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What Attributes Do Organizations Seek in Future Physician Leaders?

By Susan Kreimer
January 25, 2018

One CEO of a major medical practice decries the “dearth of people with the characteristics and the training” to satisfy the leadership needs of tomorrow.

When Norman Chenven, MD, formed his own physician group in 1980, he acquired leadership acumen through trial and error. Medical schools typically didn’t provide this type of training, and other formative options were few and far between.

“Most health care was delivered in solo and small practices historically,” says Chenven, a family physician and founding chief executive officer of Austin Regional Clinic in Austin, Texas. Those “mom-and-pop shops” often consisted of “three or four docs.”

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Dr. Norman Chenven looks for strong communication skills in physician leaders, along with coolness under fire and lots of empathy. | Austin Regional Clinic

His practice has grown into a 300-physician multispecialty group. Observing the health care industry’s decades-long and dramatic transformation has given him a unique vantage point to identify the desirable qualities that physicians need to ascend to the prominent leadership roles of tomorrow.

“There is a tremendous need for physician leaders, and there really does seem to be a dearth of people with the characteristics and the training,” says Chenven, 72, who also is acting chairman of the Council of Accountable Physician Practices, a nationwide coalition of organized multispecialty groups and health systems.

Here are some of the attributes that health care organizations are seeking from future physician leaders:

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Theresa Rohr-Kirchgraber

Agent of change: The ability to voice a concern while offering feasible solutions is an admirable trait that Theresa Rohr-Kirchgraber, MD, a former president and a current governance chair of the American Medical Women’s Association, likes to see in an aspiring leader. In staff meetings, she notices when someone presents “specific ways of making things better.”

Becoming involved in a physician recruitment and retention committee — or creating a professional development subcommittee — helps a candidate stand out from the pack.

It shows that a physician can “take ownership of not only their own development, but of others around them,” says Rohr-Kirchgraber, an associate professor of pediatrics and medicine and executive director of the National Center of Excellence in Women's Health at Indiana University School of Medicine.

Perseverance: The ability to adapt and feel comfortable leading change in a rapidly evolving environment is a key asset in a future physician leader.

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Jaewon Ryu

There’s a sense “of scrappiness, of grit,” in reacting to whatever curveballs come your way, says Jaewon Ryu, MD, JD, executive vice president and chief medical officer at Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania.

Physicians may still encounter setbacks while implementing improvements, as health care continues to shift more toward value-based payment models predicated on population health, says Ryu, an emergency medicine physician.

Vision: The innate talent to engage in deep-picture thinking bodes well for visionary leadership. For instance, a physician leader could extrapolate a trend from a bunch of data, carve out innovative strategies, and deploy effective measures to counteract a problem and foster growth, says Geoffrey Sewell, MD, FACP, president and executive medical director of Hawaii Permanente Medical Group in Honolulu and chairman of the National Permanente Executive Committee.

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Geoffrey Sewell

Such a leader would be “naturally courageous,” exhibiting an impressive resilience to weather rough times, with a service-oriented mindset aimed at helping patients, says Sewell, an internal medicine physician.

Communication: The social skills that enable two-way communication — listening and articulating — are essential to excellent physician leadership.

An ideal physician leader appears cool under fire, demonstrates a lot of empathy, and conveys an idea equally well to an individual or groups at all levels of an organization, says Chenven.

Employees want to know that a leader understands their problems and feels their pain. “People don’t follow people who they don’t believe care about them,” he says.

Susan Kreimer is a freelance health care journalist based in New York.

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Now more than ever, physicians are leaders in their organizations and communities.

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