What is Leadership in Medicine?

September 12, 2017
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Leadership In Medicine – New Expectations, Time to Rethink What Leaders Should Be Doing

What should we expect of a physician leader today? I believe it should be something much different than what leaders do now.

Today, a hospital physician CEO might be expected to develop new or improved clinical programs, in part by recruiting the best and the brightest, by building new wings, and by purchasing new technologies. The measure of success would be improved finances as a result of added admissions. A dean might be expected to develop new research programs by building new facilities and recruiting the needed scientists. The success measure would be rising on the NIH rankings of total research dollars awarded. A pharmaceutical company physician leader might be expected to find new drugs that will be “blockbusters.” His measure of success will undoubtedly be financial as well. A similar picture extends to the CEO of a health insurer.

Are these the right measures? Are our medical leaders really leading? Or at least leading toward truly valuable goals?

Leadership is all about success in three sequential activities, as outlined by John Kotter at the Harvard Business School. The first is generating a vision for what needs to be done. Perhaps it will be the clinical program, new research activities or a new drug. The second step in leadership is to convince others that the goal is worthy. Aligning everyone involved with the desired outcome can be difficult but without alignment there will be no action.  And the third, often overlooked, is to get the needed individuals to actually help to achieve the goal, the vision. These are difficult steps, especially in or university setting where lines of authority are diffuse and responsibilities overlapping or in a community hospital where the physicians are mostly in private practice and not hospital employees.

But the question is what should be the vision and what should be the measure of success in achieving that vision?

An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Dr Robert Brook [July 28, 2010, pages 465-6] got me to thinking about this issue.

We know that despite spending more per capita on medical care, we still have far from the best care. We do not lead in infant mortality or total life expectancy. We do poorly at coordinating the care of those with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and heart failure, and the result is less than adequate care and care that is much more expensive than it needs to be. As a society, we have rampant adverse behaviors such as overeating and lack of exercise plus many of us still smoke, all leading to more chronic illnesses, increasingly occurring at an earlier age.

I would suggest, echoing Dr Brook, that real medical leadership today needs to focus on the important outcomes, not the ones that just improve our organization’s financial successes [not withstanding that strong finances are critical in order to accomplish a valuable end – “No money, no mission.”] This means that medical leaders must begin to accept the responsibility for aligning the various constituencies and power brokers both within and without of medicine toward real healthcare progress. Unless medical leaders accept this challenge, it will increasingly be done by others, and done without serious input from physicians and others in the field.

What then are the important issues and outcomes?

I would suggest that we must find a way to first markedly improve prevention of illness. Within medical care itself, this means assuring that primary care physicians are trained and have the incentives to do basic screening, administer vaccines, and give sound advice. It means actually advising about diet and exercise for the person with high cholesterol, not just giving out a routine prescription for a statin. And medical leaders need to take the initiative to change government policy regarding food and nutrition. For example, it makes little sense that the beef with the most saturated fat is marked “prime” by government inspectors or that food processors can label a cereal “healthy” because they have added some vitamins to what is manufactured from non whole grains plus sugar and salt.

Second is to develop methods to assure that every patient who has a chronic illness gets intensive care coordination among all of the providers involved. This means the development of multi-disciplinary teams of physicians, nurses, pharmacists and others who actually work collaboratively and with the patient’s interest foremost. There can be various models but among them is the creation of “centers” (cancer centers, heart centers, trauma centers) at academic medical centers and at community hospitals, developed with real authority to function effectively. Another is to use bundled payments or “capitation” to reward coordination. And most importantly is to have one physician, usually the primary care physician, serve as the coordinator – the orchestrator.

Third, medical leaders need to address the need for care delivery to be customer focused with the recognition that the customer is the patient and the patient’s family. Too often we develop programs or actions that continue the current provider-oriented approach rather than a patient/customer-oriented approach. If medical leaders do not address this now, a rising tide of consumerism will force the issue later. Eventually, patients will hold the physician directly accountable and will expect to pay only if the care is patient-focused.

Having addressed these basics, medical leaders then need to turn to the more global health issues, health not only of the individuals under their care or their institutions’ care but the care of the community, the population at large. This is critical if all Americans are to have a healthy life regardless of social or economic status.

To accomplish this will mean that hospital, insurance company and pharmaceutical company boards of directors and university boards of regents will need to give out new, different and clarified directions to their CEOs, presidents and deans, holding them accountable with new measures that reflect realistic progress toward these goals. Otherwise, although there will be various medical breakthroughs of great value for treating disease, American medicine will continue to stumble along, as it has, without making any real progress in what is truly important.

Stephen Schimpff, MD is retired CEO of the University of Maryland Medicine Center, a professor of medicine and public policy and author of “The Future of Medicine – Megatrends in Healthcare.”