March 3, 2017

Empowering Physicians to Lead Improvements in Healthcare

The Physicians Foundation awarded a grant to the Brandeis Physician Leadership Conference to support physician leader training in tackling healthcare challenges. Jon Chilingerian, Ph.D., Program Director for the Brandeis Health Leadership Program, discusses how this program has partnered with the Physicians Foundation to provide academic and leadership growth for effective healthcare delivery.

Q. What is the Brandeis Physician Leadership Conference and what is its purpose?

The Brandeis Physician Leadership Conference was designed to deal with three organizational challenges. The first challenge is that every healthcare organization must learn how to manage the triple performance problem—how to achieve outstanding technical outcomes, a positive patient experience, and efficient care that is both affordable and equitable.  Unfortunately, there is growing evidence that there are very few places able to juggle these three objectives.  Health care management requires a new kind of healthcare and clinical leadership.

Second, there is also growing empirical evidence that the direct involvement of physicians in healthcare management improves overall organizational performance (i.e., better patient safety, lower infection and readmission rates and improved efficiency and financial margins). Healthcare organizations managed by clinicians with advanced leadership training can outperform health organizations led by lay-managers alone. Yet health systems are falling behind when it comes to training and developing physician leaders who innovate and create value.

The third challenge is that while physicians need to take the lead, the era of the “self-taught” physician leader is over.  Every physician needs a sophisticated understanding of the concepts and tools of healthcare management science and a deep understanding of national and local health policy. Physician leaders need skills, knowledge and a new mindset to participate in the development of health policies that will meet the shared interests of patients, the medical profession and healthcare organizations.

The core objectives of the Brandeis Physician Leadership Conference seek to address these challenges by:

  • Helping physicians understand, evaluate and interpret emerging national and local healthcare policy trends and healthcare reforms that affect the delivery of care.
  • Teaching physicians how to employ the tools of strategic thinking and organizational analysis to diagnose healthcare markets and organizational problems, such as the triple-performance problem.
  • Introducing or reinforcing the concepts and tools to build high-performing, integrated healthcare teams aimed at achieving excellent technical outcomes, outstanding patient experience and efficient care.
  • Developing a cadre of physician leaders who are self-aware and aware of the perception of others, able to diagnose complex situations, capable of resolving conflicts, managing relational dynamics and practicing fair process.

Program sessions, simulations, and case studies offer the latest in national health policy and management frameworks. This program will offer doctors the concepts, tools and confidence they need to help their organizations take on these three challenges.

Q. In 2015, Brandeis University partnered with the Physicians Foundation to conduct a survey to uncover the primary opportunities and challenges associated with physician leadership. What was the most interesting finding from the survey results?

To help diagnose the current situation and landscape of opportunities and programs for physician leaders, each invitee was asked to complete a survey that described key elements of their program. A sample of 425 physicians responded to the survey and ranked the top five challenges they face as leadership, healthcare finance, organizational behavior, leadership coaching and building high performance teams. 

Perhaps the most interesting finding from the study was that the ability to lead successfully remains the number one priority for physicians. We learned that physicians across the United States see a broad range of leadership challenges, including protecting the doctor/patient relationship, shaping policy and legislation, contributing to the strategy of care-delivery systems, effectively carrying out change initiatives and process improvement, building cross-functional and collaborative teams, managing conflicts, engaging providers in issues beyond clinical care, and innovating for quality and efficiency for the patient.  Moreover, we learned that when asked what management and leadership tools they are using to deal with opportunities, many responded, “We are doing our best,” or, “We do not have any tools.” 

Q. What impact has the Heller School had on empowering physicians? Please give examples if possible.

Brandeis University has had a long history training physicians.  I will highlight two of our programs. In 1995, the Heller School at Brandeis University and Tufts School of Medicine (TUSM) partnered to offer medical students an opportunity to obtain the Heller MBA for Physicians degree in an integrated four-year sequence. Medical students graduate and go into their residencies in four years with an AACSB accredited MBA degree from Brandeis University. This highly successful program has graduated more than 200 physician-MBAs and is the largest MD-MBA degree program in the United States.  

Since 2004, the Heller School has offered an annual Leadership Program in Health Policy and Management for 30 to 35 physician and surgeon leaders partially sponsored by the American College of Surgeons (ACS) and the Thoracic Surgery Foundation. This intensive one-week program equips health leaders with the knowledge and skills essential for creating innovative and sustainable solutions to improve the quality, cost-effectiveness and efficiency of healthcare service delivery, as well as for participating in healthcare policy and reform. 

Q. How do you hope the Leadership Conference evolves in the future?

Based on our findings from our latest conference entitled, “Building a 21st Century Physician Leadership Curriculum,” the ability to lead successfully is the most important focus right now for physician training and development. As our program evolves, we will continually evaluate the topics that physicians need and want. We know that the role of technology, big data, population health and information management within healthcare are not currently prioritized in the leadership curricula of most programs or healthcare environments, but this is something that may very well change in the future. 

Q. Why is it important for the Physicians Foundation to offer these kinds of grants? 

Ultimately, grantees want to learn how to make every physician who attends their program an effective healthcare leader. The Physicians Foundation is uniquely positioned to support and leverage physicians being trained to lead more effective patient-centered healthcare delivery systems. Through the previous grantee conference, the Physicians Foundation supported a platform for grantees to share lessons learned, best practices and other innovative ideas with each other.