In 2016, UHF was pleased to present the Health Care Leadership Award to Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
It takes enormous vision, optimism, and courage to set a goal—much less announce it—of building a national “culture of health.” And it takes drive, strategic thinking, and an ability to inspire others to not only lay the groundwork for that kind of enterprise but also to move it forward—shifting perceptions and approaches, creating broad new partnerships, and bringing about measurable improvement.
In her 13 years as the head of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted solely to health—Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, has demonstrated all those qualities and more, as she has pushed to redefine its work from that of “grant-making” to “effecting social change.” The first woman and first African American to lead the Foundation, Risa has spurred accomplishments that have placed her on numerous lists of the most influential health care leaders and most powerful women nationally and worldwide.
Under her leadership, RWJF, as it is commonly known, moved from supporting siloed initiatives to improve health and health care to establishing a portfolio of integrated programs that hold health as a shared value and address the social and economic factors affecting it. Beginning with an 18-month period of strategic thinking among staff at all levels, Risa spearheaded the Foundation’s reorganization to focus on four major themes: Healthy Children, Healthy Weight; Healthy Communities; Transforming Health and Health Care Systems; and Leadership for Better Health. At the heart of this approach is an emphasis on deeper, smarter collaborations with traditional health care stakeholders as well as sectors as diverse as finance, technology, criminal justice, and real estate.
Perhaps the most visible work of the Foundation over the last decade has been its efforts to combat childhood obesity. With an initial investment of $500 million made in 2007, and an additional $500 million in 2015, RWJF has raised national awareness of the epidemic and funded research on the best ways to address it. The Foundation has also informed policy changes at the local, state, and national level, and has promoted cross-sector solutions. Today, the relentless rise in childhood obesity rates has stopped—and the rates have actually started to decline among children ages 2 to 5. As Michelle Obama noted in celebrating the fifth anniversary of her own Let’s Move initiative, “RWJF wasn’t just stepping on the bandwagon, they were building [it] pretty much from scratch.”
But the Foundation’s reach extends far beyond the obesity initiative. It has recently increased its investment in health leadership training to help create a 21st-century workforce. It helped produce a landmark report with the Institute of Medicine on the future of nursing, and established a national network of action coalitions to bring the recommendations of that report to fruition. Other signature initiatives include the RWJF fellowship and scholars programs—whose graduates, it’s been estimated, now fill more than a third of top leadership positions in American medicine; work to advance innovative programs and strategies that address the health needs of vulnerable populations; and work to link health quality and equality.
The Foundation’s ambitious agenda draws equally on Risa’s passion and commitment, sparked by the example her parents set for her as a child in Seattle. Her mother, the first African American female pediatrician in Washington, and her father, a general surgeon, were dedicated to providing health care for all, and made clear the connection between health and well-being and social and economic factors.
That awareness, and those values, fueled Risa through medical school at Harvard, a stint as an RWJF Clinical Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, a Wharton MBA in health care administration and policy, a specialty in geriatrics, and academic appointments at Penn. Even as she directed Penn’s Institute on Aging and was chief of geriatric medicine at the school of medicine, she was known for making house calls and creating interdisciplinary caregiving teams, say colleagues. During the first Bush administration she served as deputy administrator for what was to become the Agency for Healthcare Research and Policy; she then spent a year and a half, during the Clinton presidency, working at the White House on quality. In 2001 she joined RWJF as senior vice president for health care.
“Philanthropy,” she often says, “has the privilege of being able to take the long view of big, thorny issues, and to develop strategies that involve many partners to address the root causes.” It is her own long view, and her commitment to tackling the big issues, that has made Risa Lavizzo-Mourey such a dynamic and effective force. On behalf of the health care community and all New York, United Hospital Fund salutes her for her extraordinary work to build a fair and high-quality health care system that serves us all.