ANAHEIM, California – Early in his cardiology career, John Warner worked at a clinic that catered to many of the poorest, sickest people in Dallas. The lines were so long that doctors only had time to address an immediate problem or refill a prescription before moving on to the next patient.

Driving home many nights, Warner wondered how to serve more people or at least serve them better. Years later, he got chances to help improve the overall system of care – and discovered he had quite a knack for it.

Warner was part of a team that turned Dallas smoke-free, then another that coordinated heart attack treatment across Dallas County. He oversaw design of an $800 million hospital and did such a good job that he became CEO of that healthcare system, the UT Southwestern University Hospitals. Now he’s also the president of the American Heart Association, and used his address at the opening of the organization’s flagship scientific event Sunday to encourage colleagues to amplify the voice of their patients.

“Caring for people, not just trying to fix their problems, this is where I think each of us individually, and the AHA collectively, have our biggest opportunities,” Warner said. “As the business models of health care evolve toward rewarding the quality of care we are providing, as opposed to the quantity of work we are doing, more and more of our success will be defined by diseases we prevent, rather than by diseases we treat.”

Warner’s first step toward impacting public health outside of his hospital came when he joined the AHA’s Dallas board.

His timing was good. A local push to make the city smoke-free had stalled. There was a theory that a prominent clinician with a personal story to tell could help make a difference. Warner happened to have a grandfather who’d been a longtime smoker before dying of heart disease. He and others with compelling personal tales swayed the nation’s ninth-largest city to spare hundreds and thousands of people the dangers of second-hand smoke.

“Being part of this effort helped me realize that the voices of doctors, nurses and healthcare leaders needed to be heard within the community,” he said. “Speaking to the city council took only 30 minutes, but it helped effect a major change in a major city. I vowed to do more of this, to broaden my involvement in my community and to make a difference on a larger scale.”

Next, he was part of an AHA team that connected every link in the chain of survival for people who suffer a particular type of heart attack. Known as a STEMI, it involves a blocked artery that can be opened with a drug or stent that must be administered quickly. Coordination included standardizing EMS equipment and protocols. Another component was “Don’t Die of Doubt,” a campaign urging people to call 911 and to seek help for chest pain more quickly.

“All told, this work produced exactly what we hoped – patients presenting earlier in their (heart attacks), then entering a system more prepared to care for them quickly,” Warner said. “It also reinforced the AHA’s unique ability to move past barriers and convene critical partners to transform the health of communities.”

Building the hospital was the next evolution. He said it “truly transformed me. It also expanded my definition of a healthcare team.”

A key part of his master plan was listening to everyone who’d be part of that team: patients, their families and everyone who works at the hospital, from doctors and nurses to chaplains and valet parkers.

The result was an award-winning hospital that’s filled with patients.

“We created more than just a building,” he said. “We actually transformed the care we deliver by truly putting patients first.”

Warner brought that approach to the CEO office. While he struggled with the decision to give up working in the catheter lab for the board room, he did so “to impact more patients more of the time.”

His call to action in Sunday’s address was for others to seek opportunities to try making an impact in their community or country.

“For decades, we have been focused on improving the cardiovascular health of populations around the world,” Warner said. “And with cardiovascular disease being the No. 1 killer of both men and women worldwide, even small improvements in cardiovascular health will save the lives of many.”

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