Why Healthcare C-Suites Should Include Physicians


Physician administrators can offer unique perspectives and skillsets.

Group of doctors

As reimbursement drives change from a fee-for-service system of care to a value-based environment, now, more than ever, the health care industry is seeking leaders who can manage significant improvement in three key areas: clinical outcomes, quality, and resource utilization.

While a majority of hospital executive officers are non-physician leaders, more and more health care organizations are recognizing the value of having physicians in the C-suite, and how their firsthand connection to patient care can influence the success of the organization and overall health of their communities.

Here are three ways physicians can serve as effective change agents for their organizations.

Clinical approach to leadership

Physicians tend to take a clinical approach in their leadership roles, with patients and quality of care at the center. For example, when the conversation moves from financials to patient safety statistics, physician administrators take these figures very personally. Having been involved in the care of patients, day in and day out, they know these are not simply numbers to regulate and report. They are people.

Related article: 11 Soft Skills Healthcare Executives Need to Succeed

Often, physician executives have an added sensitivity to humanize the operational side of health care and bring deep insight to care decisions that may increase value to patient outcomes and satisfaction, as well as having a positive impact on reimbursement.

Emphasis on quality

A 2011 Social Science & Medicine study found, among the 300 American hospitals top-ranked by U.S. News & World Report, overall hospital quality scores were nearly 25% higher in those with physician executives compared to those run by leaders with non-medical backgrounds.

Too often, an organization’s quality efforts are separated from other key initiatives like cost rebalancing, population health, strategic positioning, provider integration, and consumerism. Physician leaders can help bridge this gap: meeting patient care needs and delivering on operational and financial goals.

Organizations that prioritize quality care-that is, care that is safe, effective, timely, efficient, coordinated, and patient-centered-often find that the financial benefits follow. At the core of delivering high-quality care is the ability to appropriately manage the organization’s resources and reduce variation in the care provided. With their hands-on experience in patient care, physician administrators can enhance standards and processes to ensure clinical teams care for patients at the right level of care, at the right time, utilizing the right resources, at the right cost.

Medical staff engagement

In a 2018 national survey of physicians, athenahealth found those who are satisfied with their leadership are more engaged at work, have greater job satisfaction and are less likely to experience signs of burnout than those who are unhappy with their leaders.

There has long been a division between a health care organization’s administration and its medical staff. To be successful, however, the two must be aligned.

This is another area where physician administrators can add value. Because of their similar medical backgrounds, clinical staff may find the physician executive more relatable than a leader who does not possess a clinical background. Physician leaders can help close this gap to form a collaborative and synergistic relationship.

Opportunity for growth

When organizations bring physicians into leadership positions, there is one obvious consideration to keep in mind: a majority of physicians may not have as much formal business training as their counterparts with MBAs and degrees in hospital administration.

The number of physicians seeking out this additional training has increased in the last few years, as evidenced by the growth of MD/MBA degree programs offered through university programs (from six in 1993 to 65 today, according to the Association of MD/MBA Programs). As physicians transition from the clinical to business side of leading an organization, they must be willing to invest in their business and leadership development.

Physicians are meant to be leaders. They build trusted relationships with patients, lead clinical staff to provide effective patient care, train the next generation of physicians, and have long been critically important liaisons between clinicians and executives.

As our nation’s healthcare system evolves and enhanced outcomes and improved patient experiences become more important to the financial stability of our care networks, there is a growing need for physician leaders to grow into executive positions, bringing their invaluable firsthand knowledge of patient care into the boardroom.

John Turner is vice president of physician solutions at Quorum Health Resources, the largest health care professional services company for non-urban hospitals and health systems nationwide. With more than 25 years of progressive and reliable health care leadership experience in for-profit and nonprofit health care environments, Turner has a track record of driving organizational success in operational and financial objectives through a strong makeup of strategic research and operational execution. 

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