Don't Skimp on Physician Leadership Development

Elyas Bakhtiari, for HealthLeaders Media, March 12, 2009

As expected, there was a lot of talk about the economic recession at the American Medical Group Association's annual conference in Las Vegas last week. I could barely walk between sessions without hearing someone ask, "Did you see how much the stock market dropped today?" And I heard from plenty of physicians and practice managers about budget strains and areas they have been forced to cut.

But attendees didn't travel to Caesar's Palace (a surreal place to be given the current economic climate) to talk about cutting budgets. They were there to learn where and how to invest the limited resources that remain in this challenging environment. Leaders are being forced to trim operating expenditures, but they must be careful not to cut the legs out from under the organization while doing so.

For me, the most important takeaway from the more than three days I spent at the conference was a phrase delivered by Tanya Chermak from Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates before the conference officially began.

"Leadership training and development can't be cut, even in hard economic times," she said during a presentation that was part of a day-long, pre-conference physician leadership workshop.

Some areas require more, not less, investment in a recession, and for many attendees and presenters in Las Vegas, physician leadership was one of those areas.

It isn't just enough to search for physicians with leadership potential or support existing leaders. Organizations are spending money to actively train physicians for leadership roles ranging from clinical department heads to vice presidents and CEOs.

They're teaching physicians to be better leaders the same way you teach almost any subject: In a classroom.

Harvard Vanguard was just one of several organizations experimenting with regular leadership classes designed to train physicians business and leadership skills. Chermak started Harvard Vanguard's leadership academy with 19 physicians in February of last year, and it has grown in popularity—the latest class has nearly 40 participants.

Physicians are nominated by department heads to add an element of prestige to the academy, and a mix of in-house experts and external consultants teach classes ranging from basic economics ("running a lemonade stand") to dealing with disruptive doctors and managing more complicated budgets.

Nancy J. Gagliano, MD, vice president for practice improvement for Massachusetts General Physicians Organization, has developed a similar program that provides a monthly, four-hour class for selected physicians over a two-year cycle. So far, the results have been overwhelmingly positive, she says. Each month, budding leaders come to class with stories about how a previous class has already helped them manage a problem within their department. After a class on how to talk to disruptive physicians, one participant was able to diffuse a situation with an older doctor in his department who had been clashing with nursing staff, for instance.

Johnathan Schwartz, MD, MBA, director of managed care for Henry Ford Medical Group talked about a "managed care college" that teaches physicians basic business concepts, including acronyms and the fundamental language used in budgets and other business transactions.

I could go on. There were a wide range of approaches to leadership development at the AMGA workshop, but the common thread was recognition that the transition from physician to physician leader isn't one that often happens without guidance.

As organizations undergo major changes, driven both by the markets and by federal healthcare reform, leadership in all forms is an increasingly valuable asset—which perhaps explains why the Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education is seeing substantial increases in applicants.

Medical groups and hospitals that continue to invest in developing physician leaders at all levels will see the rewards as delivering healthcare becomes even more complex.

Elyas Bakhtiari is a managing editor with HealthLeaders Media. He can be reached at
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