Patients First: Robert Wood Johnson

Advocate for modern health care

    • February 6, 2012

As a young man frequently hospitalized for chronic health problems in the 1930s, Robert Wood Johnson learned about health care firsthand: Most depression era hospitals were inefficient, financially stressed, and overwhelmed by unprecedented demand for services—and therefore unable to provide high-quality patient care.

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Johnson became a passionate campaigner for improved patient services. While struggling with his own lifelong illnesses, he would often offer impromptu management advice to his physicians and nurses. The son of a founder of Johnson & Johnson, and known as “the General” to friends and colleagues, he not only led the family business to global success but also used his knowledge of medical advances from around the world to improve health in his community, New Brunswick, New Jersey .

When in good health, Johnson would visit what was then Middlesex Hospital (now Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital) accompanied by “volunteers” from Johnson & Johnson. He brought along time and motion study experts, engineers, accountants—people from any discipline who could help improve hospital management to identify ways to improve care.

In 1931, he wrote the booklet, Service to the Patient. The innovations he championed—a patient’s right to an objective second opinion, physicians trained and made available by specialty, nurses empowered to make care decisions, hospitals organized by medical department—are all critical to high-quality patient care today.

General Johnson concluded: “[With] this plan…hospitals should greatly increase activities in preventive medicine; reduce the length of the average patient’s illness, period. Simplify the selection of the right doctor for patients…eliminate unnecessary confusion and expense.”

Throughout his life, General Johnson remained committed to improving care standards in medicine. He bequeathed his personal fortune to create the largest foundation dedicated to health and health care in the nation.

Deeply moved when he was made an Honorary Fellow of the American College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1950, he said: “This fulfills the ambition of a lifetime. Now, I am almost a doctor. This is one of the highlights of my life.”

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