Leadership in Healthcare: Why it Matters, and How to Learn

Kristen Campbell
November 10, 2020

Leadership in healthcare is one of the most important areas of medicine. Without even knowing it, many physicians are put in a leadership role every day. Whether you’re heading a team of doctors in a hospital setting, teaching residents, working in a clinic, or running your own practice, you might be surprised to find out just how many of your daily decisions can impact other people in your workspace. From nurses to patients, doctors are often called to make the big decisions that impact patients, staff, and other members of the medical profession. So why aren’t more of them studying leadership?

While Canadian medical schools spend plenty of time on the biochemistry, anatomy, and physiology required for helping patients, there are few formal ways for physicians to learn skills like leading teams, coaching others, and resolving interpersonal conflict. 

An article by the Harvard Business Review suggests that while almost all physicians will take on leadership roles at least once throughout their career, few are taught how to lead and even fewer are rewarded for it. The academic institutions who do offer leadership in healthcare training often do so less as a prerequisite to daily practice and more as an option for medical students looking to become supervisors or take on administrative leadership roles.

Why Leadership Matters for Doctors

Taking the focus away from formal education on leadership and into the practical skill development required for practice makes medical school unique as an institution, although the practice of medicine is certainly not immune to the need for strategic leadership. In a study by the Mayo Clinic (where doctors rate their supervisors annually on a twelve point survey) a single point increase on a supervisor’s leadership score corresponds to a 9% improvement in the professional satisfaction of the physicians under them, and a 4% reduction in physician burnout. 

Benefits like these are increasingly important in the Canadian healthcare environment, where high rates of physician burnout are putting the system at risk – in Canada, more than 40% of doctors and almost as many nurses report symptoms of burnout, with healthcare workers more than 1.5 times as likely to miss work for illness and disability than those in other professions. In a healthcare landscape increasingly seeing the need for doctors to lead larger teams of nurses, social workers, administrators and other healthcare professionals, it’s vital that physicians learn not only how to lead, but also how to be good at it. Which begs the question – if medical school isn’t teaching doctors these skills, how can you learn?

Learning to Lead

No matter which setting you practice in, research shows that all physicians could benefit from an improvement in their leadership skills – and seeking out this training early on in your career could help you not only rise in the ranks at an employer, but also provide a better and more cooperative environment for staff in a private practice. So where can you learn these skills?

Many programs across Canada are tailored towards physicians looking to take on administrative healthcare roles, such as department heads or directors of institutions. Programs like MBAs or Masters of Public Health/Health Administration will teach you these skills and prepare you for success in an organizational role. If you’re interested in these options, be sure to ask questions of the program’s administration and look into part time or virtual options if you want to study and practice at the same time, or speak with your employer about taking a lighter workload during the time you’ll be returning to your studies.

 Deciding whether to take on one of these programs can be a choice you make fairly early in your career – if you suspect you might be interested in taking an administrative or leadership route, make some time to discuss it with your mentor, employer, or carve out some time to look at it in terms of your five or ten year goals. Although programs like these can be helpful for all types of doctors, the cost and time you’ll need to invest in them makes them more useful for physicians who actively want to leverage this experience in the job market. 

If you’re content in your current career track – and not keen on more time in school – but still want to develop the leadership skills necessary to bring cohesion and support to your team of medical staff and colleagues, consider resources like the Canadian Society of Physician Leaders, online leadership training programs, or keeping up to date on the latest articles in leadership studies. 

Even without formal education, many doctors are naturally good leaders. If you’re unsure why, just consider what it requires for an ER doctor to coordinate a team around a patient in cardiac arrest. They’ll need to calmly assess a chaotic situation, then quickly make critical decisions like who will perform the chest compressions, intubate the patient, or alert the ICU. However, the leadership qualities that work well in a crisis situation or in most aspects of clinical practice are not necessarily the ones that will foster the best team environment for your colleagues or employees. 

Due to the nature of medical practice, many physicians are prone to a ‘top down’ command and control leadership style based on giving orders to staff. This style of leadership works well in a medical situation because it allows you – the expert – to step in and assess the situation and use your team as support. But what about in a non-clinical scenario? Some areas of practice – like billing, scheduling, or administrative efforts – don’t require you to step in and triage the situation. In these matters, you might not even be the best person to ask. There are times when it might be better to ask questions than to give orders, or create a chain of command so the task is handled by the right individual. Keeping up with your leadership studies will help improve your overall professional development by catching more of these situations – the ones that would best be handled as you, the leader, rather than you, the doctor.

Qualities of Great Physician Leaders

According to the Harvard Business Review, there are three areas of skills required for leadership in healthcare. The first area, interpersonal literacy, includes activities like coaching and coordinating teams, providing feedback, providing necessary communication, and displaying emotional intelligence. Asking questions, holding meetings to get and give feedback, and being a facilitator, rather than just a boss, are some examples of activities that can improve your interpersonal literacy skills and help you better connect to the people you work with. 

The second important area for physician leadership, systems literacy, urges physicians to situate clinical problems as part of a broader whole. As physician leaders, you’ll need to navigate the complexities of the healthcare system as well as the workflow of your practice in order to get the best patient outcomes possible; whether this is designating the right employees to handle schedule and billing questions or spotting triage issues, great physician leaders will focus on seeing their clinical practice, team, and industry as a whole – not just on a patient to patient basis. 

The third area of focus for physician leaders is recognizing, disclosing, and addressing errors. Given the sensitivity of the patient environment, it is crucial that physician leaders be adept at not only spotting errors, but disclosing them to the team and finding a solution. This is an area where you’ll also need to use your interpersonal and systems literacy skills to find the right solution – an error in patient care from someone on your team is a different situation than a billing error. Good leaders must be able to see and adapt to both, as well as hone their leadership style to reflect these two opposite scenarios. Taking over and giving orders might work in an emergency room, but might not be appreciated at a reception desk. 

Conclusion 

The best physician leaders will see their practice and their patients as part of one clinical whole. While many physicians find it tempting to just focus on patient care, it’s important to remember that this care is delivered in the context of a broader medical setting, whether that be an emergency room, clinic, or private practice. Keeping your leadership skills up to date not only helps your organization to perform, but also keeps your staff happy and helps your care standards improve – which is great news for your patients.