Career Building: How Physician Leaders Can Stand Out

Dan Dimenstein

By Daniel Dimenstein

As healthcare systems across the country embark on their journeys from “volume to value,” there is more pressure than ever being placed on physicians to create that value for their patients. Whether those physicians are in private practice or are employed by health systems, those pressures are coming from all directions with no signs of letting up. Some physicians are looking to leave clinical practice and jump into healthcare administration, a move that allows them to utilize their skills and experiences to shape organizational strategy and, ultimately, to serve patients and provide value in a different capacity.

Physician leadership roles come in many shapes and sizes, from the more traditional Vice President of Medical Affairs and Chief Medical Officer to the more modern Chief Clinical Officer position. While there is no defined path to securing positions like these, there are some concrete steps to take to increase a physician’s competitiveness as a leadership candidate, as healthcare systems increasingly look to incorporate physicians into the C-suite. As a note, the assumption by healthcare organizations assessing candidates for physician executive roles is that a potential candidate is a high-quality clinician. So, candidates must take additional steps to differentiate themselves from their peers.

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  • Get involved with hospital committees. Hospitals of all sizes typically have a variety of committees on which members of the medical staff can sit. Whether it is the Pharmacy and Therapeutics Committee, the Quality Committee, Peer Review Committee, or Informatics Committee, participation will provide exposure to the inner workings of the hospital. Ultimately, volunteering to lead initiatives produced by these committees is a great way to demonstrate leadership without having an official title.
  • Become a leader on the medical staff. Many times, medical staff leadership positions are elected positions. Sitting on hospital committees and volunteering to lead initiatives creates visibility and shows leadership. This type of engagement many times organically leads to the opportunity to take on defined leadership roles within the medical staff.
  • Appreciate the importance of quality and process improvement. Hospitals and healthcare systems are finding that they can achieve two of the three points of the “Triple Aim” by improving standardization of care practices and reducing variation. As this notion spreads throughout the country, physician executive candidates with training in process improvement methodologies such as Lean and Six Sigma are becoming more and more attractive. Similarly, demonstrating an understanding of clinical information systems and the role of IT in healthcare is important.
  • Get involved in professional organizations. Organizations such as the American Association of Physician Leaders (AAPL) and the American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE) can expose physicians to additional education on what is going on in healthcare across the country, and can provide incredible networking opportunities. Organizations like these have conferences and regional opportunities to connect with colleagues and explore best practices. Regional chapters also tend to have committee opportunities on which to get involved.
  • Obtain advanced degrees and certifications. Physician executive roles are becoming more and more strategic, and it is becoming essential for candidates to demonstrate their financial and operational proficiency. While physician executive job descriptions mostly still list “an advanced degree in business or related field” as preferred rather than required, an MBA, MHA or equivalent degree is a differentiator. There are more and more master’s programs that are catering their curriculum structure to practicing clinicians with online and “semi-residential” formats, making obtaining these degrees easier than ever before. Credentials such as Certified Physician Executive (CPE) and Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives (FACHE) are becoming more prevalent as well.
  • Stay up to date on any clinical and board certifications. For a physician executive, credibility is key – it is what separates a chief physician executive from those in the C-suite without medical degrees. Even if the desired position is one that does not require any clinical practice, it is preferred, if not required, that candidates maintain their board certification and are up to date on the latest literature in their particular clinical specialty.
  • Write a business resume. Academic curriculum vitae are appropriate when applying for positions within traditional academic institutions, but when applying for positions within community hospitals and health systems, the number of publications is typically not as important as other accomplishments. The most important questions to answer on a business resume are: “Where did you work? When did you work there? What did you accomplish during your time there?” Remember to quantify accomplishments. For instance, writing about leading an initiative that resulted in a reduction in length of stay is significantly less effective than specifying by how much length of stay reduced as a result of the initiative.
  • Do not job hop. Nothing turns off potential employers like the fear of having to fill the same position a year from now. A demonstrated commitment to a job and organization goes a long way. The rule of thumb is that it takes approximately three years to implement change and leave a legacy in a position and organization. A candidate can demonstrate all the relevant experience and credentials for a given role, but if the hiring employer (and executive recruiter) deems him or her a flight risk, he or she will likely be passed over.
  • Reach out to an executive recruiter. Build a relationship with an executive recruiter before you need them. Hospitals and health systems often partner with executive search firms in their search to fill physician executive positions. A recruiter will be able to articulately explain the typical recruitment process and answer questions. As these search firms are typically retained by the hospitals and health systems, there will be no financial obligation to candidates seeking general advice.

The important thing to remember is that nobody “checks all of the boxes” for a particular position. There are always nuances in roles and organizations that will create a learning curve. Also, not currently having a certain title does not necessarily kill a candidacy. Showing proficiency in skill sets along with relevant experience and demonstration of quantifiable accomplishments and enacting change is just as important as, say, being a sitting Chief Medical Officer. When it comes down to it, the deciding factor will always be organizational fit. Is the physician executive candidate someone whose skills and priorities align themselves well with those of the executive team and the overall mission of the organization?

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This article is included in Witt/Kieffer’s complimentary resource guide, “Recruiting and Developing Physician Leaders.”

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