The Ohio State College of Medicine Dean on 3 essential skills academic medical center leaders should possess

Over the last three decades, K. Craig Kent, MD, has worked as an investigator, vascular surgeon, professor and surgery leader at multiple world-renowned healthcare organizations — revealing his commitment to patient care, research and education. This made him a perfect fit to assume the role of dean at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, a position he has held since 2016.

Dr. Kent also serves as vice president of health sciences and the Leslie H. and Abigail S. Wexner Dean's Chair in Medicine at the medical college.

Under his leadership, Ohio State's medical college boosted National Institutes of Health funding by more than 20 percent, recruited hundreds of new faculty and significantly grew a number of new signature clinical programs.  

Here, Dr. Kent discusses his proudest moments as dean, describes what piqued his interest in academic medicine and divulges who he considers his top role models.

Editor's note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: What has been your proudest moment as dean of The Ohio State University College of Medicine?

Dr. Craig Kent: Leaders in academic medicine can live vicariously through the accomplishments of their faculty and staff. We have more than 2,000 faculty at Ohio State and every day someone is doing something incredible, like receiving a new research grant, saving a life through an innovative new therapy or teaching a talented student the craft of medicine. Every time one of our medical faculty members accomplishes something important, I am proud.

A more specific accomplishment for me was improving the medical faculty experience at Ohio State. When I first arrived on campus about two and a half years ago, I had numerous discouraging conversations with faculty. They felt overworked, underpaid and underappreciated. It motivated me and my leadership team to work to improve the faculty experience by creating a new and fairer compensation plan, enhancing faculty recognition and improving the infrastructure at the medical center to make it easier for faculty to be successful. With all of these changes, the conversation is now different … the faculty and staff are much more positive and excited about the future. In addition, recruitment has become easier because interested physicians and scientists are connecting with our existing faculty who now enjoy being part of The Ohio State University. I can't tell you the exact moment the conversations changed, however, there was a time before and a time after. We still have much to accomplish and of course academic medicine will always be a difficult profession. But faculty are the epicenter of a successful academic medical center (AMC) and I am proud that we now have more than 2,000 faculty who are excited to be a part of the Ohio State University College of Medicine and about our future.

Q: What piqued your interest in academic medicine?

CK: Most individuals who seek a career in medicine do so because they want to help people. When I finished medical school this was my primary goal. But as time went on, I realized that we didn't have answers or treatments for so many patients. Knowing that research and innovation could lead to better care and new cures for patients and their diseases, my interest was piqued; I knew I wanted to be part of that innovation. Looking back on my career, I have seen firsthand through research, the introduction of hundreds of new therapies that have improved patient care and prolonged life. Being part of several academic organizations that have helped make these advances has been exciting. Academic medicine allows a physician or scientist to go beyond patient care, providing the opportunity to change the way we deliver care not to just one patient but to thousands or millions of individuals.

In addition to research, I have enjoyed the fact that AMCs are the places where patients who have complex medical conditions that can't be treated in the community, seek their care. One of the missions of a leading AMC is to develop the high tertiary or quaternary programs that provide complex care. The differentiation in these programs may be provided by an advanced degree of expertise, a new treatment, a clinical trial or a master surgeon or interventionalist. AMCs need to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to patient therapies. In addition, in academics we have the opportunity to train physicians and scientists. This may be the most impactful role of AMCs because years from now the many physicians and scientists we train will be carrying on our mission. The impact of one great teacher over time can be substantial.  As you can see, what’s not to like about being at an AMC.  Those who have the fortune to be in academics are a privileged group.

Q: What unique skills are required to be successful as a leader in an academic medical setting?

CK: Individuals who lead in this environment must fully and completely understand the academic mission. A leader needs to understand what it takes to be successful in research, the importance of education and how to create differentiated care. This is on top of having the skills necessary to run an efficient and economically sound clinical enterprise. Optimally the leader would have been a part of this world, having performed their own research, provided tertiary/quaternary care or actively taught students. Once you've lived in this world, it's easier to understand what it takes to be successful organizationally with all of these endeavors.

In addition, leaders in academic medicine must learn how to motivate physicians to work just as hard or harder than those in community practice, but to be paid less. There's an art to this. The key is understanding that physicians at AMCs are not necessarily there because of their compensation. They are interested in following their passion, whether it be research, education or developing a differentiated or signature clinical program. Creating an environment that allows physicians and scientists to follow the passion that has drawn them to an AMC is the goal. Being a leader at an AMC is a difficult job because one must also have the skills and ability to run a strong and efficient clinical program (AMCs are not exempt from the economics of health care), but the leader must also be able to create an environment where research, teaching and differentiated clinical care can also flourish.

Finally, some leaders believe that you need to choose between investing in clinical care or investing in academics, teaching and research. However, having the opportunity to be at several successful AMCs, I quickly realized that much of the success of an AMC is related blending academics into clinical care. Patients want to be cared for by the professors who teach the physicians that subsequently populate their community. Enhancing research, clinical trials and differentiated care will bring more patients to your facility for treatment of their complex diseases. From the standpoint of clinical care, institutions that differentiate themselves will be the ones that have the greatest success – academics is the great differentiator.

Q: Who is someone you consider a role model in your life and why?

CK:  For me, it's not just one specific person … I have hundreds of role models. I have enjoyed leadership, and in my attempt to be a strong leader over the years, I have observed closely almost every leader I've met. I learn from everyone. Sometimes I learn attributes, abilities and skills that I incorporate into my armamentarium. Other times, I learn what not to do. Every time I have the chance to observe, I will. I think one of the strongest skills a great leader can possess is taking every opportunity to learn. I sometimes joke that about the time I really understand leadership, it will be time to retire.

Q: If you could pass along advice to an emerging healthcare leader, what would you say?

CK: I have two pieces of advice. The first is that as decisions are made and your organization moves forward, keep the focus on the patient. Never forget that the reason that AMCs exist is for our patients. Everything else should follow, whether it be clinical care, education or research. With the complexities of health care today, it is easy to lose track of our mission.

Second, pay attention to the people in your organization. Realize that if your organization is successful, it's because of their efforts. Our medical center has more than 23,000 employees and our success is because of these individuals working every day to provide the highest level of care. Medicine is a large business and sometimes leaders run it like a business. Faculty and staff can become a commodity. This is a recipe for failure. Faculty and staff are the source of your success, so embrace them, making everyone in your organization feel empowered and appreciated should be a top priority.

Q: Is there anything else you want to add?

CK: Health care is becoming more complicated; the financial constraints are increasing and some of us worry that as a consequence, academic medicine will be left behind. We as a nation need to make certain this does not happen. Our patients deserve the contributions of AMCs, whether it be differentiated clinical care, research and of course training of the next generation of physicians, scientists and care providers. The economics need to be preserved so AMCs can remain successful. 

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