Most physicians thrive on challenges. Throughout undergrad, medical school, residency, and fellowship, they are striving to make good grades, impress their professor or attending physician, and acquire the knowledge and experience they need to move to the next level. When these hardworking physicians eventually complete their training and begin their first physician jobs, the need to achieve doesn’t fade away. It will likely be channeled into building a practice and/or amassing RVUs to meet productivity goals. Ambitious physicians will continue to find ways to impress leadership, win favor with patients, increase their earnings, and perhaps, take on more responsibility as a physician executive. If this describes you, you’ll want to keep reading for advice on how to prepare for physician executive jobs.
The Path to Physician Executive
For most working professionals, the path to leadership involves climbing a fairly straightforward corporate ladder. You put in a few years as an associate and will eventually be promoted to manager. Do your time as a manager, and soon you’ll be on the path to becoming a director and eventually a VP. If you have an MBA (or earn it online after work), you may even make it to the C-suite. With each promotion, responsibility grows, and compensation increases.
For physicians, the path to leadership is not quite as clear, nor is it always quite as enticing. While a physician executive title holds some prestige, the notable challenges facing healthcare leaders today may discourage even the most driven physicians from pursuing this path. The fact that the path to becoming a physician leader is not well defined is also problematic. Even physicians who want to learn leadership skills and increase their knowledge of the business of healthcare don’t often receive this kind of training. In fact, according to a September MGMA Stat poll, just 53% of medical groups provide any type of management training to staff.
The Need for Physician Executives
Despite the fact that half of medical groups don’t offer physician leadership training, organizations increasingly recognize the value that physicians bring to healthcare leadership roles and are hiring more physician executives. Physician leaders have firsthand knowledge of the challenges facing physicians and their patients. This empathy allows them to make decisions with an understanding of the organization’s goals, as well as the needs of physicians and patients. Their experience in both the business of healthcare and the delivery of patient care gives physician executives the ideal perspective from which to make decisions that impact the entire organization.
Physician executives may also serve as liaisons between providers and other administrators. In this role, physician executives have the potential to improve communication, which, according to a joint JPS-MGMA study, is a top desire of physicians and thus essential to mitigating physician burnout and increasing physician retention.
Be Proactive in Your Own Development
If you are up for the challenge of physician leadership, don’t wait for a supervisor to approach you with a training manual. Even if your organization offers leadership development for physicians, you may need to use your voice to express your interest. You may begin by raising your hand to join committees and attend conferences. Offer to serve as a peer mentor to a new physician. Show yourself to be an engaged and helpful team member, then talk to your supervisor about your desire to lead and ask for his or her thoughts on the specific leadership skills you need to learn.
According to Dirk Jansson, Director of Physician Executive Search at Jackson Physician Search, the most effective physician executives lead by example and have the respect of their peers. While he acknowledges that the role of physician executive is different for each organization, ideal candidates have certain soft skills in common. They have high emotional intelligence and are active listeners, good communicators, and excel at developing relationships.
These types of skills aren’t covered in medical school and may not be innate to your personality, but this doesn’t mean they can’t be learned. If your employer does not offer a leadership development program, you’ll need to identify mentors who can help you learn those essential leadership skills.
External Physician Executive Training
Of course, leadership skills and business acumen can be acquired in other ways too. An increasing number of physicians are choosing to pursue an MHA or MBA–either in conjunction with an MD or after the fact. If you did not choose the former option, the availability of online graduate programs makes it possible to obtain an additional degree with minimal disruption to your practice.
The American Association of Physician Leaders also serves as a valuable resource for current and future physician leaders. The organization is dedicated to preparing physicians to be influential and effective leaders. The AAPL offers a variety of self-study CME courses for physician leaders at every stage of their careers. Those completing the full curriculum are eligible to receive the Physician Executive Certification. Some classes may also count toward advanced degrees through partner universities.
However you choose to pursue it, you will need a keen understanding of the business of healthcare if you hope to become a physician executive. Books, courses, and mentors can provide instruction and insight, but the best way to learn is to see it firsthand. Find ways to get involved in (or at least observe) the decision-making process at your organization. Ask questions to better understand the thought process leading up to specific changes in policy.
Healthcare organizations recognize the value of physician leaders, and most would prefer to promote from within rather than hire externally. So, even if your employer doesn’t specifically offer leadership training, you can easily make a case for why they should support you in your efforts to learn. By pursuing physician leadership skills, you can better serve the organization and the surrounding community. Not to mention you will be helping your employer build an internal pipeline of future physician leaders.
Of course, if your employer simply cannot offer the professional development you need to put you on the path to a physician executive job, reach out to the Jackson Physician Search recruitment team today to inquire about opportunities that may be a better fit for your future goals.