University Hospital's Dr. Shereef Elnahal to Share Lessons From the Pandemic

February 9, 2021
Mary Caffrey

Dr. Shereef Elnahal had a full agenda when he took the helm at University Hospital Newark. Months later, he faced a new crisis: COVID-19. This week, Elnahal shares lessons from the pandemic at Academy Health's policy conference.

Dr. Shereef Elnahal had a tall order when he took the helm of University Hospital Newark on July 1, 2019: improve quality and regulatory compliance, shore up the hospital’s creditworthiness, and build better relationships with labor.

He’d been president and CEO less than a year when the first cases of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) hit. Three weeks after Governor Phil Murphy declared a public health emergency March 16, 2020, the hospital had seen more than 100 cases and a staff member had died. The crush of COVID-19 cases put a new layer of burden on emergency staff, who in normal times are already busy running the region’s only Level 1 trauma center.

For Elnahal, a New Jersey native who leads the state’s largest safety net hospital after serving as the state’s health commissioner, COVID-19 created an unexpected crisis but also brought attention to racial disparities in care and outcomes, a topic he’d addressed for years before the pandemic. He will be part of a panel addressing lessons from COVID-19 during Academy Health’s 2021 Datapalooza and National Health Policy Conference, which runs February 16-18.

Elnahal spoke with Chief Healthcare Executive™ about the role of data in battling COVID-19, how being health commissioner first helps him in his role at University Hospital, and how he has been inspired by the sense of mission from many of the long-serving employees at University Hospital. “The folks who have been at University Hospital—especially the people have been here for 10, 15 years or longer—tend to be the people you learn from the most as a new leader,” he said. “You learn tremendously from them about what other leaders tried to do ambitiously, and initiatives that failed in the past, or perhaps [were] successful, but then petered out.

“Those folks are really the heart and soul of the organization.”