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Quantifying the Value of Physician Leadership Training

Jackson Physician Search
May 1, 2024

Experts agree that physician leadership is essential in the ongoing quest to improve healthcare delivery. Study after study shows that organizations led by physicians perform better, by a variety of metrics, than those without physician leadership. It is clear that physician leaders have a positive impact on the organizations they lead; however, traditional physician training largely lacks leadership competencies. The current physician curriculum focuses almost exclusively on patient care – essentially leaving physicians to “figure it out” when it comes to the business of healthcare and effective leadership. 

A new report from the American Association of Physician Leaders (AAPL), “Profiles in Success”: Certified Physician Executives Share the Value and ROI of their CPE Education, explores the need for physician leadership training and attempts to measure the impact of increasingly prevalent physician leadership development programs (PLDPs). The findings support the need for physician leadership training and provide many examples of positive changes resulting from competency-based training. The report also explores the components needed for a program to be effective. 

Why Physician Leadership Training?  

The realization that 1) healthcare organizations generally perform better when led by physicians and 2) most physicians are not trained in leadership has made clear the need for formal physician leadership training, and the industry has responded in a number of ways. According to one study, the percentage of programs now offering a dual MD/MBA program increased from 26% in 2002 to 61% in 2022, and the number of graduates from such nearly tripled in the same period. In lieu of this academic training (or perhaps in addition to it), many large health systems offer their own internal physician leadership development programs (PLDPs). Other organizations may rely on mentoring programs to develop those physicians who have identified as potential leaders. 

More than 20 years ago, the AAPL responded to the need for more strategic development of physician leaders by introducing its own Certified Physician Executive program. The program is unique in that the curriculum may be tailored to develop the specific competencies a physician needs help with. In the years since the AAPL launched the program, more than 4,000 physicians have earned the CPE credential. Alumni of the program are quick to credit it as playing a role in their success. However, it’s difficult to quantify the impact of the credentials or others gained from physician leadership development programs. Despite the difficulty, this is exactly what AAPL set out to do with its most recent research, and the findings are encouraging.

Measuring the Impact of Physician Leadership Development Programs

The AAPL’s research involved 365 alumni of its Certified Physician Executive program. Physicians who earned the CPE credential with AAPL were asked to evaluate its impact on their professional careers as well as the organizations they serve. 

More than 90% of respondents said the AAPL CPE program empowered them to achieve leadership goals both individually and organizationally. Additionally, 70% attributed the organizational changes they had made to the knowledge and skills acquired in the AAPL program. Alumni were also asked to discuss the most significant organizational impact resulting from the AAPL training, and if able, they were asked to quantify those results. The AAPL report documents many of these open responses, noting improvements in the quality of care, patient safety, financial performance, physician performance and satisfaction, culture change, and crisis leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. The report concludes with certainty that the AAPL training and resulting CPE credential has indeed been a net positive for both alumni and the organizations they serve.

Identifying Necessary Components…and a Critical Variable

In addition to its own survey, the AAPL also conducted a systematic review of peer-reviewed studies and other articles evaluating the influence of PLDPs. One notable study of 35 PLDPs sought to identify the specific components a PLDP needs to affect change in the areas of culture, quality improvement, and the leadership pipeline. The study concluded a PLDP must 1) help physicians acquire self-awareness to improve people skills, 2) encourage network building, 3) incorporate quality improvement projects supported by the physician’s organization, and 4) tailor the content to the individual needs of the physician.  

This review also revealed the impact of an organization’s leadership ecosystem on a physician leader’s effectiveness. This key variable – the leadership ecosystem – plays a significant role in how well the skills and knowledge gained in a PLDP transfer to the workplace. That is, a healthy leadership ecosystem must be present for a physician leader, regardless of training, to successfully implement change in the organization.

Takeaways from the AAPL Report

The industry needs physician leaders to address its most pressing challenges, but leadership training still needs to increase in traditional medical education. To fill the void, several pathways to leadership have emerged, and the physicians pursuing these paths – and the organizations supporting them – should be able to see the value of their time, money, and effort. The AAPL took an important step in this direction with its most recent survey of alumni of its CPE program. 

The AAPL survey and resulting report support the need for physician leadership training and highlight the benefits of competency-based development programs. It also notes the importance of an organization’s “leadership ecosystem” on the effectiveness of a physician leader. In addition to competency-based leadership training, a healthy leadership ecosystem is essential if physician leaders are to influence positive change in the organization.  

Jackson Physician Search is an Executive Alliance partner of the American Association of Physician Leadership and is pleased to support this study and the resulting report. If your organization is planning to hire a physician executive, the Physician Executive Search team at Jackson Physician Search can connect you with experienced physician leaders all over the country. Reach out today to learn more.

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