Hospitalists can meet the demand for physician executives

HM provides “foundational leadership skills”


Hospitals and health systems are increasingly looking to physicians to provide leadership at the most senior executive level. While the chief medical officer (CMO) or similar role has given physicians a seat at the executive table at many organizations, physicians are also being sought for the CEO role at the head of that table.

Dr. Brian Harte, past president of SHM and president of Cleveland Clinic Akron General and Southern Region

Dr. Brian Harte

A commonly referenced study from 2011 by Amanda Goodall, MD, in Social Science & Medicine concluded that, among a cohort of highly ranked hospitals, overall quality metrics were approximately 25% higher in hospitals where a physician was CEO, in comparison to hospitals with non-physician CEOs (2011 Aug;73[4]:535-9). In addition, new positions at both the hospital and health system level are coming into existence: Examples include chief (or VP) of population health, chief innovation officer, chief quality officer, chief patient experience officer, and others.

There is every reason to think that these senior executive physician roles can – and in many cases perhaps should – be filled by hospitalists. Hospital medicine is an ideal “proving ground” for future physician executives and leaders. I believe that the best practitioners of hospital medicine are also the best candidates for hospital, health care, and health system physician executive leadership, because many of the characteristics essential for success as an executive are the same characteristics that are essential for success as a hospitalist. Strong candidates should have the following characteristics:

  • A patient-centered perspective. Perhaps the most important characteristic of a leader is empathy. To appreciate the complex, and often (if not usual) challenging emotional states of our patients keeps us connected at the most fundamental, human level to the work we do and to our patients and families. Empathy can – and should – extend to fellow caregivers as well, and allows us to practice and lead teams in the most human of professions. No leader – in health care, anyway – can last long without being able to demonstrate empathy, through words and behavior.
  • A systems-based practice: A hospitalist must be able to have a foot in each of two canoes – to be able to see each patient and their family individually and develop preference-based plans of care, and also to be able to focus on process, structure, and outcomes for the hospital system as a whole. The former trait is imbued in us during training and is the critical foundation for the patient-physician relationship. The latter, however, is something different entirely and reflects an ability to have perspective on the entire ecosystem of care – and apply principles of process and quality improvement to achieve forward looking results. That’s leadership.
  • Team leadership: Another fundamental attribute of leaders is to assemble a talented and diverse team around an objective, and then to delegate both tasks and their ownership, deferring to expertise. Hospitalists – the best ones, anyway – similarly recognize that for the vast majority of a patient’s hospital stay, the most important caregiver in a patient’s care is someone other than themselves. At any given time, it might be the nurse, aide, pharmacist, care manager, transporter, radiology tech, urologist, housekeeper, surgical resident, or anyone involved in that patient’s care. The hospitalist’s greatest value is in developing the plan of care with the patient and their family, and then communicating – and therefore delegating – that plan to individuals with the expertise to execute that plan. I believe the biggest difficulty hospitalists have in assuming leadership roles is getting out of the comfortable weeds of daily clinical operations and instead focusing on goals, strategies, and teams to accomplish them. The best hospitalists are doing this already as part of their daily care.
  • The ability to manage relationships: Hospitalists manage and work among a team of diverse talents. They also often have accountability relationships to a myriad of clinical and administrative leaders in the hospital, each of whom may be in a position of authority to place demands on the hospitalists: A partial list might include the CEO, the chief medical officer, chief nurse, chief of staff, other medical staff departments, academic leaders, and of course, patients and their families. Functioning in a “matrixed” organization – in which lines of authority can go in many directions, depending on the situation – is standard fare, even at the executive level, and the key competency is open and frequent communication.
  • Experience: Already, hospitalists assume leadership roles in their hospitals – leaders in quality, medical informatics, patient experience, and continuous improvement. In these roles, physicians work with senior executives and other hospital leaders to both set goals and implement strategies, providing visibility and working relationships that can be helpful to aspiring leaders.


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