Preparing pediatric hospital medicine fellows for leadership

Reflecting on a longitudinal leadership elective experience


The practice of pediatric hospital medicine (PHM) has been evolving and rapidly expanding over the last several decades. Not only has the scope of clinical practice matured and become more defined, but hospitalists now also have the responsibility to advance the performance of hospitals and health care systems. Pediatric hospitalists are increasingly incorporating medical education, research, high-value care, patient quality and safety initiatives, and process improvement into their careers.1 As a result, pediatric hospitalists are occupying a wider range of administrative and leadership positions within the health care system.

Dr. Kathryn Westphal, Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio

Dr. Kathryn Westphal

The field of PHM has highlighted the importance of leadership in the practice of hospital medicine by dedicating a chapter to “Leadership in Healthcare” in the PHM Core Competencies.1 The competencies define the expertise required of hospitalists and serve as guidance for the development of education, training, and career development series. Hospitalists may seek out opportunities for leadership training at an institutional or national level. Options may include advanced degrees, national conferences, division training seminars, or self-directed learning through reading or observational experiences. Unfortunately, all of these take time and motivation. As a result, hospitalists tend to pursue these opportunities only after they have already been appointed to leadership positions.

PHM fellowship is the optimal time to build a foundation of leadership skills. Over the course of a 2-year fellowship, fellows have a combined 16 weeks dedicated to educational activities beyond direct patient care.2 The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) encourages educational innovation during this time, allowing programs to create unique opportunities for their fellows that will promote progress towards their ultimate career goals.3 This curricular framework provides the flexibility to integrate leadership training into fellowship training.

Many fellows are eager for leadership experiences and mentorship, myself included. As a pediatric chief resident, I was immersed in a diverse range of clinical, educational, research, and administrative responsibilities. I found myself in a leadership position with no prior education on how to manage people or team dynamics, make high-stress decisions on behalf of a group of people, or handle conflict. Although I learned new strategies on a daily basis, the experience showed me how much more I still had to learn in order to be a successful leader. This was one of the reasons I decided to pursue fellowship training. I think many PHM fellowship applicants feel similarly. They may have served in a leadership position in the past but feel underprepared to fulfill leadership positions in the next phase of their careers.

But despite this eagerness, evidence suggests that fellows do not feel that they receive as much management training as they need to start their careers. In a 2014 survey of PHM fellowship graduates, many held formal leadership positions within their institution (23/51) and within national organizations (6/51), despite having only five years of hospitalist experience on average (including time spent in fellowship). When asked about training needs, respondents identified “hospital program management” as an area where they wished they received more training during fellowship.4

Anyone who has gone through the PHM fellowship interview process can tell you that a common refrain of program directors is, “One of the goals of our program is to create future leaders in PHM.” This led me to wonder: how do fellowship programs prepare their fellows for future leadership positions?

I began my fellowship training at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in the summer of 2020. The program had just designed a longitudinal leadership elective, which the second-year fellow and I decided to pilot together. As I reflected on the first half of this academic year, I realized that it is unique experiences like this elective that make me thankful I pursued fellowship. I want to share with the hospitalist community the structure of the elective and why it has been particularly valuable with the hope that it will inspire similar opportunities for other fellows.

The program is semi-structured but allows the fellow and preceptors the flexibility to decide what activities would benefit that particular fellow. We attend a variety of administrative and committee meetings with each preceptor that expose us to the responsibilities of their positions, their leadership style in action, their approach to crisis management, and differences in divisional operations. On a monthly basis we meet with a preceptor to discuss a topic related to leadership. Examples of topics include how to run a more effective meeting, barriers to organizational change, leading in crisis, and the importance of mission, vision, values, and goals of organizations. The preceptor sends us articles or other learning materials they have found useful on the topic, and these serve as a starting point for our discussions. These discussions provide a point of reflection as we apply the day’s concept to our own prior experiences or to our observations during the elective.

The combination of learning experiences, discussions, and dedicated preceptorship has prepared me far better for future leadership than my past personal and observational experiences. I have summarized my top three reasons why this structure of leadership development is particularly valuable to me as a fellow.

First, the longitudinal structure of the elective allows us to learn from multiple preceptors over the course of the academic year. The preceptors include the current chief of hospital pediatrics at Nationwide Children’s Hospital; the division director of hospital medicine at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center; and the physician lead for hospital medicine at one of the satellite hospitals in the region. With faculty from the Department of Pediatrics and the Department of Internal Medicine-Pediatrics in these leadership positions, we have the unique ability to compare and contrast operational systems between the two different hospital systems.

Recently, we also had the opportunity to meet with both the chairman of the department of pediatrics and chief medical officer. All of these physician leaders hold a variety of administrative roles and have differing leadership philosophies, each providing useful insights. For instance, one leader ensures his team holds him accountable as the leader by always asking for honest feedback. He recommends telling those you work with to “never let me fail.” Another leader acknowledges that creating five-year plans can be daunting but encouraged us to still be intentional with our direction on a smaller scale by writing down goals for the year and sharing with a mentor. Ultimately, I came away with a wide variety of perspectives to reference as I go forward.

Second, the learning is contextualized. I can take concepts that I learn through reading and discussions and construct meaning based on observations from meetings or other encounters with different leaders. For example, after reviewing several articles on strategies to make meetings more effective, I started noticing what went well and what didn’t go well in every meeting I attended. I observed preceptors employing many of the strategies successfully with positive feedback. This included not only simple practices, such as setting an agenda to provide a compass for the conversation, but also more nuanced practices like controlling the meeting but not the conversation.

After reading about leadership styles I also found myself analyzing the qualities and strategies of leaders I encountered and reflecting on their approach, noticing what I could possibly interlace in my own practice. Several of the leaders I spoke with during the elective recommended paying attention to the actions of the ineffective bosses or mentors because they can teach you something too: how not to act. I even started applying this strategy to the popular television series The Office – Michael Scott, the regional manager of a fictional paper company, demonstrates some of the best and worst leadership skills in every episode. I am developing a repertoire of strategies to lead and motivate people.

Finally, the design allows for real-time application of new methods to my current practice. One particularly useful tool I have learned is Leader Standard Work, a systematic method to get leaders to maintain stability, problem solve, and drive continuous improvement within their organization.5 I have used elements of Leader Standard Work on a personal level to improve my time management skills and increase my productivity. For example, I reconceptualized my calendar as a standardized checklist and I organized it to allot more time to critical activities, such as my research and scholarly output, and less on administrative tasks. I am also implementing changes to how I prepare and run meetings, collaborate, and communicate with members of my research team.

Mastery requires practice and feedback, so applying concepts even on a small, personal scale shortly after learning them has been very valuable. Over the last several months I have often wished I had this type of structured leadership education during my year as a chief resident. I think I could have been more intentional in my decision-making, possibly being a stronger leader for the program. Now that I am transferring skills into practice right away, I am setting the stage for lasting changes in behavior that will hopefully benefit all those that I work with in the future.

Leadership development through a customizable longitudinal elective may be an effective way to prepare PHM fellow graduates for future leadership positions. Fellows can emerge with the skills and real-world practice to allow them to feel confident in future positions. However, leadership doesn’t end when we get the position. We must remember to continuously ask for feedback and build upon our experiences to evolve as leaders in PHM.

Dr. Westphal is a first-year pediatric hospital medicine fellow at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio with an interest in improving the delivery of quality care for hospitalized infants.


1. Maniscalco, J, et al. The Pediatric Hospital Medicine Core Competencies: 2020 Revision. Introduction and Methodology (C). J Hosp Med. 2020;S1;E12-E17. doi: 10.12788/jhm.3391.

2. Jerardi KE, et al; Council of Pediatric Hospital Medicine Fellowship Directors. Development of a Curricular Framework for Pediatric Hospital Medicine Fellowships. Pediatrics. 2017 Jul;140(1):e20170698. doi: 10.1542/peds.2017-0698.

3. ACGME Program Requirements for Graduate Medical Education in Pediatric Hospital Medicine. 2020 Edition. Accessed 2021 Jan 14.

4. Oshimura, JM et al. Current roles and perceived needs of pediatric hospital medicine fellowship graduates. Hosp Pediatr. 2016;6(10):633-7. doi: 10.1542/hpeds.2016-0031.

5. Murli, J. Standard Work for Lean Leaders: One of the Keys to Sustaining Performance Gains. Lean Institute Enterprise, Lean Institute Enterprise Inc. 4 Dec 2013.

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