Garrett at Davos: Bringing global lessons back to N.J. can have great impact in state

CEO discusses 3 big health care takeaways from World Economic Forum: Health equity, mental health challenges in workplace and impact of climate change

As the head of Hackensack Meridian Health, CEO Bob Garrett interacts with health care professionals and governments leaders up and down the state on a daily basis — discussing best practices in his efforts to improve the sector.

His annual trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, affords him an opportunity to do the same on a global scale — and it never disappoints, Garrett said.

Seeing the issues impacting health care around the globe — and how world leaders are addressing them — helps him set some of his agenda items for the coming year, he said.

Three issues rose to the top on this trip: health equity (especially in regard to the dramatic difference in life expectancy in various countries), mental health (with a specific nod to how it is impacting the workplace) and climate change (how health systems can help — and how they are hurting the fight with their own practices).

On this trip, Garrett sat on a panel discussing mental health challenges in the workplace and talked extensively with Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Great Britain, who has started an Institute for Global Change, which has made health care challenges one of its top priorities.

“These are some of the issues that we talk about in New Jersey all the time, but to do it with global leaders — hear how this impacts their part of the world — gave me insights that I can take back to New Jersey,” he said.

Garrett specifically mentioned discussing challenges of COVID — how the interaction between health care leaders, government officials and insurers differed from country to country. The same was true for the rollout of new drugs and best practices.

“In terms of drug discoveries, we heard about how certain countries have eliminated some of the red tape and bureaucracy of getting new drugs approved, which is helpful to bring back here,” he said.

Especially at HMH and its Center for Discovery and Innovation, which has been a global leader in research during the pandemic.

“Whether we’re dealing with the FDA or we’re dealing with our own researchers, hearing these examples can help us examine our procedures and say, ‘How can we expedite the process here?’” he said.

Here’s more on Garrett’s three main takeaways from the World Economic Forum:

The Zero Health Gaps Pledge

HMH was one of 39 organizations to sign it — and one of the only health care provider organizations, joining Kaiser Permanente.

“I think it’s very consistent with our strategic priority of health equity,” Garrett said. “We’re really focused on it, we’ve been focused on it — and we’re going to continue to focus on it. I think now, addressing on a global stage, we’ll help us put even more of emphasis on it.”

Garrett said the numbers are startling, that there can be a 15-year difference in life expectancy based on where you live on the planet.

“They’re going to measure how successful this pledge is based on life expectancy,” he said. “The goal is to narrow the gap in the disparity that exists between developing countries and underdeveloped countries.”

Garrett encouraged other leaders to sign the pledge.

“I think everybody’s talked about health equity as being an important priority — this is a concrete step that is more than symbolism,” he said.

Mental health issues in the workplace

Garrett, who sat on an international panel on the subject, said the simple fact that behavioral health issues are being discussed on a global stage is a key step.

“It’s a huge issue that has gotten much more attention,” he said. “There’s not that many great outcomes from COVID. But, one of the outcomes from COVID is that people are now freely talking about mental health and what a crisis it is.”

Garrett spoke a lot on mental health issues in the workplace, talking about HMH’s initiatives in that space, including the hiring of a chief wellness officer and adding a 24/7 hotline. The system, he said, is taking steps to address burnout among physicians and nurses.

“We’re restructuring physicians’ jobs so that physicians are spending more time on direct patient care and less time on administrative burdens,” he said.

“We’re doing the same in nursing, with our virtual nursing pilot program that we have at Ocean University Medical Center, that I hope to scale up throughout the network in 2023. It’s a great program that brings bedside nurses back to the bedside, with the help of virtual nurses to perform some of these long and complex administrative tasks.”

Climate change

Showing the linkage between climate change and its impact on the overall health status of the world was powerful, Garrett said.

“Whether it’s pollution or unstable weather conditions, it disproportionately has impacted underserved nations and underserved communities with increases in chronic health conditions, such as asthma,” he said. “When you add its impact to issues such as malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, heat stress — you can see how it’s really taken its toll on the overall health status of the globe, both in terms of chronic health conditions and communicable health diseases as well.”

Garrett said it not only was a call to action for health care leaders to address climate change issues — but to address how health care facilities themselves are contributing to it.

“Hackensack Meridian and other health care leaders have pledged to reduce our carbon footprint over the next five, 10, 20 years, but I think there needs to be more in that space as well,” he said.

Garrett said all of these discussions went along with the theme of the event: “Cooperation in a Fragmented World.” The theme, he said, was highlighted by a video address from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and an in-person presentation by his wife, Olena Zelensky.

“I was happy to represent Hackensack Meridian there,” he said. “It was really a great experience — and a positive experience specific to health care, which is where most of my week was spent.”