Skip to content

Igniting Human Understanding: Ryan Donohue

From Cartoon Network and Sports Illustrated to healthcare

Managing the job board for the career services department in college might seem tedious to many. For Ryan Donohue, however, it was a surprising twist that got him into healthcare, a career he has enjoyed at NRC Health for nearly 20 years. 

“I never planned to go into healthcare,” Ryan explains. “I was really into brand management and had stops at the Cartoon Network and Sports Illustrated. When a position opened up at NRC Health, I wasn’t sure it was for me. I sought out my favorite college professor as I really wanted to go into something that would challenge me. Something where I could use my marketing background. Without hesitation, she said healthcare. You need to go into healthcare.” 

That original role – as a Marketing Coordinator – launched Ryan’s career at NRC Health. “I immediately started using words like consumer and customer, because I’d come from a world where those words were commonly used. In healthcare, those terms were brand new – and not always in a positive sense,” he explains. It was the start of a deep understanding of the narrative that he felt needed to change in healthcare. 

Consumers or patients?

“One of the first times I was presenting at a Board retreat, in front of a CEO and his Board members, I had the word ‘consumer’ all over my power point deck,” Ryan recalls.

“The first time I said consumer – on slide 3 – the CEO stopped me dead in my tracks and said: ‘they’re not consumers, they are patients.’ That was the moment for me,” he explains. “It was a sign that this industry wasn’t yet ready to think of people not currently in a gown and think of all those consumers who are living and working and parenting and not thinking about healthcare all the time.”  

A new suit and a beard

A few years later, Ryan moved to product development at NRC – his first departure from marketing. He was asked to go out and talk to people about a potential product. “I had no product development background,” Ryan says. “I didn’t know what I was doing. But I did know how to talk to people. Ultimately, it was opportunity to learn so I took it.”

He was asked by NRC Health CEO Mike Hays to present his research results.  

 “I was presenting at an all-associates meeting. This was at a time when everyone was in one massive room near the top of the building. This is the toughest audience you’ll ever face – 300  of your closest friends and associates,” he said. With promising research results, the product was greenlighted. It was a pivotal moment in his career.  

The company needed someone to present the product at conferences and webinars, but no one was raising their hand, so Ryan said “hey, I’ll do it.” Upon accepting that challenge, a senior NRC leader told him, “If you’re going on stage to talk to hundreds of people, you’ll have to buy a new suit. And then Mike (Hayes) gave me the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten – ‘grow a beard. You look too young.’ In the last 10 years since I’ve gotten that advice, I’ve kept the beard.” 

Healthcare consumerism

Ryan had been evangelizing the concept of consumerism for a few years. He has authored many publications on the topic. Moments before presenting to an audience of hundreds he was given some coaching. “I was backstage, about to go on, and they said, ‘I don’t know how much you’re going to talk about consumerism but really try to, you know, dial it down.’”  

Given this instruction moments before he was set to go on stage proved to be a moment of clarity. “For me, it was the flashpoint of Human Understanding,” he explains. “Human Understanding is the concept that everybody is unique. Everyone has a story. And, we have to work to understand every story, so we see each person as a unique individual, not just a patient chart or a consumer trend.”  

In his role at NRC, Ryan views his job as making healthcare better. “I tell people, some of the most pivotal moments in your life are healthcare moments. The vast majority of us were born in a hospital. Many of us will die in a healthcare setting. And in between the cradle and the grave we will have really important moments. For me it’s when my wife and I welcomed another human into the world. We walked in as two patients; we walked out as three. So many of our touch points in our life are healthcare. And what I tell people is that I want all those moments to be better.” 

The beautiful weed garden

Ryan wears multiple hats outside of his role as strategic advisor at NRC Health. As a father of four, he is coach, cheerleader, transporter, and gardener. “We bought a home that had a massive garden, which grew many beautiful weeds for about the first decade,” he explains.

I should share that all our children are under the age of 12, including a COVID baby. So, in 2020 I started hacking away a little bit here and thereagain undeterred by not knowing what I was doing trying my hand then inviting the kids to try theirs.  Today it has turned into a wonderful outdoor hobby I share with my kids. They eat more than they weed but I don’t mind!” 

The Igniting Human Understanding series shares the personal experiences and passions that have influenced and shaped our approach to humanizing care.

The Igniting Human Understanding series shares the personal experiences and passions that influence and shape our approach to humanizing care.

Let's Get Social

Want to follow the Human Understanding movement? Check out NRC Health on social media.