A simple but effective tip for physician leaders: Ask your patients what they want

Physician leaders must continuously prompt themselves to look at healthcare the same way a mechanic who is about to fly in a plane he or she just fixed looks at aviation.

A mechanic is invested in making sure the job is done right, said Stephen Swenson, M.D, medical director for professionalism and peer support at Intermountain Healthcare. Physician leaders can work to design healthcare by seeing it through the eyes of patients, Swenson said during a web event yesterday by NEJM Catalyst and hosted by Utah-based Intermountain. The event brought together some of the country’s leading physicians to talk about the job of leading doctors and healthcare organizations.

“Let the care you give be the care you want,” Swenson said.

Research shows patients have three wishes when it comes to healthcare: "care about me," "care for each other" and "put my interests first," according to Swenson. Patients recognize they get better care if their doctors, nurses and other workers in the healthcare system care about each other.

In fact, wounds heal faster if patients experience kindness and empathy from their caregivers, he said. Research also shows that 54% of physicians report signs of burnout.

Too often physicians are looking at computer screens instead of into the eyes of their patients, said Steven Strongwater, M.D., president and CEO of Atrius Health.

His organization is trying to reduce burnout by creating so-called communities of practice—hubs that create a sense of community and enable healthcare professionals to interact with their colleagues and promote interaction not isolation in the workplace.


Swenson agrees with that approach. “One of the most important vaccines against burnout is camaraderie,” he said.

Leading physicians is not an easy job, said Thomas H. Lee, M.D., chief medical officer of Press Ganey. He said he learned some leadership lessons the hard way. Rallying speeches aren’t enough, and neither are financial incentives or even surrounding physicians with systems, such as an electronic medical record, decision support and high-risk case managers, he said.

“None of these were enough to meet the markets’ needs for major improvements in quality and efficiency,” he said.

When it comes to fighter pilots, the number one quality that the military looks for is a person’s ability to lead a team, said Brent James, M.D., vice president and chief quality officer at Intermountain. He says a new standard may emerge in medicine for hiring physicians, with more importance placed on their ability to lead.

He’s also optimistic about the future and says next-generation EMRs that put more control in the hands of physicians are only a matter of time.

One step healthcare organizations can take is to help improve managers, said Raffaella Sadun, Ph.D., a business administration professor at Harvard Business School. Among other students, she works with doctors who are working to get their MBA.

“Good management correlates to good outcomes,” she said, including lower mortality and infection rates. Yet, many managers don’t even have basic managerial training, which she said should be incorporated into clinicians’ training.