ACHE 2017: How to succeed as a physician leader

CHICAGO—It used to be that when hospitals were looking for a physician to fill a leadership role they chose the person who brought in a lot of money or who had the most seniority. 

Today, most hospitals and healthcare networks choose physicians who they think have the skills and characteristics to succeed in the job, said Lily J. Henson, M.D., chief medical officer at Piedmont Henry Hospital in Stockbridge, Georgia.

For instance, when she was looking for someone to fill a leadership role, she chose a doctor who was only two years out of residency, but who wanted to solve problems, be part of the team and work toward solutions instead of just complaining, Henson told an audience Tuesday at the American College of Healthcare Executives 2017 Congress on Healthcare Leadership.

Doctors need to know that medicine and leadership roles are very different, she said. For instance, doctors might be used to receiving lots of thanks from patients, but as leaders, they may encounter resistance to their ideas. They may expect to prescribe treatments and get compliance from patients, but they need to influence and collaborate as leaders. As doctors they are the experts and take responsibility, but as leaders they are one of many experts and share responsibility with others.

Making the transition from one world to the other isn’t always easy. Some of the skills and characteristics of good physician leaders include the ability to collaborate and cooperate, demonstrate strong listening and communication skills, show appreciation for others and have the ability to adapt and evolve, she said.

For physicians who think they have the right stuff and who have an interest in taking on a leadership position, here are some tips to help you succeed:

Get training in healthcare leadership

Physicians fail in leadership roles when they have a lack of preparation, support and training, said Frank D. Byrne, M.D., president emeritus at St. Mary’s Hospital and senior executive advisory at HealthXVentures in Madison, Wisconsin. That training might be physician leadership courses, a certificate in medical management or an MBA or MHA degree.

Piedmont Healthcare in Atlanta, for instance, runs the Piedmont Leadership Academy, an internal program for physician leadership that centers around quarterly two-day sessions, said John W. Henson, M.D., the chief of oncology services at Piedmont. Professional organizations, such as ACHE and the American Association for Physician Leadership, can also provide resources.

Seek out a mentor

When bringing a new leader along, it’s important that person have a mentor, Henson said. St. Mary’s Hospital provides new physician leaders with a personal coach, said Byrne. Trusted colleagues, with no conflict of interest and no agenda of their own, can also provide support and let you air your worries, he said.

Build relationships

For your transition into a leadership role to be successful, you need to build relationships with other team members, said Byrne. Do so as an equal member—you may ask colleagues to address you by your first name, rather than as Dr. X.

Be sure your role is not as a buffer to deal with other physicians, and the organization does not place you in a ‘physician cocoon’, said Byrne. You want to work with nursing and other clinical leaders, but also non-clinical leaders in the organization, such as leaders from finance.

Consider whether or not you will continue with your clinical practice

It all depends on your role, the setting and your clinical specialty, said Byrne. In contrast to those who argue physician leaders should participate in direct patient care, it isn’t always possible, he said.