Edward Healton, Longtime Leader of GUMC, Reflects on Nearly a Decade as EVP

Ed Healton speaks from a podium

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(July 5, 2024) — On Sunday, June 30, Edward B. Healton, MD, MPH, stepped down from the helm of Georgetown University Medical Center after nine years serving as executive vice president for health sciences and executive dean of the School of Medicine.

A trusted and highly regarded member of the Georgetown community for more than 20 years, Healton steered GUMC since 2015 through important accomplishments — such as the establishment of two new schools — and challenges — such as the COVID-19 pandemic. His successor, Norman J. Beauchamp Jr., MD, MHS, assumed the role on July 1.

GUMC Communications sat down with Healton prior to his departure (he remains a professor of neurology at Georgetown) for a candid and wide-ranging conversation about his role, including his greatest lessons learned, and what’s to come in his next chapter as he steps away from full-time employment for the first time in his half-century career.

When you reflect on the past nine years leading GUMC, what stands out in terms of noteworthy moments?

I leave feeling good about the last nine years, and what we have been able to accomplish together. I know that if I feel satisfied about certain things having happened, it’s because of all the work that was done by many people.

As I look back, one of the initiatives that stands out for me was the faculty and staff engagement work we did when I first came on board. Faculty and staff told us about what they would like to see, their concerns and hopes. And it just gave me a tremendous opportunity to get a feel for the community and a sense of what it was like to be an EVP. We asked them to make recommendations based on their areas of work, and over the course of six months, it was an incredible introduction to the medical center and to the power of steady engagement with faculty and staff. It was such a positive start, and just a really meaningful and memorable experience for me that I have drawn on continually in the years since.

To fast forward to today, I don’t think it’s overstating to say that the new faculty compensation plan is a landmark accomplishment in certain ways. It’s an opportunity to really recognize good work — not just productivity, but good work. And it changes the commitment to newly tenured faculty that I think is an important foundation for the future.

Why do you feel that now is a good time to step down?

I’ve had a good run, and I will miss the work and the community deeply. Doing this work has made me happy. Yet in these jobs, there’s no yardstick; but at a certain point, it’s time for new leadership and I think it’s an absolutely good time to make a change.

If you look across the medical center, we have some very important partnerships to build on, across the university and certainly beyond. The partnership-building has been an extremely important priority. I was fortunate that the leadership of the College and the Law Center felt exactly the same way, and we were really of the same mind of asking what we can do more of together, what can we build that really reflects and harnesses the strengths across the campuses.

“If you look across the medical center, we have some very important partnerships to build on, across the university and certainly beyond.” 


Importantly, the oral history of the campuses has changed, in that there’s a renewed interest and willingness to build something new together. The Health Justice Alliance (HJA), which is in collaboration with the Law Center, is a clear example of a partnership initiative that has had great impact on students and faculty alike. We’re starting to see impact in specific initiatives, such as maternal health in DC Safe Babies Safe Moms [a partnership involving Georgetown faculty and the HJA, MedStar Health, Community of Hope, and Mamatoto Village], where the Health Justice Alliance is only one piece, but it’s contributing to a much broader collaboration.

One of the most important social justice issues of our time is the substantial and dramatic differences in health outcomes geographically — people in one community are experiencing different health outcomes than in a community just down the street, so we have been looking for ways to answer the question of what is the role of a university in that domain and to see what is possible through strategic partnerships. There is a lot of work yet to do, but there is an opportunity to build on the foundation we have laid.

MedStar Health

A critical part of the future of the university is our relationship with MedStar Health, and we have seen major changes there. We have a 50-year agreement that we struck in 2017 that made a very clear statement: This partnership is vitally important for both of our futures and our missions, whether through teaching, research, community service or clinical care. After that, we started to deepen some of the connections that had been built over the preceding years. We created the academic councils, new forums in which we could work to broaden and strengthen the partnership. And we just signed an agreement that connects the Georgetown name with graduate medical education in ways it had not been before, and we have a new data-sharing agreement as well that will provide new opportunities for research not only for the medical center, but across the university. So there is a lot happening with regard to our partnership with MedStar that is very exciting.

Priority Research Areas

Finally, when you think about the four affirmed research priorities of the medical center — mind and brain; cancer; global health; and population health with a focus on health equity and health disparities — there is a lot in place on which to build. These four areas reflect the idea of moving from cells to society, thinking about health as a spectrum or continuum of work along each of the four priority areas. We have made some great strides, including through our cluster hiring process focusing on recruiting faculty that can bring an interdisciplinary lens. We’re seeing how we’re moving research from the basic sciences to translational science and then out into the world, right into global health.

When we look at global health, that’s a real success story that has become a major part of the work we do. We brought in some key faculty, and that discipline has really grown. Through our focus on population health, we are defining what it means for the university to have an impact in our own communities and to work toward achieving health equity.

In all of our priority areas, really, it’s a very different and rich environment now — I see tremendous opportunities to build on and accelerate the work. From that perspective, I think the medical center is in a good place with a new leader in Norman Beauchamp, who shares these same values and interests.

What are some of the major inflection points that perhaps you didn’t see coming but have had an important impact on the medical center?

It’s an important question, as the university does not — and should not — sit in a silo that is not affected by what is happening outside. And we saw a re-energized focus on racial justice after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and other instances of police brutality. It provoked a moment of deep reflection for me personally and as an institution. It was very eye opening for me as we looked more closely at the issues and saw things we clearly should have already seen and known.

For instance, we looked more carefully at the grading situation in the School of Medicine and the disparities along racial lines. So as a community we have been identifying issues and taking steps to study and rectify them, and those efforts are still ongoing, as they need to be. We embarked on an effort to build a culture of inclusion and equity in academic departments, working with the chairs to develop diversity, equity and inclusion plans and looking at the overall diversity of their faculty. And of course, what’s critically important is to create an environment that people want to be a part of, where we prioritize everyone’s well-being and sense of inclusion. There is a lot of work to do — building a plan doesn’t mean you solve a problem. But the community has come together around these challenging issues, listening and learning from one another.

We’ve also been doing a lot of work with students. The medical students wrote a letter in 2020 from the entire class outlining 10 things we should be looking at related to the culture of the School of Medicine. We then formed the Racial Justice Committee for Change, co-led by faculty and students, which has continued to this day to look at these issues together and ensure the concerns related to racial justice remain as visible as they should be. It’s notable that the students stayed with the process through it all, rather than just pointing out issues and having us as faculty and administrators go try to solve them.

“In general, over the past few years we have been focused on how we can create a more diverse community and a more inclusive culture as well.”

On the topic of equity and inclusion, one area where we have a lot more to do is related to ensuring we have more women in leadership roles. The target was 25% (of chair positions held by women) by 2025, but if you look across the department chairs, we are not there yet. Another important initiative that we focused on with the department chairs was looking at time in rank and making sure that as leaders, they knew if women were lagging behind in moving from assistant to associate full professor or tenured professor, etc., and really having that on their radar screen.

In general, over the past few years we have been focused on how we can create a more diverse community and a more inclusive culture as well. Part of that starts with the importance of recognizing the prevalence of implicit bias. And so what do you do about it? Well, you make sure that it’s not optional. If you form a structured search, you make sure that you do as much as you can to address that with measures such as implicit bias training. In our recruitment of new faculty, we have been putting a clear focus on countering implicit bias to ensure that underrepresented groups are part of the thought process and the search committees and so on. So this is an area that is critical to keep front and center moving forward.

Another major inflection point was of course the [COVID-19] pandemic. We had to make some quick changes in how we worked, shifting to a virtual community practically overnight, but we still stayed connected. I really appreciated the leadership of the university and how the community came together. It was a very stressful time, of course, but there was a remarkable unity to it. There were so many questions to solve for — how do you manage medical center operations during a pandemic? How can we keep our research going? How do we adapt our teaching? We just had so much to figure out, and it was not easy or perfect. But we had to compromise and figure it out together, and I do think having gone through a time like that, it adds a new layer to our relationships.

There have been some lasting advantages, like now we do conferences and other things virtually, where you can have speakers from anywhere. But there is a tradeoff in not having everyone together physically, too. How can we maintain the positive flexibility of a hybrid situation? I know we’re all still trying to figure it out. But in many, many ways, having gone through that and come out on the other end, it built stronger ties across our community.

Two new schools have been launched at GUMC during your tenure — the School of Nursing and School of Health. What are your reflections on that process now that they are up and running?

When President DeGioia first launched the Health Sciences Strategy Initiative, it brought the attention of university leadership around to what was previously known as the School of Nursing & Health Studies (NHS), and what the future of this school should be. This work led to the sunsetting of NHS and the creation of the two new schools. It was a complicated process, but it was the right thing to do.

The School of Nursing was built on a long history and foundation, and had a clear trajectory forward — we could see that road ahead. The School of Health was brand new and could open the door to such an interesting set of questions about how we are defining health, and what does improved health entail. This brought up such great Georgetown questions. It was not a straight line to get here, but now with the leadership in place and the cohesiveness of the faculty, I feel really good about where the schools are, the questions they are tackling, and the opportunities ahead.

It was such an interesting experience to be part of building the new schools from square one — so much writing and thinking at first, and now they’re alive. In a great physical space, too. With the new hospital surgical pavilion, it’s just a beautiful place on that corner of our campus.

Are there any guiding principles that have served you well in this leadership role through both good times and challenges?

“It’s very easy to get distracted by whatever issue or problem comes through the door every day, but I’ve tried to remember the values, priorities, and the voice of the community, and stay focused on this bigger picture rather than the issue or crisis of the day or week.”

First of all, keeping a sense of humor is always important, as well as starting at the beginning and really listening to the community as we did — not just me, but all of us — and keeping that idea in front of you. It’s always important to go back to how the community voice helps you lead so you’re not disconnected from that. Here that means prioritizing transparency and mutual support and responsibility and inclusion. Going back to the faculty and staff engagement, this is what the community told us was important to them, so I’ve always remembered that and tried to go back to those values.

It’s very easy to get distracted by whatever issue or problem comes through the door every day, but I’ve tried to remember the values, priorities, and the voice of the community, and stay focused on this bigger picture rather than the issue or crisis of the day or week. It’s obvious to say, but not always easy to do.

That said, I do think it’s important to not be too stagnant. There are going to be new challenges, and we’ve seen a bunch of them, but it’s important to look at this as an opportunity to really reflect and take a step. Maybe it’s only a step, but it’s a step into a deeper engagement in building the culture and so on, and addressing what needs to happen. Every challenge is an opportunity to adapt.

Are there professional or personal lessons that this experience has taught you?

Yes, I’ve learned a lot. I didn’t fully understand when I came into this job that balance we just talked about — how to adapt to the emerging challenges while remaining focused on the priorities we’ve set. And how to engage with external issues that arise — I have learned a lot through the Racial Justice Committee for Change, for example.

I also think about the opportunities that I have been fortunate to have over my career. I sort of think I was an accidental leader in a certain way. I never set out to be a dean, or an EVP. But when the leadership opportunities did come, both in my time in New York and here at Georgetown, the common factor for me in considering the roles was that I cared a great deal about the place the opportunity occurred in. I was so fortunate to have the combination of caring about the institutions and then having the opportunity to lead. When the opportunity to lead GUMC came, it was the chance to be involved in an institution that I really deeply cared about and believed in.

What would you say to others in the health sciences or medical field who aspire to lead in an administrative capacity?

If you want to make a difference, if you want to go beyond the work that you do as an individual and have an impact more broadly, I would encourage students or anyone else to look at leadership roles. I do think that it is important to feel the connection I just talked about, because that makes such a difference in motivation and how effective you are. As the leadership roles get larger, it’s important to realize it’s not about you, but about something bigger than you. And you have to be comfortable with that. Having an impact beyond your immediate work and so on is very rewarding. But you need to be connected to whatever you’re leading and you need to be comfortable shedding some of your own self-interest.

“If you want to make a difference, if you want to go beyond the work that you do as an individual and have an impact more broadly, I would encourage students or anyone else to look at leadership roles.”

If you think about an initiative or a work stream that really has the potential to shape GUMC’s future for the better, what are you most excited about?

Definitely, I’d say building on the partnerships that we’ve established. There’s such great potential in bringing the medical center together with the college and other parts of the university. Just the strength of a more collaborative faculty can be so powerful in different ways, whether it’s in sciences or otherwise, both for the work that we do and the ability to draw new people.

The partnership with MedStar has enormous potential yet to be developed. We have the foundation in place now to imagine what an academic health system should be in five or 10 years, and to actually be embedded in the DNA of both of our institutions. For example, the faculty and students across the university, in public policy or business, for example, pursue academic activities or collaborations across MedStar Health, experiencing what it’s like to actually be engaged in the health care system and what needs to change. There’s also a tremendous opportunity to continue to build the financial foundation through philanthropy and some of the other work we’re doing on the finances that has to come along as well.

What is next for you?

I think first it’s about taking a deep breath and becoming comfortable with a very different day-to-day life. It’s not going to be about how to prepare for my 8:00 a.m. meeting, but more about what I want to do at 8:00 a.m. This is really different, so I need to immerse myself in a new daily rhythm and way of living.

One personal goal I have is to learn Italian. I’ve never been able to do it in the past for various reasons, but it’s a wonderful culture, and my wife and I spend a lot of time in Italy. I also have a new piano that I’d like to spend time learning. I played piano through high school and love piano music, so that’s also part of my plan. I love history and want to spend time digging into certain chapters of history.

Finally, Cheryl and I will continue to travel, and we may look to do some travel that’s organized along themes to tie in with other interests we have. For example, we both love films, so we’ll look to go to different film festivals, like Cannes and Sun Valley. Maybe you’ll see us on the red carpet.