 meals across our Texas System – a gesture that was very much appreciated by our frontline staff who spent their weekends caring for patients at our hospitals and keeping our facilities running in such difficult conditions.

One of the biggest challenges our medical community has faced throughout the pandemic is caring for those who are severely ill with COVID-19 while also meeting the clinical needs of patients who are seeking treatment for other serious conditions, like cancer, strokes and heart attacks. Power and water outages caused by Storm Uri imperiled many people with serious medical conditions, including those on dialysis because of kidney failure. Many freestanding dialysis centers closed their doors due to lack of power and water and put these patients in jeopardy. I was one of several health care leaders and advocates who, following the storm, visited with state legislators in Austin to demand dialysis centers adopt emergency backup plans and utilities be required to prioritize power and water restoration to dialysis centers during a disaster. I’m proud to say that this advocacy helped lead to the passage into law of Texas Senate Bill 1876, in June of 2021, to do just that.

Was there a “true North” or guiding principle that you kept in the back of your mind when faced with challenges over the past two years?

Our guiding principles are rooted in our Mission, Vision and Values, which underlie everything we do as health care ministry. And that is, to make the healing presence of God known in our world by improving the health of the people we serve, especially those who are vulnerable, while we advance social justice for all. We take our mission to heart in the work we do in our hospitals and the communities we serve. Our vision is a healthier future for all — inspired by faith, driven by innovation and powered by our humanity.

Our “true North” is simple: practicing human kindness. We know there is true power and science in human kindness. An act of kindness can have a tangible impact on the health of others. We’ve been proud to bring world-class medical and academic excellence to our communities for decades, but we also know that treating every patient with kindness, empathy and respect is key to healing.

Have the events of the past two years changed your perception of what it means to be a health care leader?

The past two years have not changed my perception but have reaffirmed and deepened my appreciation and gratitude for the people who come to work every day and put their lives on the frontlines in service of helping others. We know the pandemic won’t be our last crisis. Economic shocks, severe weather and infrastructure failures are among the threats that Texas, along with the rest of our nation, and the world, must always prepare for. Leaders should harness those moments to continually reassess how they are supporting the people they serve both inside and outside the organization. Only then can we meaningfully prepare our people and institutions for the next crisis.