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Can Doctors Be Leaders, Too?


No longer should physicians believe that being outside of the management team stops them from being a leader

There is this belief by many people that doctors cannot be a part of the leadership movement of any organization unless they are in a position of power within management. The truth is that any person could be a member of “management,” but not be seen as a leader by the rest of the staff. On the other hand, there are some individuals without a title that others look towards in times of uncertainty and crisis to lead them. Often, physicians that are also considered by others to be leaders are those that are willing to challenge the status quo within the facility to make it better for staff and patients. These are the individuals that have a view of what they believe the future should look like in their organization, and do the work necessary towards making that future a possibility rather than just hoping a change occurs.

Modern State of Health Care

There is much debate when it comes to healthcare on any level, and a great deal of this debate these days has to do with cost. This debate covers anything from how much procedures and medications cost to the issues with health insurance. Physicians often feel as though they are unable to effectively do their job of providing the best care for their patients because of these cost and insurance issues. Good doctors must be willing and able to listen to their patients, but must also be willing to be agents of change within their organization to improve the state of modern healthcare. Another word for an agent of change is a leader. Many good doctors may not feel as though they are empowered to be a leader within their institution, and may be unsure as to what actions are necessary to make them a leader in their own right. These same doctors may not realize that the skills they use to provide healthcare to their patients—communicating with their team, problem-solving, and applying innovative new treatments—are all leadership skills.

Actions That Separate Leaders From Others

In order for a physician to be a successful leader, they must be able to evaluate what actions separate them as a leader in the organization from others that just go with the flow. In order to challenge the status quo and envision a better future, they must be willing to take on some tasks that are often seen as only part of management when it comes to communication and team building. They must be willing to help develop the strategies that will help the organization move towards their future ideal. A leader should be willing to be open to new innovations in their field, and then help others become familiar with it. Finally, physician leaders also need to be able to work effectively with their staff and with the management team to stay focused on achieving the changes that will help the organization have a more positive and successful future. This may be easier to accomplish when being granted some type of authority by the facility, but it’s not impossible to tackle these tasks without that official title.

Training All Physicians to Be Leaders

Medical school curriculum is already packed, but there does need to be more emphasis placed on the role of leadership for every doctor. Some of the subjects that are beneficial for those still in school and those looking to add to their skillset may seem more appropriate to a business curriculum, but these can benefit leaders in healthcare as well. These include understanding strategic planning, theories of change management, critical thinking skills, vision casting, applying innovation, talent management, and creativity. Instilling these skills early can benefit any physician who wishes to serve as a leader in healthcare. It’s never too late to add to the skills for those physicians that feel that these were not adequately taught during their time in medical school or residency. We need to be encouraging more physicians to take on leadership roles whether inside of the management team of a medical organization or working outside of that system.

The short answer to whether or not doctors can be leaders is obviously “yes.” Good physicians must be willing to do more than just treat their patients. Providing the best healthcare possible means being willing to take the steps that are necessary to improve the healthcare system overall. No longer should physicians believe that being outside of the management team stops them from being a leader. In many cases, physicians are already leading their own healthcare team of staff and patients. However, they may not recognize the skill they need to do so effectively. Additional training is often necessary to help them recognize the skills they need and how to employ them successfully as leaders. Fortunately, more opportunities are coming available through articles, workshops, or coaching. Find what works for you so that you can reach your full potential as a leader.

Christopher Burton, MD, is an Amazon best-selling author and founder of the physiciancoach.guru website. He is a consultant for medical practices and coaches physicians on areas of career development, leadership, communication, and finances. He serves as Chair for the Florida Medical Association’s Young Physicians’ Section and Adjunct Clinical Professor at the Florida State University College of Medicine. Connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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