Dick Davidson, the AHA’s president emeritus, died March 28 at age 79. Davidson retired on Jan. 1, 2007, after serving 16 years in the AHA’s top leadership role, and was the second longest-serving president in the association’s 118-year history.

“Dick was an innovative and visionary leader, a consensus builder, and a friend and mentor to many throughout our field,” said AHA President and CEO Rick Pollack, who served as the association’s executive vice president of federal relations under Davidson.

Under Davidson’s leadership, the AHA undertook a wide range of policy and legislative initiatives to help its members meet the demands of the rapidly changing health care environment. It led national efforts to expand health care coverage, improve patient safety and increase minority representation in health management.

Davidson’s term of service at the AHA was eclipsed only by Edwin Crosby, M.D., who headed the association from 1954 until his death in February 1972.

Davidson with ClintonWhen approached about the job in 1991, Davidson wasn’t sure national hospital leaders were ready to embrace his values and vision for the future. As he recalled in an interview for Hospitals & Health Networks’ 1998 story on the AHA’s 100th centennial anniversary: “I said it was nice to be asked, but … you probably wouldn’t be interested in me because the minute I would be in the job, I would say that the mindless competition that we’ve pursued has taken us nowhere, that it’s time for a community-based collaboration focused around improving health and looking to see if we can do more than patch bodies. I’d be saying a lot of things about public accountability and values, and I don’t know if the field is ready for that.”  

“I got the answer: ‘Yes, the field is ready and you just go ahead and feel comfortable talking about those issues.’”

Davidson led the AHA through one of the most tumultuous periods of change for hospitals and health care in America. Early in his tenure, Congress debated comprehensive health care reform under then-President Clinton. At the same time, many hospitals underwent fundamental changes and evolved into health systems.

When the concept of “managed care” began causing major changes in health care delivery and payment, Davidson guided the AHA as it set a wide range of policy and legislative initiatives designed to help members cope with the rapidly changing environment.

As AHA president, he helped establish the Institute for Diversity in Health Management to promote health care leadership opportunities for minorities. He also spearheaded the formation of the Hospital Quality Alliance – the national partnership of hospitals, government and accrediting agencies, quality organizations, consumers, business and labor groups that came together in 2003 to make hospital quality data available to the public and to stimulate internal quality-improvement efforts. The alliance later transferred its work to the Measure Applications Partnership, or MAP, which was created by the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

In 2006, Davidson played a major role in launching the Center for Healthcare Governance, the AHA’s resource for information and tools for promoting excellence in health care governance.

In 2007, he received the AHA’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award, which recognizes significant lifetime contributions and service to the nation’s health care institutions and the association.

The annual Dick Davidson Quality Milestone Award for Allied Association Leadership was established to recognize a state, regional or metropolitan hospital association that demonstrates exceptional organizational leadership and innovation in quality improvement and has made significant contributions to the measurable improvement of quality within its geographic area.

“Dick Davidson was exactly the right leader at the right time as the AHA navigated the politics of health care reform, the expansion of managed care and efforts to balance the federal budget,” said AHA Past President and CEO Rich Umbdenstock, who succeeded Davidson as the AHA’s leader. “He was enormously proud of the nation's hospitals while also leading us to improve quality and safety, public accountability and community connections. Dick transitioned to me a strong and highly respected organization with an exceptional leadership team.”

Umbdenstock retired as CEO and president last fall, handing the reins to Pollack.

Davidson also was the first president of the Maryland Hospital Association (MHA) – then called the Hospital Council of Maryland – serving from 1969 to 1991. During his time there, the organization received national recognition for its work on trustee involvement in state association affairs, payment reform, the development of clinical quality indicators and medical and corporate values and ethics in the hospital setting.

Davidson with Bush“Dick’s leadership at both the MHA and AHA was marked by innovation and strength … but it was a gentle strength, a strength that convinced you his way was the right way because it always was,” said MHA President and CEO Carmela Coyle. “It’s rare to encounter a person like him, much less stay connected for decades … but that was the norm when you became his friend. We admired the leader, valued the mentor, and loved the man. I, and so many others, miss him already.” 

Born in Philadelphia, Davidson earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from West Chester University and Temple University, respectively, and a doctorate in education from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He and his wife Janet, whom he met as a teenager, were devoted parents and grandparents.

While working as a teacher and studying higher education administration at the University of Delaware, he suffered a back injury. Davidson went to Delaware Hospital for surgery.

At the time, the Maryland-DC-Delaware Association was looking for someone to manage its association education programs. He received that first health care job offer while recuperating at Delaware Hospital. “It was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me,” he said in a 2010 interview with the AHA’s Center for Hospital and Healthcare Administration History (CHHAH). “I would have never known how wonderful hospital people are or had such a great opportunity.”

A few years later he became president and CEO of the Maryland Hospital Association.

“I like to remind hospital CEOs that they have some of the toughest jobs in America, but they also have the greatest jobs in America.” Davidson told CHHAH. “See the diversity of problems that come to your community hospital. Go up to the neonatal intensive care unit and see the miraculous things that are taking place there. Go to the rehab unit and see people walking again that couldn’t walk last week. If you do that, you will feel exhilarated.”