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Chief health officers talk about building trust at their companies

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Around a decade ago it became fashionable for every company to call itself a technology company—no matter what industry they were in. Now, in the age of COVID, every company is a health care company. And every corporation of note is hiring, or has long-had, a chief health officer.

That role has expanded dramatically since the pandemic began. Pre-coronavirus a chief health officer might have been responsible for employee wellness and fitness programs, ensuring employees had access to mental health counseling, creating a healthy environment both physically and mentally, and responding to small-scale issues of public health such as seasonal flu.

Now the CHO is a key link between the scientific community and business, and is critical in making public health decisions for a company’s workforce.

On Thursday, as part of a Fortune Brainstorm Health virtual gathering, Fortune editor-in-chief Clifton Leaf, spoke with a panel comprised of some of corporate America’s top health specialists: Lockheed Martin Aeronautics chief medical officer Dr. Marleece Barber; CVS Health EVP and chief medical officer Dr. Troy Brennan; Disney chief medical officer Dr. Pamela Hymel; University of Miami Dean John Quelch; and IBM vice president and chief health officer Dr. Kyu Rhee.

Each of the panel spoke about how establishing trust prior to the pandemic is making it easier for them to get employee buy-in for their public health decisions.

“This integration of home and work is occurring, there’s a changing social contract between employers and employees,” said IBM’s Rhee. “We have 95{ce8ce7cc98bffdc4302011057a79600ea02c464c5536f1477c12acdb8bd79c00} of our workforce working from home globally, but [Lockheed’s] Marleece and [Disney’s] Pam have much of their workforce at sites. They’ve got to create a culture of trust not just with customers but with employees.”

“Having been with Lockheed Martin for nearly 17 years, I’ve had time to build relationships with employees and leaders,” said Barber. “So when it came to dealing with the crisis, people could trust the information I was providing. Early on, as a leadership team, we decided that safety was our top priority and we would have very close alignment with the CEO setting the tone.”

In July, Disney re-opened Walt Disney World Orlando to the public just as Florida was becoming a hotspot for coronavirus. But as the company’s chief doctor, Hymel said they were confident they could open the gates to the Magic Kingdom without putting guests, or cast members at risk. Trust was key to that.

“For years I’ve been embedded in our leadership team, and COVID-19 really put a spotlight on the value that a chief medical officer or chief health officer brings into an organization,” said Hymel. “Because we were really able to talk about the scientific approach [regarding our parks].”

“One of the things that gave us confidence about opening Walt Disney World in Orlando is the fact that we had health and safety protocols already in place, that we knew worked, in our parks outside the U.S.”

While some new corporate titles can seem like fuzzy virtue signaling, the panel all stressed the importance of a chief health officer that gets a real seat at the table in shaping a company’s response to crises of public health.

With COVID unlikely to leave us for a good while to come, that seat will need to be permanent.

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