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How to Develop Strong Physician Executives

Jackson Physician Search
March 6, 2023

As a generation of Baby Boomers continues to reach retirement age, organizations are faced with finding qualified replacements for these retiring physicians, many of whom are in leadership positions. With a majority of organizations lacking succession plans, most will be faced with launching an external physician executive search. This process, though made easier and quicker with a trusted physician executive recruitment partner, can be lengthy. To expand their options, some administrators may consider looking inside their organizations for physicians who may be ready to transition to a leadership role. However, if there has not been a conscious effort to develop future physician executives within the organization, administrators are unlikely to find any qualified candidates within their ranks. 

According to a September MGMA Stat poll, only 53% of medical groups provide any management training to staff. While an increasing number of physicians are seeking out leadership training for themselves — either starting out in an MD/MBA program or later pursuing an MBA, MPH, or MHA degree — organizations should provide opportunities for physicians to strengthen their leadership skills and learn more about the business of healthcare. It requires intensive physician executive training and development to produce a strong physician executive, and healthcare organizations will benefit from investing in the physicians they already employ to prepare them for future leadership roles.    

We recently spoke with Jackson Physician Search’s Director of Physician Executive Recruitment, Dirk Jansson, on this topic to find out what he thinks organizations should do to develop physician leaders. Keep reading for ideas on how to approach physician leadership training at your organization. 

Recognize Every Physician as a Potential Leader

Dirk observes that the corporatization of medicine has created a new generation of business-minded physicians. Gone are the days when physicians serve only to diagnose and deliver care. Now, physicians in every type of practice setting are well aware of the importance of growing the patient base, obtaining referrals and positive online reviews, and of course, the challenges of working within the parameters of what is and is not covered by a patient’s insurance. Because of this, every physician receives an education in the business of healthcare from day one.

Of course, what a physician takes away from this trial by fire will vary, and organizations will do well to get involved in shaping how the physician manages and responds to the opportunities and challenges presented. 

While not every physician will be suited for (or interested in) executive roles, most will benefit from expanding their knowledge of the business of healthcare, so as you develop a leadership training program, aim to make it accessible to everyone.  

Make Transparency a Part of Culture

According to Dirk, it’s critical that potential physician leaders have a clear view of how decisions are made at the organization. The best way to provide this understanding is to be transparent about the decision-making process. 

“Invite physicians to observe and participate in the meetings and conversations that lead to potential policy changes,” says Dirk. “Physicians need to see and hear what goes into decision-making at the organizational level so they understand how and why policies are formed and can give feedback on how their daily jobs and/or the patient experience might be impacted by those changes.”

Most physicians recognize that leadership’s decisions are never completely one-dimensional, but in witnessing the process firsthand, they broaden their understanding of the many considerations involved. The best way to train future leaders is to invite them into the conversation and let them see and hear for themselves how leadership grapples with complicated issues alongside ambitious goals.   

Leverage Formal Leadership Training and Mentor Programs

As the industry increasingly recognizes the value of physician leaders, some organizations have developed internal leadership academies and/or robust mentorship programs for interested physicians. In an article for the Jan/Feb 2020 Physician Leadership Journal (published by the American Association of Physician Leadership), Quint Studer, healthcare consultant and founder of the Studer Group, noted that most of the nation’s leading healthcare systems develop their leaders internally: “All of them have a wide, aggressive, robust leadership development [program] that creates a wider pipe-line than others. That’s really the key.”

Of course, a leadership academy will look different in every organization, but it should cover topics such as communication, conflict resolution, finance, negotiation, change management, and more. Smaller organizations aren’t likely to have in-house training programs at this scale, but they may offer tuition reimbursement for physicians who take relevant courses offered by universities or through associations such as the Association for Physician Leaders.  

One-on-one learning opportunities are also important. In a joint MGMA and Jackson Physician Search survey, only 43% of the administrators who reported having a succession plan said their plan included a mentor program. This often-missing element is critical for developing physician leaders. 

When it comes to formal training and mentor programs, it’s okay to start small. Focus on gaps in skills and offer training and mentorship to develop those specific areas. 

Developing Physician Leaders

Promoting physicians to leadership positions is admirable — and an excellent way to shrink the physician executive recruitment timeline — but giving a physician an executive title won’t magically transform him or her into a strong leader. If administrators hope to hire physician leaders from within, they must be prepared to invest in leadership training and development for physicians. This means treating every physician as a potential leader and offering them access to a committed mentor and formal training in an environment of transparency. 

“As the role of physician executive continues to evolve and expand, it becomes even more important for organizations to create an environment where physicians can learn the business and leadership skills they’ll need,” says Dirk. “Each organization will approach it differently, but providing a level of transparency that encourages physicians to observe and participate in the decision-making process is a strong first step.”

If you are seeking to hire physician leaders, the Physicians Executive Search team at Jackson Physician Search has the expertise to guide and accelerate your efforts. Reach out today to learn more.

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