Winter 2021

Dr. Alex Jahangir, MMHC’12, draws on lessons from Owen to lead Nashville’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic

In September 2020, Dr. Alex Jahangir had to contend with a pair of unprecedented challenges as chair of the Metro Nashville Coronavirus Task Force. The first, and most pressing, was the public health crisis facing the city as COVID-19 cases climbed and local hospitals were pushed to capacity. But there was also the looming economic crisis brought about by the pandemic, which had led to a tense meeting he found himself in with Nashville hotel executives and fellow public health officials.  

Directing their ire toward Jahangir, the executives complained that the business restrictions he had helped develop were devastating the city’s hotels. Some even had been told by corporate offices that temporary closures were imminent without improved sales. 

“It really was about their people, and that was very heartfelt,” says Jahangir, who is also a professor of orthopaedic surgery at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and director of the Division of Orthopaedic Trauma at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “They didn’t want their guests to get sick, but they also didn’t want their people to be laid off or the economy of Nashville to just collapse.”   

For Jahangir, it was another inflection point in the COVID-19 response where it wasn’t enough to evaluate just the science—which would have called for ongoing shutdowns and more tourism limits. There were other significant considerations in the equation, and he realized he would have to think more strategically to factor those in—a shift in his own decision-making process that he credits to his time earning a master of management in health care at Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management.  

“You have to learn to balance competing interests, and you have to be comfortable with the ambiguity,” says Jahangir, who was thrust into the public spotlight in March 2020 when, as the newly elected chair of the Metropolitan Board of Health of Nashville and Davidson County, he was tapped by Nashville Mayor John Cooper, EMBA’85, to head the city’s task force. “In leading the response to this crisis, there is not a day that goes by when I don’t think about the training and education I got at Owen.” 

During the September meeting, Jahangir served as a conduit between the other public health officials and hospitality leaders and, in real time, helped negotiate capacity levels that would allow hotels to stay afloat while minimizing COVID-19 risk. “We are recovering,” he says. “If we had shut everything down and these hotels were done in October [2020], I don’t think it would have been able to bounce back like it has.” 

Jahangir, who is also medical director of VUMC’s Center for Trauma, Burn and Emergency Surgery, went to business school to more effectively bridge the gap between business and clinical teams in health care administration. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, he has relied on those management skills to understand where each side is coming from and to make decisions amid uncertainty. He also has implemented operational methods he learned at Owen.   

In the early weeks of the crisis, when there was no blueprint on testing centers provided by the federal government, each state had to develop its own processes. Jahangir and other local leaders researched what worked and what didn’t in other states to develop their own system. At the onset of planning testing sites, his team brought in process engineers to prioritize efficiency and utilize the lean approach he had learned in business school. 

“That is something I would have never known prior to business school,” he says, “that actually made our operations better.” 

Early in the crisis, while advising policymakers and coordinating local health systems and community groups, Jahangir began addressing the city at daily media briefings. Soon he became a recognizable face in Nashville—what he calls an unexpected and “surreal” experience. And although he has received criticism and even threats, he focuses on the positive interactions he has had with members of the community. 

“There are some amazing people I’ve come across who really do care about their neighbors and their community,” Jahangir says. “These are people we need to really highlight. Yes, I’ve been accosted in public before, but I’ve also had a lot more people come up to me and, very kindly, just say, ‘Thanks.’  

“That’s really humbling and makes me always want to strive to give more for the community I grew up in, the community that gave me these opportunities and the community in which I’m raising my own children.”