Opinion: Physician leadership critical in an evolving industry

The healthcare industry continues to face an era of seismic change and disruption, one in which the demand for effective physician leadership is rising more dramatically than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic brought this need into sharp relief as exhausted clinicians, contentious politicians and a terrified public cried out for leaders with medical training and priorities beyond the financial bottom line.

The demand for physician leadership is not new. Well before the public health crisis, a constellation of forces had already placed physicians at center stage. They include shifts from volume-based care delivery to a value-based system; a public health-oriented focus on the management of population wellness and resolving the multitude of social determinants of health; a new preference for person-centered care, coupled with shared decision-making; and development of safe, efficient, high-quality clinical care models in diverse settings.

Historically, healthcare organizations have benefited from the distinctive perspective of physicians among their leadership. And because of increased constraints on revenue and heightened review by insurers, today’s health system leaders are more often in the position of making critical administrative decisions that ultimately affect clinical care.

Physician leaders have been described as “interface professionals” who best connect medical care with management decisions. As a bridge between other physicians, nonphysician clinicians and nonclinical administrators, physician leaders can be the catalyst that every successful organization needs, linking the so-called sharp end (the front lines of care) with the blunt end (management, leadership and governance).

But physicians don’t do it alone, and it’s not just doctors listening to other doctors. They must work with professional clinical teams in a complex environment. Nurses, surgical technicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and all other members of the healthcare team who work closely with physicians typically respect the physicians’ point of view, and are more likely to buy into organizational changes when guided or led by physicians in leadership roles.

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Industry thought leaders emphasize the critical requirement of building great teams and working within them effectively. But they also point out how challenging it can be for physicians to transition from the independent thinking driven into them during medical training to the interdependence of teamwork.

They must acquire a new set of competencies, including team-building and communication skills, business intelligence in finance, marketing, strategy formulation, information technology, law, and other knowledge needed to steer healthcare organizations of all sizes over the bumps and pitfalls of a complex system in flux.

For example, the relationship between quality and cost creates a critical arena for collaboration among clinical and financial leaders. Effective interaction between the chief medical officer and chief financial officer requires a supporting organizational structure. CMOs and CFOs speak different languages, have different perspectives and focus on different goals. Clinical and financial leaders have to see and understand the pain points of their C-suite colleagues with diverse functions.

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