Schools for physician leaders: Teaching doctors how to champion change

State medical programs hope physicians will be catalysts for improvements in patient care, health policy and other community issues.

By Damon Adams — Posted Nov. 6, 2006

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The Medical Society of Virginia Foundation has started a new program to make today's doctors tomorrow's leaders.

Through its Claude Moore Physician Leadership Institute, the foundation wants to produce a network of physicians who work to advance health care in the state. Doctors choose to concentrate in public policy, community health, clinical care or executive management, or a combination of those areas. With training and mentoring, doctors learn to promote patient safety in the state, improve access to health care for the uninsured, manage a hospital or clinic, and push for public policy changes.

Virginia is among a growing number of states in which medical societies and their foundations offer leadership programs to teach physicians how to be community leaders. It's a growing trend in organized medicine, fueled by the societies' desire to create leaders who will take up their causes.

Medical society officials said the programs are essential because medical training does not prepare physicians to take on leadership roles.

"There are more and more needs for leaders. We've become more aware that we need to teach these skills for our organizations. Nobody else out there is doing it," said Russ Miller, senior vice president of the Tennessee Medical Assn., which will launch a leadership college next year.

The Michigan State Medical Society also will start a new program next year, when it sponsors a leadership boot camp in February 2007.

"We see a leadership vacuum developing at a time when people are looking for physicians to lead the way when it comes to health care reform," said Kenneth Edwards, MD, chair of the board of directors of the Michigan State Medical Society and an orthopedic surgeon in St. Joseph, Mich.

Among the efforts already under way: The North Carolina Medical Society Leadership College, presented by the society's foundation, has trained more than 65 physicians since the program began in 2002. The Washington State Medical Assn. each year hosts a Leadership Development Conference, addressing issues such as dealing with anger, building relationships with elected officials and recruiting community partners for health improvement projects.

Some states are taking a lead from national groups. Pam Highsmith, associate executive director of the North Carolina Medical Society Foundation, said her state's effort is based on a leadership program of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Other efforts deal with running for political office, such as the Candidate Workshop of the American Medical Association Political Action Committee.

North Carolina emergency physician Frank Smeeks, MD, is one physician who joined the leadership effort sweeping the country.

Looking to boost his ability to take charge in his community, Dr. Smeeks took part in the Leadership College of the North Carolina foundation. He learned the value of teamwork, developed advocacy strategies and worked with a mentor during the year-long program. Three years after completing the training, Dr. Smeeks interacts with physicians he didn't know before -- a circle of colleagues he can turn to when addressing community issues.

"What the program does is pair you with other peers who have the same interests you do in patient care and organized medicine in general. It allows you to interact with a core group of people, and it's a way of opening doors," said Dr. Smeeks, chief medical officer of Frye Regional Medical Center in Hickory, N.C.

Pediatrician Elaine Cabinum-Foeller, MD, went through the same program in 2005 in hopes of becoming a champion of change. Seeing a leadership role as a way to help her patients, she learned about public policy and how to interact with state legislators. Today, she is on a state task force that deals with child fatality.

"I gained an appreciation for how much our voice can count in getting things done," said Dr. Cabinum-Foeller of Greenville, N.C. "I've gotten more involved on the state level, saying what can [physicians] do. When we're there [before state officials], they really listen to us."

Pathologist Georgean G. deBlois, MD, said her first exposure to leadership training came from the Claude Moore Physician Leadership Institute in Virginia, named after a deceased physician and philanthropist. In September, she and other physicians took part in a two-day program that looked at using creative problem-solving skills, understanding and influencing public policy, managing conflict and running an effective meeting.

Through the program's executive management concentration area, she is learning practical tools for managerial decision-making and economic principles for managing a health care organization. She said it would come in handy when she becomes chief of staff in 2008 at CJW Medical Center in Richmond, Va.

"A lot of things in medicine that people find difficult are not the actual practice of medicine. It's insurance and employee issues," she said. "Leadership skills can be learned to help you better deal with these issues."

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Leadership tracks

Participants in the Claude Moore Physician Leadership Institute in Virginia can choose one or more of four concentration areas. Here are physicians' options:

Clinical care: Identifying the best practices and promoting patient safety and quality improvement.

Community health: Promoting physician engagement in community-based models of health care and becoming a physician leader for the uninsured and underserved.

Executive management: Providing physicians the leadership skills and credentials needed to lead effectively at all levels in organizations.

Public policy: Understanding state and national health policy and training physicians to become active participants in the policy process.

Source: Medical Society of Virginia Foundation

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