On ‘Leadership’ in Medicine

In medicine, there are many buzzwords that are thrown around so frequently and loosely as to lose meaning or purpose. I’m looking at you, ‘patient-centered.’ And you, ‘disruptive innovation.’

Now that it’s August–the season of medical school orientations and white coat ceremonies–there’s another that, as if on cue, is making the rounds: leadership. This time of year, medical students are treated to speech after speech by deans who wax poetic about the physician-leader.

“We brought you here not to be 9-to-5 employees, but leaders in medicine.”

“We’re not just in the business of training doctors; we’re developing leaders.”

At the time, I was a fresh-faced, doe-eyed disciple in my first days of a lifetime in medicine, and I hung onto every word of the sermon–enchanted, captivated, inspired.

In the coming months, though, that inspiration turned to curious inquisition. Inquisition turned over to weary skepticism. One year in, I’ve started to deconstruct and critically evaluate the ambiguous aspiration that is ‘physician-leadership,’ a process that’s led me to these questions.

What’s a physician-leader? A year ago, we were challenged to be more than “9-to-5 employees”–to go beyond the ‘ordinary’ work of doctoring and patient care to advance the frontiers in scholarship, administration, and healthcare delivery.

Since then, though, I’ve seen some sparks of inspiration among the seemingly mundane that reveal a broader sense of leadership. There’s the country family doctor who, as a lone knight, stewards the health and wellness of an entire community. There’s the intensivist who speaks up to oppose medically futile care and guide patients to ‘a good death.’ Does one have to be an Ezekiel Emanuel or an Atul Gawande to be a physician-leader, or can we find and appreciate glimmers of leadership in the day-to-day labors of being ‘just a doctor?’

What’s it mean to train physician-leaders? As orientation became an ever-faint blip in the rear-view mirror, so became the relevance of leadership and transformative thinking in our day-to-day coursework. If we were being trained as physician-leaders, how was our training any different from that of physician not-leaders? I think we learned anatomy the same way. Same for physical diagnosis and pathology, too. A year in, I’m not sure how exactly one trains as a physician-leader, as opposed to a not-leader.

To train physician-leaders is an admirable aspiration, but it would be a little more admirable if there were a little more substance to it.

What’s with the love of leaders? As the old adage goes, if everyone’s special, then nobody really is. Likewise, if everyone’s a leader and trained from the start to think only as a leader, is there anyone left to be led? Students are selected into medical school by leading in the classroom, leading in activities and organizations, and leading in the community. When students who have only ever led arrive at medical school and are instructed to lead, does it compromise the profession’s ability to form hierarchies or collaborate?

I wonder if medical schools ought to teach, along with leadership, the principles of good followership–active listening, influencing from below, knowing when (and how) to challenge a leader. Perhaps then, we’d see stronger cohesion and collegiality, both within our profession and among the health professions.

Don’t get me wrong, now–the importance of effective leadership in medicine by physicians, for physicians is hard to overstate, especially at a time when doctors are facing increasing pressures from changing practice models, shifting payment structures, and growing information technology demands. For now, though, leadership as it’s preached and praised in medical education is a notion without clarity, an ambition without substance.

Speeches and sermons at orientations and white coat ceremonies are good. If we want to do better, though, maybe we should recognize and teach the brand of leadership that happens not only at the highest levels, but in “9-to-5 medicine.” Maybe we should actually think critically about what it means to train physician-leaders as a functional practice, rather than a buzzword not reflected in the curriculum. And maybe, just maybe, we should understand that there are limits and complements to a singular emphasis on leadership that are worth instilling, too.

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On Rounds | 4.26.2015

It’s the weekend after end of block exams, which means it’s time to dig through the 742 links in my Pocket queue. That also means it’s time for another edition of “On Rounds,” bringing you my favorite reads of the week.

On the new MCAT | Forbes
There’s a lot to like about the new Medical College Admission Test; with new content in psychology and sociology, MCAT 2015 acknowledges that there’s more to doctoring than biochemical pathways and physics equations. But are multiple-choice tests the best way to identify humanistic, socially aware aspiring doctors? What more we can do to foster diversity and holistic thinking among medical trainees? Allan Joseph and Karan Chhabra break down the good, the bad, and the path forward.

On quack science and journalistic ethicsVox
When it comes to pseudoscientists and their cults of personality, what’s a better-knowing journalist (or healthcare provider) to do? Speak out, and validate a quack? Or stay silent, and let faulty information rule the airwaves? Julia Belluz is on point with this one, and her insights and advice here ought to be required reading for every journalist, scientist, and clinician with a social media account.

On medical schools as laboratories of health transformationForbes
Esther Dyson once remarked that change in medicine happens one retirement at a time. She’s dead right. If we want our healthcare system to pivot from expensive care and late-stage interventions to systems-based practice, preventive care, and population health, the transition begins with how we train future doctors to think. At UT-Austin, the new Dell Medical School is bringing a ‘re-boot’ to a 100-year old model of medical education. David Shaywitz breaks down their educational approach, and what it could mean for medical schools nationwide.

On the value (or maybe not?) of health apps New York Times
There are two kinds of people. On one hand are those who own wearables and use health applications: the young, the affluent, the health-conscious. On the other hand are those who might often benefit from digital health but can rarely afford it: chronic disease patients, the elderly, and those with limited access to care. Today, the consumer market for health apps and devices is larger than ever. How do we connect tech fads to health outcomes? How do we balance rapid innovation with health equity? This NYT article doesn’t offer all the answers, but it raises many of the right questions.

On restoring the ‘joy of medicine’Medstro
When it comes to physician lifestyle, we keep hearing the same stuff: provider burnout is at a high; satisfaction is at a low; most doctors today wouldn’t recommend the profession to their children. We know all that; now, what are we going to do about it? Medstro and Geneia’s “Joy of Medicine Challenge” invites your ideas to restore joy to the practice of medicine, and they’re offering $1,000 for your thoughts. Instead of talking about how our healthcare system is broken, let’s ideate on how to fix it.