How strategic systems leadership can transform population health

3 min read


As healthcare costs continue to rise, delivery systems remain complicated, and the demands of the population become greater, strong leadership is essential. Both executive and clinical leadership must be clear in their mission and objectives to see improvement in a complex industry such as healthcare. 

What is systems leadership?

Systems leadership is an approach that is well-suited to issues that require collective action, where no single organization can control the outcomes. The role requires demonstrated collaboration skills and the ability to see how partnerships are essential to solving complex problems. 

Systems leadership in healthcare is about: 

  • Understanding how to strengthen relationships with key partners
  • Enabling change that improves service design and delivery 
  • Removing barriers to care and improving outcomes

What do systems leaders do?

Systems leaders set the vision and goals for the system and maintain the mission of improving population health outcomes through person-centered, coordinated care. They establish a culture of collaboration and partnership, and have the ability to identify and prioritize high-value opportunities. 

Gaining buy-in from key stakeholders is also an essential skill for systems leaders. As a result, systems leaders spend most of their time planning short and long-term strategies to achieve the system’s objectives while embracing innovation. 

What skills are required to be a systems leader?

A systems leader must have the ability to understand and manage complex industry challenges. They must have a breadth of experience that allows them to develop innovative solutions and gain support from other business areas. Finally, their solutions for care delivery or process efficiency must work towards three overarching healthcare goals: reducing costs, improving health outcomes, and improving the patient experience. 

Successful systems leaders can drive positive change, implement evidence-based practices, and create highly reliable, data-driven organizations.

People with these skills can more easily: 

  • Translate science to influence healthcare policy
  • Implement evidence-based practices to optimize healthcare outcomes 
  • Develop partnerships and processes that reduce disparities
  • Practice strategic management skills to improve the effectiveness of nursing interventions 
  • Develop ideas that create innovative healthcare delivery models
  • Demonstrate financial leadership in planning 
  • Integrate technology 
  • Integrate ethics when making critical decisions
  • Perform crisis management

Why is systems leadership important?

Successful systems leaders can generate impactful change. They can create a higher level of workforce fulfillment and engagement while improving the delivery system and population health outcomes. Therefore, robust systems leaders are critical to system success. 

Partnerships are the key to tackling social determinants of health

Social determinants of health are the main focus for many healthcare organizations in the U.S. These social factors, or barriers to care, have a major impact on people’s health, well-being, and quality of life.

Healthy People 2030 breaks down social determinants of health (SDoH) into five categories:

  • Economic stability
  • Education
  • Social and community context
  • Health and healthcare
  • Neighborhood and built environment

Examples of social determinants of health include:

  • Safe housing, transportation, and neighborhoods
  • Racism, discrimination, and violence
  • Education, job opportunities, and income
  • Access to nutritious foods and physical activity opportunities
  • Polluted air and water
  • Language and literacy skills

Just imagine how hard it might be to pay tens of thousands of dollars for family health insurance if your employer doesn’t provide it, or how difficult it would be to see a specialist every week to manage a new chronic disease if they were located an hour away. Unfortunately, millions of people in the U.S. face these barriers to care, and many are challenged with more than one of these factors.

Collaboration and leadership can improve health equity

Doctors and other providers cannot tackle these challenges alone. Even a health system does not have the resources necessary to overcome such systemic issues. Partnerships are essential to solving barriers to care, which is where strategy systems leadership becomes crucial. 

Systems leaders can identify high-value partnerships. One example is a health system and an insurance company working together to create an Accountable Care Organization (ACO) and aligning their goals around value-based care. ACOs have become a prevalent value-based care model that prioritizes quality of care over the quantity of patients seen. 

Another example could be a hospital collaborating with a local food bank. If a patient is identified as living in a food desert or is unable to access food, they can participate in a food bank program. We are also seeing some providers or insurance companies implementing transportation programs or covering ride-share fees to ensure people get the care they need, when they need it. 

The opportunities for partnership and collaboration are infinite. These innovative ideas from leadership are going to solve some of the most critical issues facing healthcare and U.S. families today. 

Providing leadership to clinical or nursing teams

Systems leadership skills are necessary to move to leadership roles within any healthcare organization. Having clinical experience, the ability to positively influence a nursing team and collaboration skills are the foundation for a journey to becoming a Chief Nursing Officer. These leaders can affect a multitude of important issues, from workforce engagement and enjoyment to population health outcomes.  

What is the job outlook for nurse managers and other health service managers?

There is a growing need for well-educated, forward-thinking, and pragmatic nurse leaders. Systems constantly seek people with leadership skills that focus on high-quality care delivery in the most efficient manner with the highest outcomes. Systems leadership skills allow you to lead healthcare systems in multiple settings, from hospitals to governments to not-for-profits.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states the following facts:

  • Most medical and health services managers work in offices in healthcare facilities, including hospitals and nursing homes, and group medical practices.
  • Most medical and health services managers have at least a bachelor’s degree before entering the field; however, master’s degrees also are common.
  • The median annual wage for medical and health services managers was $101,340 in May 2021.
  • Employment of medical and health services managers is projected to grow 28 percent from 2021 to 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations.

In summary, systems leadership is critical to improving the healthcare system. From workforce engagement and shortages to driving innovation and improving health outcomes, these leaders will have tremendous opportunities in their roles. 


Online Master of Science in Nursing

Emphasis in Strategic Systems Leadership (SSL)

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Jess Holder


Jess Holder

Manager of Member Marketing Content at Accolade


Jess Holder

Manager of Member Marketing Content at Accolade

Jess has spent over a decade asking healthcare thought leaders how they are improving the healthcare delivery system. In addition to being a freelance writer, she currently works at Accolade, a healthcare advocacy and patient navigation company that is on a mission to relentlessly reinvent healthcare. Jess received her Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania and is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP). She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two wild and crazy boys.