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The Growth of the Physician CEO

Michele Wilson, November 15, 2010
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When the four-hospital system Swedish Medical Center in Seattle started the transition to electronic medical records in early 2007, then-new CEO Rod Hochman, MD, discussed the technology as much as he could. "Is the new EMR making you work more efficiently or slowing you down?" he asked nurses, then worked to understand why they initially felt bogged down by it. He had long discussions with physicians about which technologies made sense for Swedish. These interactions typically generated positive results, and not just because Hochman made himself accessible. He's also a physician with 30-plus years of experience.

"If you've lived on the other side, particularly if you've been a physician who spent a good time in practice, you've been so-called 'on the other side of the fence,'" Hochman says. "When I walk into a large group practice, I understand what it was to run that group practice. I understand the trials and tribulations."

Almost like a mantra, physician CEOs and the board members who hired them repeat that sentiment. "I've been a practicing physician. I still take care of patients," says Steven G. Gabbe, MD, CEO of Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus. But "I have a very deep understanding of working in the health system at every level and with people who have very different responsibilities."

At academic medical centers, physicians have long filled the CEO role. Private and community-based hospitals are starting to follow suit, stirred by healthcare reform, the push toward accountable care organizations, and more physician employment by hospitals. These institutions are reaping the benefits of what someone with a medical background brings to the table, and working through the challenges this same credential creates.

"We've come out of a decade or more where hospital CEOs have really been successful because they've worked on operational issues," says C.J. Bolster, vice president and national healthcare sector leader of the Hay Group. "We're going to a place where strategy and strategic choices are going to matter more than they have in a long time." That requires a clear vision about how to make the shift, plus someone who will engage colleagues despite having to make hard, potentially unpopular decisions. Today, the physician CEO sits high up on the qualified list. 

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