Over its 23 year history, the Commonwealth Fund Fellowship, along with California Endowment Scholars program and Joseph Henry Oral Health Fellowship, has a proven track record of creating physician/other health professional leaders; the Alumni Spotlight interviews showcase the expertise and dedication to care for vulnerable populations as a testament of that success. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Michelle Johnson, MD, FACC, MPH (CFF '98)
Vice Chair for Health Equity, Department of Medicine; Clinical Director of Cardiology, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center; New York, NY
Q: Please describe your current role in your organization and your career journey to that role.
A: I am Vice Chair for Health Equity, Department of Medicine and Clinical Director of Cardiology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. In working towards ensuring Health Equity, I am engaged in measuring outcomes in cancer care by race, ethnicity, language, and morbidities and in helping to create solutions to any identified gaps in care. I am also involved in pipeline development for URM in cardiology and oncology subspecialties. As Clinical Director, I have responsibilities that pertain primarily to operations in the sphere of cardiovascular services for Memorial Sloan Kettering at the main campus and at the regional sites. I am also the co-chair of our Black Faculty and Scientist Faculty Council, a role which carries a focus on Black faculty career advancement and increasing institutional racial awareness.
My journey to my present roles has come in different stages. My initial leadership role was that of a clinician with administrative and operational responsibilities. I sought opportunities in my professional organizations to make contributions in the sphere of public health. Post my subspecialty training in cardiology, my leadership and management training was through my MPH in minority health policy. All throughout my career I have relied heavily on strategies and capabilities that I was immersed in and developed during my Commonwealth Fund Fellowship at Harvard.
Q: How would you describe your leadership style? Can you share with us a difficult decision you've had to make as a leader?
A: Yes, you know, I think it’s not going to make it onto the front page of the news, but I think it's helpful just on a day to day basis. It’s always easier to point out what's wrong but it’s harder to make things better. I remember being taught that real leaders are people who can actually make things better.
Part of my journey has been becoming more comfortable with my own leadership style. Helpful advice has included a philosophy of maximizing the areas of leadership that play to my natural strengths. See areas for growth as exactly that—i.e. opportunities for growth rather than deficits.
Q: What are your career goals? What's the biggest obstacle restricting your progress, and what are the unique barriers about advancing minority health leadership?
A: I am excited about continuing my work as Vice Chair in Health Equity in the Department of Medicine. This year has forced a broader recognition that racism is a public health crisis. I look forward to continuing to champion recruitment and retention efforts and career development of URM faculty and pipeline development programs.
Barriers to minority health leadership include competing agendas and competition for time and effort. The need to train leaders in this space continues to be acute as we still need a critical mass to be better able to address health inequities. Minority health leadership requires continued buildout of mentoring opportunities and avenues for networking and cross-pollination of knowledge.
Q: You bring up an interesting point because we go through all of this: you went through three years of residency and two years of fellowship on top of four years of medical school to become a cardiologist. And now you're doing the job, but then you get into these opportunities, and you have to figure out how much of a clinical responsibility you want to have, and when do you give it up if you give it up, and then how long can you actually live in both worlds as an administrator and as a clinician, and how do you find that balance?
A: At different points in one’s career there are different aspects that are at the forefront. Finding the correct mix is something that changes with time. During the phase of my career when I was primarily engaged in clinical work, I sought to make contributions through professional organizations and through mentoring. I had to work through concerns that I was not spending as much time in public health. Over time I have transitioned to roles that allow me to make more substantial contributions in health equity. I would tell my younger self that careers evolve. Balancing a clinician/administrator role is facilitated by good team support and resources.
Q: In your role, do you see any challenges in addressing health equity and health policy affecting vulnerable populations? And if so, what are the strategies that you use to address the barriers and challenges that you come across?
A: Recent societal events such as COVID have brought many more people to the table to discuss strategies and programs towards achieving health equity. Work in this space requires perseverance and commitment for long term results. I have found trying to create opportunities for early wins to keep people engaged despite competing interests to be important. Cross-disciplinary coalitions are also invaluable in efforts to move this work forward. Many of the strategies that are required— identifying stakeholders, establishing buy-in, creating safe holding grounds—build on principles to which I was first exposed through the Fellowship.
Q: Specifically for you, what role do mentors play in your current life?
A: Mentors have been and continue to play a critical role in my career. I have mentors in academic medicine and outside the academic arena, within my institution and outside my home institution and they are all invaluable. I would also share that some important guidance comes from people who I see as peer mentors, who may not be traditionally thought of as mentors. And there are different mentors for different chapters in my career. I am grateful to them all and hope that I am doing as good a job with my own mentees.
Q: And then we have one last question—I'd love to hear your perspective. How do you balance your all of your responsibilities: your professional responsibilities with your personal life, your administrative roles with your clinical roles, similar to what we were talking about earlier, but how do you find balance? How do you keep the balance?
A: I would say it's a delicate balance with some days being better balanced than others. There are some periods that will demand more immediate attention be paid to one area over the other. I find that I have to keep some kind of internal log or compass which is checked periodically, to be sure that I am being as effective and efficient as possible. And you can't be afraid to rebalance as situations change and as personal goals change. I try to be as organized as possible so that I can maximize my time. And I have true appreciation for the strength and support provided by good friendships.
Q: Terrific. Is there anything else you'd like to add to the discussion?
A: I would like to encourage all who are considering careers in health equity and in clinical work. I have seen firsthand that there are many opportunities to contribute, different ways to help move the needle. I remain immensely appreciative of the training and network that I was afforded through the Commonwealth Fund Fellowship and my leadership today draws significantly on my training at HSPH.