Until March of this year, my job as chief medical officer of Salesforce was demanding but reasonably predictable from one day to another. I focused on steering the company’s health care and life sciences strategy, identifying opportunities to bring solutions to market, and interpreting the significance of government policy changes for our clients and partners.
Covid-19 blew up my job description overnight.
Since the pandemic began, protecting the health, safety, and well-being of our global workforce has been the company’s number one priority. Having trained and practiced as a radiologist, I found myself ramping up on epidemiology during weekends and evenings in an effort to offer credible guidance to staff and leadership on navigating the unfolding pandemic.
My experience is anything but isolated. In many companies, the chief medical officer role — once an afterthought or a latecomer to the C-suite — has been thrust into the limelight. Existing CMOs have seen their roles rewritten or expanded on the fly, while companies far outside of health care are scrambling to hire CMOs for the first time. Though the pandemic is the catalyst for this shakeup, most indicators suggest it’s more than just a passing fad.
We’re all in the business of health
In provider organizations and health plans, the chief medical officers has, of course, been a C-suite mainstay for decades, serving as a critical bridge between administrative and clinical functions. More recently, biotech and technology companies like mine that develop products and services for the health care sector have added or elevated clinical leadership roles to inform market strategy and product development.
But the pandemic has driven home the message that, in one sense or another, every company is now in the business of health. Tyson Foods, for example, which created a new CMO position to oversee Covid-19 monitoring after outbreaks at the company’s meatpacking plants led to shutdowns and lawsuits, has since announced a partnership with Marathon Health to open health clinics near its facilities to foster an ongoing “culture of health.”
As the roles of chief medical officers are increasingly viewed as business-critical to more and more companies, what does this expanded CMO job description encompass?
Keeping employees safe, healthy, and productive
Although companies have been on the hook for employee health, wellness, and associated costs for many years, the pandemic raised the stakes dramatically. With days’ notice, employers had to close offices and cancel work gatherings before they could become superspreader events. Beyond keeping employees and workplaces Covid-free, CMOs need to monitor and manage the mental health of workers as they experience unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression.
In the absence of consistent messages from federal and local government, employers — and the chief medical officer specifically — became reliable sources of truth for employees, interpreting and updating rapidly changing health and safety guidelines. Multiple polls have shown that throughout the pandemic, people’s trust in employers has been much higher than in government officials.
CMOs monitoring employee health at home and advising on the safe reopening of worksites must also factor in the impact of lost productivity. In the 2017-2018 influenza season, the flu cost U.S. employers $21 billion in lost productivity. When the final numbers are in from Covid-19, the hit will be massively higher.
Ensuring customer health and safety
For any chief medical officer operating in retail and service industries, maintaining the health and safety of customers is as important as protecting employees. Companies small and large have had to roll out, continuously update, and enforce customer policies around social distancing, hand-washing, and mask-wearing, among other new protocols. In several cases, CMOs have been hired or elevated not only to lead these efforts but to signal a serious commitment to health and safety at the executive level.
After posting more than $1 billion in quarterly losses due to outbreaks and cancellations, for example, Royal Caribbean cruises publicly announced the hiring of a CMO to implement and oversee an elaborate testing operation when the cruise line is cleared to sail again. Not dissimilarly, the chief health officers of universities, who once kept a low profile running campus health centers, are now in the hot seat and faced with the greatest challenge of their careers, implementing often massive operations for testing, quarantine, and contact tracing.
A bridge to the broader community
No company can operate in a bubble. The pandemic has made it painfully clear that we are not only dependent on and beholden to our employees, customers, and shareholders, but also to the countries and communities we operate in. CMOs are increasingly charged with synthesizing a wide array of information and data sources to help guide organizational strategy, from phased reopening of offices to employee benefit and health and wellness offerings. Many are also establishing and maintaining open channels of communication with local public health officials to ensure alignment and avoid surprises.
Lately, I’ve been speaking regularly with thought leaders and epidemiology experts across the health care industry and relaying that information back to my company’s senior leaders. As we learn more about the epidemiology of the virus, it’s essential to be armed with the most current and credible guidance to help steer strategy and do all we can as corporate citizens to make things better, not worse, for the communities we operate in.
Identify opportunities and needs in the new health economy
Like other CMOs, my pre-pandemic responsibilities for guiding industry and solution strategy haven’t gone away. If anything, they have been elevated in importance and accelerated in urgency by the events of recent months. The pandemic has not only raised awareness and consciousness of health for all but has exposed fault lines and gaps in our infrastructure and support systems that demand our attention. For example, the public health crisis exposed deeply entrenched disparities, with low-income areas and communities of color affected at a much higher rate than others.
As the pandemic widens our collective view of the health care ecosystem to better include social determinants of health and a more comprehensive view of community health, CMOs must reflect on how this heightened awareness affects their focus and their company’s opportunity to be part of the solution.
If the hiring and empowerment of chief medical officers at more kinds of organizations signals greater seriousness about protecting the health and wellbeing of employees, citizens, and communities, it can only be a positive trend for society. The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us that we are each part of a larger social and biological organism, deeply connected and interdependent. Managing our collective health through and beyond this crisis is now all of our jobs.
Ashwini Zenooz is a radiologist and chief medical officer and general manager of global health care and life sciences at Salesforce.