This article appears in the April 2012 issue of HealthLeaders magazine.
Physician relationships with executive leadership have always been important at hospitals and health systems, but there is a history of distrust on both sides, to put it mildly. Executives often view physicians as a huge impediment to many important initiatives within the hospital, from cost-cutting to process reengineering.
Meanwhile, physicians habitually distrust senior executives who are looking out for what's best for the hospital or health system—or maybe just the bottom line and the executives' own bonuses—but not the physicians and not even necessarily patients, in the worst case. But despite that historical backdrop, the optimist can see that economic incentives for hospitals and physicians are now aligning as never before.
For some healthcare leaders, physicians (especially those in high-revenue specialties) are to be coddled and complimented, but such relationships are often condescending on both sides and depend on finding a sometimes convoluted and inefficient way to meet the economic interests of both. Trouble is, those economic incentives rarely align, a fact that is not lost on either side; yet the playing out of those competing incentives often ends up poisoning relationships on both sides.
Positive physician relationships have never been more important, but perhaps it's now becoming easier to cultivate them as legislative and contractual changes are aligning hospital and physicians incentives and forcing the parties, especially independent physicians, to reconsider their relationships, move forward from past discord, and begin anew.
"Certainly economic changes and regulatory and legislative factors are creating the proximate reason, but the real reason is you cannot achieve high-quality care without a high level of integration between physicians and the facilities that deliver that care," says Darrell Kirch, MD, president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges and a former medical school dean and health system CEO. "Ultimately, it should be driven by the quality of care issue."