Gone are the days when physicians could defer decision-making to a clinic practice manager. Whether they like it or not, physicians are looked to for leadership and guidance as health care undergoes a massive transformation.
Most doctors didn't go to medical school to spend hours after work finishing patient charts, performing tasks that are couched as "necessary redundancies" and answering to numerous regulating bodies. But the stark reality is that the practice of medicine varies greatly from medical education.
The good news is that medical training, combined with the character and skills of many physicians, places them in the perfect position to lead teams, hospitals and, according to a recent New York Times article, even government.
Five Leadership Skills
In my work teaching physicians how to translate their clinical abilities into leadership skills, I am consistently struck by the fact that physicians bring an essential perspective to the challenges we are facing. Here are five characteristics that make physicians uniquely qualified to step into leadership roles:
Physicians are already leaders, whether they like it or not. The reality is that patients rate their overall care experience on the few minutes they spend with the physicians, not the attention provided by the highly skilled clinical and support staff. Additionally, staff members look to physicians for expert opinions and to set the culture of the care team. The white coat still carries the most weight when it comes to medical advice and team direction.
Physicians have a large capacity for complexity. Medical school isn't easy, nor are the years of follow-up training. And once they become doctors, physicians deal on a daily basis with the conundrum that is the human body. Physicians aren't just smart; they are lifelong learners and, as such, are adept at untangling complexity. In the midst of arguably the most complicated time in health care, we need physician leaders who are well-prepared to confidently and thoughtfully approach the myriad challenges we face.
Physicians are process-improvement engineers. Health systems' relatively recent affinity for adopting and adapting the Toyota Production System underscores the fact that physicians have been improving processes for years. Physicians tend to have a knack for problem-solving and typically can balance the big picture with the minute details. This combination of skills means hospitals and practices that actively engage physicians in developing solutions likely will take more innovative approaches to age-old problems.
Physicians know how to use expertise. Medical training is designed to produce more experts and fewer generalists, requiring physicians to reach out regularly to a cadre of other medical professionals for diverse perspectives. Physicians' willingness to consult with specialists to get second opinions means they aren't always going to show up deeply committed to the "one right answer," nor are they afraid to ask for help.
Physicians want to remain relevant. As economies across the globe struggle to stay afloat, all industries, including health care, are looking for opportunities to cut costs and deliver services in a more efficient manner. That doesn't mean physicians will become extinct, but it does up the ante on competition — from advanced practice providers who staff retail pharmacies, to WebMD and the host of online resources that allow us all to play doctor. Therefore, physicians have to remain in the public's consciousness, and one of the best ways to do this is to be visible and in the driver's seat.
Health care transformation and its associated imperatives are going to further complicate an already taxed system. Throughout health care, courageous, skilled and capable leaders will need to emerge. Physicians bring a perspective to conversations that could have a profound effect on the future of the industry. The real question is: Will physicians use their natural talents in both the exam room and the boardroom? I think we'd all be better off if they would.
Lisa Goren is the program director for physician alignment and engagement at Legacy Health in Portland, Ore.