Inside NYP: Dr. Laura L. Forese

NewYork-Presbyterian’s executive vice president and chief operating officer discusses her evolution from orthopedic surgeon to hospital leader.

Portrait of Dr. Laura L. Forese

Health Matters spoke with Dr. Laura L. Forese about her long career at NewYork-Presbyterian, the value that guides her daily decisions, and how surviving cancer changed her perspective.

What inspired you to pursue a career in medicine?
From the time I was a little girl, I’d say, “I’m going to be a doctor,” even though no one in my family was in medicine. All I knew was, I like people. I like helping, and I like fixing things. I went to college saying, “I’m going to medical school afterward” — and I did. Immediately after college, I came to Columbia to go to medical school and, in some ways, I never left.

Yet you studied engineering at Princeton?
I like to take something difficult and break it down, so engineering was perfect for me to study. There are lots of uses for it, certainly within medicine. In my role today, I think about my engineering background all the time. I think I’ve used that as much as I’ve used my medical training.

What led you to specialize in pediatric orthopedic surgery?
Orthopedics is literally, as well as figuratively, about fixing people. It’s clear you can make someone better so quickly. Especially with kids, it’s rewarding to know you can make a difference in someone’s life.

After earning your medical degree at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, you became a faculty member in 1993. What has it been like to spend your career here?
It’s a tremendous blessing because I know all the history and appreciate the richness of the institution. On the other hand, I’m not afraid to say, “We need to push on this; we need to move on this.” Because I know the organization so well, I’m very comfortable saying, “We can do better.”

You’ve held many roles over the course of your career. What stands out?
Two roles stand out: The first is when I was an attending physician and assistant professor in the department of orthopedic surgery. Up until then, I was always working under someone else’s supervision. I remember that first day realizing that I was the person completely responsible for the child in my care. It was thrilling, but it also had that scary feeling of, “Wow, this is it.”

The second is my first operational role, which I began about 10 years ago. Up until that point, it wasn’t necessarily where I saw my career going. Then, once I was in that role, I realized how much I enjoyed it — the breadth of the role, all the different tasks, which were incredible.

“I’m driven to make sure that we’re doing everything we can for our patients and our staff.”

— Dr. Laura L. Forese

NewYork-Presbyterian recently adopted the most comprehensive parental leave policy among hospitals and healthcare systems in New York City. What does it mean to you?
I have three children, and my twin daughters were born 26 years ago, when maternity leave was not formalized. I was an orthopedic surgery resident at the time, and my program had never had any mothers. Fortunately, when I told my chairman I was pregnant, he said, “OK, we’ll figure it out.”

Now, NewYork-Presbyterian provides six weeks of paid time off for primary caregivers and two weeks for secondary caregivers, along with six months of extended leave and continuation of benefits. I’m glad that our employees, including our trainees, will have peace of mind and the resources to truly enjoy this time. We want to help them have a work-life balance that works for them.

How have you achieved your own work-life balance?
Two words: great help. I have an incredibly supportive husband, who is also a surgeon. We’ve been together 30 years. And when our kids were little, we moved to be near family. I’ve never been afraid to ask for help. That’s what allowed me, when I was away from my kids, to focus on work — and when I was with them, to really focus on them.

When you were in your 30s, you underwent treatment for breast cancer. How did that experience change your perspective on your work?
It was a tough time for us. Our kids were little, and I was reasonably sick for a year — lots of surgeries and chemotherapy and radiation. I would never wish a significant illness on anyone, but there was no question that, for me, a lot of positive things came out of that experience.

It was a challenging and all-consuming time, and I would say, “Gosh, I’m a doctor and a doctor’s spouse, and I find this hard and confusing. What does the average person go through, and how much harder would it be to navigate the healthcare system?” I think having that appreciation has been good for me, in terms of doing the right thing in our work.

What advice do you give to colleagues?
Take the long view about a career and all the different skills and experiences you can get. Each step of the journey brings something and adds to lifelong learning.

And the best advice you’ve gotten?
It came from my parents, who raised us with this notion of, “Always try to do the right thing.” Now I realize, many years later, that’s been a guidepost.

What about NewYork-Presbyterian makes you proud?
I really feel good about our culture of respect. For our patients, it’s about the care we’re giving them. For our team members, our employees, the doctors we work with, it’s about the care we demonstrate for them, which allows them to be incredible caregivers.

I’m driven to make sure we’re doing everything we can for our patients and staff. That’s because I really believe we can and should be the best hospital in the country.

Laura Forese, M.D., executive vice president and chief operating officer of NewYork-Presbyterian. Dr. Forese has ultimate operational responsibility for the NewYork-Presbyterian enterprise, including 10 hospital campuses and more than 47,000 employees. A pediatric orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Forese graduated from Princeton University and from Columbia College of Physicians & Surgeons, and she holds a management degree from Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. A member of multiple healthcare and civic organizations, Dr. Forese chairs the NIH’s Clinical Center Research Hospital Board.