Thomas Zeltner at the second meeting of the 2018 Sciana cohort

Thomas Zeltner at the second meeting of the 2018 Sciana cohort

Thomas Zeltner – Inspiring new ideas, growth, and leadership

Sciana senior ambassador discusses the challenges and rewards that come from being a leader in the health sector

Thomas Zeltner has enjoyed a varied career within multiple leadership roles. As former health secretary for Switzerland and director-general of the Swiss National Health authority (1991-2009), he was at the forefront of public health in Switzerland.

Zeltner currently sits as deputy chair of the University Council of the Medical University of Vienna, vice-president of the UNESCO commission of Switzerland and has worked in many capacities for the World Health Organization (WHO) over the years.

Zeltner said, “I bring a long experience in one particular system, but at the same time, I have been working, I would say, about 25% of my time in the international arena. I have been very active in the World Health Organization, and that means that I understand also quite a bit on other health systems.”

This participation in international health led to the logical appointment of Zeltner as a new Sciana senior ambassador. He attended the second meeting of the Sciana 2018 cohort in Salzburg on Saturday, November 24. The Network was launched by the Health Foundation, Robert Bosch Stiftung, and Careum Stiftung in collaboration with Salzburg Global Seminar.

“I really believe that we need to build capacity in a new generation of health persons to become leaders,” Zeltner said of his appointment. “The people who are here, and I assume this is true for the other countries too, have done an excellent job because it’s a group of very diverse but very smart and very committed people, and that’s a pleasure to see them grow and if I can add a little bit to that, then I’m very glad to do that.”

He hopes participants “go back inspired full of new energy, new ideas and are able then to play an important role in their respective positions but also in their country.”

However, Zeltner recognizes there are aspects of leadership that are not so easy. “There are areas where leading and deciding is painful, and I think it is particularly when you need to take a very important decision without having the whole picture in front, and that’s very often the case in health crises.”

Zeltner added, “For me, really you go at night in the bed, and you think in the evening what should I be doing tomorrow? And then you try to sleep, and it’s really hard then. That’s the situation where things are very painful. I never had too much of a problem when I was attacked by people. I said ‘Well, that’s part of the political game,’ and normally that wasn’t too painful. I said, ‘Well, that’s their business to do.’ But this living in uncertainty is really the tough thing I think.”

Despite the difficulties, Zeltner outlines the defining achievements of his career within the Swiss health system. “We brought in a much broader perspective of health talking about health promotion, talking about lifestyles, talking about social determinants.”

“We in Switzerland were able to bring in the whole dimension of human rights in health, that health is not something that is a privilege of the rich or is the privilege of men, but it is really a question of equity. … We should create a society where dignity, human rights are respected also when it comes to the health system."

What can other countries learn from the Swiss system? Zeltner attributes his success to not being “too much dependent on political parties or other parts of the system.” Expanding on this point further, he said, “Resilience is important, you need a long term perspective. You need to learn to live with defeats to continue.”

What advice would Zeltner give to a Sciana Member going up the chain into a leadership position in health? The biggest toll seems to be on personal lives and finding the balance between work and home. “Be aware that it is a 365 day, 24-hour job. That you actually hardly have a weekend off. And be aware that it has a major impact on your private life too and that it has an impact on balancing professional activities and your family life.” Zeltner added, “You probably are only able to do that if you really have a fire for doing something and you’re committed to do this.”