Searching for Physician Leaders: Traits to Seek, Mistakes to Avoid

Physician alignment and integration is one of the keys to success in the future healthcare landscape. For instance, for quality improvement projects and accountable care efforts to work, physician involvement is necessary. And hospitals and health system are taking notice: Physician employment is on the rise, and physician-hospital organizations and clinically integrated networks are becoming much more common.

For these new hospital-physician relationships to last long-term, physician leaders are essential. In fact, the need for physician leadership has never been greater, said Andrew Ziskind, MD, a managing director with Huron Healthcare, during a Witt/Kieffer event held in Chicago March 25.

However, he noted, "good physician leaders are in really short supply."

Dr. Ziskind, along with Matthew Lambert III, MD, senior vice president of physician services for Kaufman Hall, and Frank Byrne, MD, president of St. Mary's Hospital in Madison, Wis., discussed various aspects of physician leadership in separate, TED Talk-style speeches during the event.

For instance, Dr. Ziskind named some main traits successful physician leaders tend to share, including:

1. Strong problem solving and decision-making skills
2. Emotional intelligence
3. Ability to learn quickly
4. Adaptability
5. Patience and persistence to deal with organizational change
6. Strong communication skills
7. Humility to recognize they can't do it all themselves
8. Willingness to take risks
9. Focus on results and relationships

Since physicians with these traits are in short supply, competition is fierce for those who fit the bill. However, organizations that offer just a traditional CMO or vice president of medical affairs position could be missing out on top talent. These positions are increasingly being seen as "dead end jobs" by many physicians, Dr. Lambert said. Unless there is an opportunity to further their career beyond the CMO position, physicians who pursue clinician-specific leadership positions may not be the cream of the crop.

So, hospitals and systems should offer continuing education opportunities for these physicians to further their careers. This will help leverage physician leaders in a time when their guidance is more important than ever.

In addition to not offering a real career path to current CMOs or VPMAs, hospitals and health systems make many other mistakes when it comes to integrating physician leaders. Dr. Byrne shared some of "the bad" that can happen.

For instance, he said he sees several hospitals "settle" for whatever physician is available when a position opens up. Instead of just snapping up the first available physician, hospitals need to conduct a pre-hiring assessment and take a close look at their leadership skills, strengths and gaps in strengths.

Hospitals frequently miss the mark by not integrating physician leaders into the entire leadership construct at a hospital. Many times, CMOs or VPMAs do not attend executive meetings or meetings with other, nonphysician leaders, he said. Hospitals need to make sure these physician leaders are integrated into the broader executive and clinical leadership structures. On a related note, it is important to not treat the CMO as a "buffer" between the C-suite and medical staff. Dr. Byrne called this a "huge mistake." Using these valuable leaders as a buffer doesn't leverage them as a resource and also can lead to unhappy and unsuccessful physician leaders.

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