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Want to Recruit and Retain Physicians? Invest in Them

Analysis  |  By Philip Betbeze  
   June 22, 2017

A Pennsylvania health system CEO says physicians need to be partners in strategy, but to be effective, they may need to go back to school.

When Reading Health System CEO Clint Matthews signed on as CEO seven years ago, he quickly realized the Pennsylvania system’s medical staff was one of the best he’d ever worked with. But as a group, they had one glaring deficiency: There no pathway to develop them as future leaders.

Many health systems recognize that their future leaders increasingly need to come from the clinical arena.

As decision-makers on how illness is treated, physicians wield the power of the pen, and it’s increasingly important to show them how that power affects the hospital or health system as a business.

Physicians need to be partners in change management, and they need to learn how to work together. Further, as boards and current occupants of the c-suite look to put physicians in leadership roles, they’re discovering the same deficiency Matthews noticed: a lack of training in leadership skills, business acumen, and change management.

“We feel physicians need to be a partner and they need to be leaders—advocates for the change that is necessary in order to manage patients over a continuum rather than episodes of care,” Matthews says.

A Tumultuous Time

Reading Health System launched the Applied Physician Leadership Academy about two years ago with its partner, The Leadership Development Group. The first group of physician leaders graduated from the 18-month program in April.

Another group of 26 physicians, whose program overlapped with the first, is in session now.

Matthews says the program is already paying off by fostering an esprit de corps in the system’s 680-physician clinically integrated network, which includes affiliated physicians as well as the 525 who are employees.

Matthews and the board decided to make a more robust offering of courses available to physicians after a less ambitious eight-week program on physician leadership proved so popular that many physicians asked for more.

“They know healthcare is going through a tumultuous time, and they wanted to learn, participate, and be at the table with the executive leadership and the management teams to help as we evolve from a volume-based reimbursement system to a value-based reimbursement system,” he says.

Matthews, a registered nurse, says it’s critical for all hospitals and health systems to bring physicians into strategic decision-making.

Further, the value of the structured Leadership Academy program is that physicians representing many different specialties go through it together as a group.

The program is not geared toward theory and individual learning behaviors, he says. Rather, physicians work together on various initiatives that will likely be put into action by the health system.

No Hierarchy

In addition to the physicians undergoing the training, medical staff leadership as well as c-suite leadership participate in the group projects, says Matthews.

The system’s chief operating officer, chief strategy officer and business development officer, the vice president of human resources, and the vice president of quality and chief transformation officer participate, as well as the system CMO, and the CEO of the employed physician group.

“There’s no hierarchy and we learn from each other,” says Vinti Shah, DO, Reading Health’s chief of Palliative Medicine, a recent graduate. “The CMO is in the room, and the infection chair, among others. And I’ve developed relationships with people who otherwise I wouldn’t have much interaction with.”

Those relationships are valuable not only in the projects completed during the course work, but will be important later as value-based healthcare principles become more deeply embedded in the organization, requiring more teamwork among groups that previously had no driving need to interact together.

“Also, it’s humbling to know that my administration valued me enough to make this investment in me,” Shah says. “The message I received that your input is valued and now we’re going to give you the skill set to contribute.”

Those enrolled in the 18-month program attend lectures once or twice a month on leading self, leading for results, leading others, and leading change.

They are expected to work with seven or eight colleagues on a project that requires at least weekly half-hour meetings and homework.

Shah’s group worked on incorporating quality initiatives across the health system, and outside partners included oncology nurses and the quality transformation officer, among others.

Participants could choose among 6 or 7 different projects, and they worked on whom to consult among leadership to move a project forward, how to develop a particular initiative, and how to create a proposal.

There is a significant time commitment, which is a huge concern for physicians, says Shah, but “there’s no better way to make you physicians feel valued and it’s great for recruitment and retention. If you really put your heart in it, it does not feel burdensome.”

Philip Betbeze is the senior leadership editor at HealthLeaders.

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