David J. Cook, MD: Leadership Is a Time to Learn


For David J. Cook, MD, MHA, FAHA, life is about learning. Learning, he says, comes from seizing upon opportunities for new experiences that force him outside of his comfort zone. Dr. Cook holds a B.A. in Biology and Philosophy from Lehigh University, an M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee, and an M.D. from Jefferson Medical College, with residency and fellowship training at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine. He was an anesthesiologist and faculty member at Mayo who received an executive MHA from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, and has now chosen to live out the next chapter in his career in charge of operations at Jiahui Health and International Hospital in Shanghai.

On behalf of our Witt/Kieffer International affiliate (formerly known as Witt/Kieffer Ccentric), we recently spoke with Dr. Cook about the connection between leadership and life-long learning.

David J. Cook, MD

Read the full Q&A here.

Here below is an abbreviated version of the conversation with Dr. Cook:

You’re opening a brand new hospital, with a new philosophy of care and a multi-cultural staff, all in China, where you don’t speak the language. What were your first steps and priorities?

Cook: Walking into an organization as a new leader is like walking into the middle of the second act of a play without having seen the script. Within the first several weeks I tried to talk with everyone and see what they faced. Following that we did an organization-wide heat map to try to understand what everyone thought were the challenges the organization faced. Then we identified priorities and communicated what we would try to do.

Many use the term “cultural competence”, the need for which may be an understatement in your situation. How has culture and language impacted your ability to be effective?

Cook: From day one, and now at a year, the majority of my job is about learning. “Organizational Culture” is a leadership buzzword, and there is that, and then there is China. What Chinese consumers want from healthcare is different from the U.S., how practice is organized differs, the knowledge base and training differs, the financial models are completely different, there is little management expertise, and there are also extraordinary challenges to figuring out how to operate under often ambiguous Chinese regulations.

I am at a disadvantage for not having the language skill, because the nature of communication in Chinese is typically non-literal; it does not have the linearity of English; some terms cannot even be translated. That is meaningful. This does compromise my effectiveness. Real language competence is not realistic in three or perhaps five years, so I can only persist in trying to understand.

How do you integrate Western “standards of care” with an Eastern medical tradition?

Cook: This is the most creative and challenging effort of the enterprise. We have to make sense to consumers, we have to establish credibility in ways patients understand while maintaining Western standards. Anticipating a staff that is 75 percent Chinese nationals, we have to find out where they are, identify targets that are very practical compromises, then do lots of training and even more communication.

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