Why healthcare leadership needs more physicians

Physicians need a seat at the leadership table because they are uniquely qualified to keep the care in healthcare.

There are currently many challenges in healthcare causing physicians to experience burnout and question their career paths – the pandemic, staffing shortages, and payor requirements, to name a few. One well-described burnout driver is physicians feeling a lack of autonomy and control in their profession. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for non-clinical administrative leaders to understand the severity of burnout and the nuances of the underlying causes, and efforts to address burnout can fall flat. To mitigate physician burnout with efforts that land on target, more physicians need to step into leadership roles. By taking the reins of leadership and channeling their expertise and adversity into leadership activities, physicians can improve their own career satisfaction and simultaneously drive meaningful change for both physicians and patients within their healthcare organization.

Why more physicians are needed in the C-suite

Physicians have the capability to become leaders and innovators beyond direct patient care. Many are natural born leaders who hone their leadership skills every day, patient by patient. In healthcare, it doesn’t take long for a physician to realize that the best quality and experience of care for their patients relies on their ability to lead patients and clinical staff. Medicine is truly a team sport and physicians need to become a master coach to drive better healthcare outcomes. In this way, physicians possess a unique skill set that healthcare leadership needs.

Physicians need a seat at the leadership table because they are uniquely qualified to keep the care in healthcare. Physicians are the ultimate advocates for patients, particularly in organizations and systems in which patients don’t have a formal voice. That’s hard to come by in a typical healthcare organization’s executive suite. Health system CFOs don’t see patients sacrifice heat in the winter because their bill for an admission went to collections. The medical group COO doesn’t see a patient show up to a clinic in florid heart failure because it took two weeks to get an appointment. The resource utilization director of a pharmacy benefit management company doesn’t see a diabetic patient lose a foot to infection because they couldn’t afford their insulin. Those experiences happen only where doctor and patient meet.

Physicians often wish they could do more for patients, and that’s made possible when a leadership opportunity presents itself. In my own career, a mentor who offered me a leadership position asked me how many patients I care for per day. Accounting for office visits and all the phone calls and portal messages, I guessed around 50 to 70 patients. He then said I would have the ability to care for hundreds of thousands of patients every day in a leadership role, and that really opened my mind.

Physicians – Start small to step into leadership

Physicians who are feeling a lack of control can start small to expand their impact and solve problems beyond patient care. They don’t have to step into a huge leadership role right away. The healthcare industry is peppered with problems to solve, and even the most seasoned physician leader can’t solve every issue at once. They can find one small issue to solve instead of letting frustrations build. For example, if a physician struggles with an EHR template, they can volunteer to work with the responsible party to offer changes and updates. If they are concerned about patients with communicable respiratory illnesses sharing the same small waiting room as healthy elderly patients at high-risk for hospitalization for those illnesses, they can brainstorm and offer a solution.

Physicians can’t do it alone – How organizations can support physician leadership

Care organizations need to support and encourage physicians to be drivers for change. This comes to fruition with systems that drive encouragement, opportunity, mentoring, and training. Physicians must be encouraged by their organization to offer solutions, share feedback, and take on projects they feel passionate about. This can be amplified with mentoring and training programs. Business school isn’t entirely necessary for physicians to move up the ranks in healthcare leadership. Instead, physicians need more visibility into different functions and business partners who can help translate things like HR policies and balance sheets, just as those physician leaders need to translate the practice of medicine to those partners. This way, physicians can understand key aspects of these business functions and use their experiences in patient care to collaboratively drive improvement in operations and patient care.

Instead of feeling helpless, physicians need to understand the power they have to make a change beyond face-to-face patient care. Simultaneously, healthcare organizations need to establish processes that allow physicians to become leaders with more visibility and development opportunities. With more physicians in leadership, the industry will see more physicians fulfilled in their career, and ultimately a stronger healthcare system.

Dr. Acey Albert is a board certified internist and pediatrician and director of clinical content at epocrates, the #1 mobile medical reference app among US physicians