Emerging physician leaders: Go beyond the MBA

March 16, 2021
Carl Fitch

For physicians looking to shift into managerial roles, it's a trickier transition than one might expect.

Physician executives are increasingly seen as the solution to the problems that ail health care today. Their ability to bridge clinical and administrative medicine is what gives them a unique prism on the industry's most critical issues. As leader of WittKieffer's Emerging Physician Leaders specialty practice, I speak daily with physicians looking to shift into managerial roles. It's a trickier transition than one might expect, as leaders – even MDs – take time to develop and grow.

Below are three pieces of advice I share with physicians, younger and older, who are looking to make the leap into leadership:

Remember the MBA is just the start. With the proliferation of MBA, MPH and MMM programs, having a business/management degree to complement your MD is fairly common and advantageous for competing for physician leadership roles. It will distinguish you time and again in the long run. Nonetheless, a business degree is viewed as just another piece of paper unless you have practical experience in administrative projects, committee work, team oversight, and so forth. The areas of expertise that are going to be important in tomorrow's value-based, high-reliability organizations include quality, patient safety, accountability, utilization management, care coordination, EHR optimization, telehealth, provider wellness and adhering to the principals of a “just culture,” to name a few.

Other ways to broaden your credentials and round out your profile beyond the MBA include:

  • Commit to the fourth aspect of health care's Quadruple Aim—enhanced physician/provider experience. Dive into the topic of physician/provider health and wellness and have constructive ideas on how to address these critical issues.
  • Demonstrate a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion: What is your philosophy of DE&I? Have you written a diversity statement that spells out that philosophy? Are you promoting a diverse team?
  • Gain experience in technology, telehealth strategies, EHR optimization, quality initiatives, patient access, revenue cycle, and practice management.
  • Network and join prominent associations such as the AAPL, and consider getting a Certified Physician Executive (CPE) designation. Speak, write and become known across the health care landscape.

In other words, look to complement the theoretical aspects of a business degree with practical experience in essential areas

Expect a decrease in compensation. Most physicians have a general sense that they'll earn less as they move into administration and reduce their clinical hours. But just how much of a cut is typical, at first, may surprise you. This is especially true of proceduralists who are used to being compensated in an RVU model corresponding to their productivity. This is one reason we tend see more pediatricians, family practice physicians, or internists moving into administrative roles, in addition to the fact that they tend to have broad diagnostic skills that translate well to leadership. As you move up in responsibility as a physician leader, you are likely to find that compensation is more closely aligned to what you earned for full-time clinical work. In addition, those physician executives who move into service line leadership – a medical director of oncology, heart and vascular, musculoskeletal or digestive health, for instance – can expect more commensurate pay for their work but often a clinical complement of as much as 20 to 50 percent is expected. Bottom line, you may need to calibrate your income expectations moving into leadership roles that have less to do with RVU production but more to do with moving the needle on overall organizational financial, quality, and operational KPI's. Keep in mind that, if you are a specialist with high procedural volume, you will always make more money clinically than administratively as you begin this journey.

Get into it for the right reasons. In an era in which many full-time clinicians are experiencing serious career fatigue and even full-on burnout, it is tempting to look to administration as a way to step off the treadmill and try something new. This alone is not sufficient reason to make the change, however. Make sure you have a passion for increased leadership responsibilities and the ability to effect change on a greater scale. I hear many physician executives say, "As a physician I take care of a finite group of patients; as a leader, I can impact the health of a whole population."

The chance to lead is alluring to many of today's physicians. It is best to see the transition as one that happens over the span of many years. As a clinician, you may be somewhat of a natural born leader, but there are additional skills to learn and hone to become an effective physician leader.

Carl Fitch is a principal and head of the Emerging Physician Leadership Practice of the global executive search firm WittKieffer.