Commencement Speaker: David Blumenthal, MD, MPP

David Blumenthal, MD, MPP

David Blumenthal, MD, MPP, the honorary speaker for this year’s commencement ceremony, is the president and CEO of the Commonwealth Fund. The Commonwealth Fund is a private foundation started by philanthropist Anna M. Harkness in 1918 with the broad charge to enhance the common good.

Dr. Blumenthal became President and CEO of the Commonwealth Fund, a national health care philanthropy based in New York City, in January 2013. Previously, he served as Chief Health Information and Innovation Officer at Partners Health System in Boston, MA, and was Samuel O. Thier Professor of Medicine and Professor of Health Care Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital/ Harvard Medical School.  From 2009 to 2011, Dr. Blumenthal was the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology under President Barack Obama.  In this role he was charged with building an interoperable, private and secure nationwide health information system and supporting the widespread, meaningful use of health IT. Prior to that, Dr. Blumenthal was a practicing primary care physician, director of the Institute for Health Policy, and professor of medicine and health policy at Massachusetts General Hospital/Partners Healthcare System and Harvard Medical School.

As a renowned health services researcher and national authority on health IT adoption, Dr. Blumenthal has authored over 300 scholarly publications, including the seminal studies on the adoption and use of health information technology in the United States.

Dr. Blumenthal received his undergraduate, medical, and public policy degrees from Harvard University and completed his residency in internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.


“Every health care professional has the opportunity to be a leader. One critical aspect of leadership is listening.”

A Q&A with Commencement Speaker David Blumenthal, MD, MPP

Tell us about your work with the Commonwealth Fund.

The Commonwealth Fund is a national philanthropy based in New York City. Our mission is to create a high performing health system in the United States with special priority placed on the needs of the most vulnerable populations. We do this by supporting research and policy development.

As a leader in health care, do you have any advice for our graduating students on what skills are needed to be a successful leader in the industry? What is your leadership philosophy?

People who want to accomplish change in health care, and want to lead change, need to have a deep understanding of the health care system. They need to have an inclusive management style in which they are developing skills of listening. Listening is an incredibly important skill for leaders.

The other thing that is important is to be a strong communicator and to use stories and narrative effectively to get across your goals and your vision.

Lastly, I think it is important to have strong values and know what you stand for.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the landscape of the health care world. What lessons have you learned during this time? What advice would you give our graduating students who are entering into this new age of health care?

The lessons may vary on where you sit or stand in health care. I think COVID-19 has tested us as a body, in terms of how we balance individual rights and responsibilities. For most health care professionals, they have found themselves on one end of the spectrum where they have honored their responsibilities to society at some cost to their personal rights. They have sacrificed, sometimes personally, emotionally; sometimes in terms of their own health.

I think it has taught the lesson that health care is a noble profession that, in the past, has gotten insufficient understanding and appreciation until COVID-19 came along. I hope that because of COVID-19, more people will be drawn to health care for the right reasons and that they should come to expect more from society in acknowledging their sacrifices. 

One of Rush’s core values is collaboration. In your work at the Commonwealth Fund, you are continually collaborating and working with multiple organizations and health systems. What advice would you give students when it comes to working and collaborating with others and making those partnerships work?

Every health care professional has the opportunity to be a leader. One critical aspect of leadership is listening. I think that if you are working in multi-specialty and multi-disciplinary teams you need to be able to listen and you need to be able to hear. You need to have empathy for the other’s perspectives and views.

This was not something that was taught in my training. For example, we had very little contact with nurses and some saw them as almost props in the larger performance of health care. Through my years of practice, I came to understand the value of nursing and of other professionals like occupational therapists and physical therapists. It can be really easy for physicians to think that as long as they write an order in the order book, that is all they need to do. But in order to be an effective caregiver, they need to do much more. It is really important for health care professionals to see themselves as leaders of teams and therefore as having the responsibility to make the teams work.

Health equity is at the center of Rush University’s mission and it is also something that is very important to the Commonwealth Fund. Can you speak to the Fund’s Advancing Health Equity Program and its commitment to health equity as a whole?

Four years ago we started efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion internally at the fund. We were well into it when George Floyd was murdered. It prepared us much better than we would have been to react to that event. The Advancing Health Equity Program and our own internal efforts have been the most important leadership challenge I’ve had and perhaps the most gratifying. We have made equity a theme in everything we do. It is very much apart of our hiring, our internal management and our grant making. You cannot snap your fingers and change an organization overnight, but we’ve come a long way.

It has also required to look at ourselves in a very different way. The Commonwealth Fund was endowed by the Harkness family who was a partner with John D. Rockefeller. We occupy as an office, the building that was their former home in New York City, right on Central Park in the heart of one of the most affluential areas in one of the most affluent cities in the world. While the Harkness family was progressive for its time, I don’t think they ever anticipated a diversity, equity and inclusion movement within the Harkness House. So it has been very interesting to look back at our history, including our physical surroundings from a diversity and equity perspective, to see that the building in which we used to meet was really a monument to the history of white privilege in the United States and now we are building from something new, and that is a culture of inclusion and diversity.

Is there any advice you wish someone would have given you before graduating and embarking on your career?

I think one of the things I’ve done throughout my career is balance work and family; work and other things. At the end of the day, the old saying of “no one on their death bed wishes they spent more in the office,” is something that is worth advising people when they graduate. Finding that right work-life balance while also finding some place to excel in both (work and life) is what people have to focus on.