Medicolegal Issues

Should group directors continue clinical practice?



Clinical practice is beneficial to patients, the group, and your career

Dr. Wright

Finding a balance between clinical care and leadership duties truly is a challenge for hospitalist directors. Changes in the landscape of inpatient care delivery, rapid growth of HM groups, and expansion of hospitalist roles have resulted in a substantial increase in a director’s responsibilities. Today’s hospitalist leader squarely faces the dilemma of continuing clinical practice and performing administrative efforts while demonstrating competence in each. To be effective, this is precisely what physician leaders must strive to do.

Maintaining clinical practice alongside directorship duties conveys advantages in critical leadership areas. You must consider the benefits to your patient, your career, and the hospitalist group.

The Patient, Director, Group

Physician leaders offer clinical experience combined with a unique perspective on systems of care, or “the big picture.”

Likewise, caring for patients provides the opportunity to interact with and listen to the customer, which is necessary for important outcomes, such as patient satisfaction. It reminds us that we are here to care for and about patients, keeping our efforts patient-centered.

Direct patient care refocuses directors on the fundamental reason they are in leadership. It offers intrinsic professional rewards and intellectual satisfaction that will sustain and strengthen the leadership role. The effective leader strategically finds balance by delegating, prioritizing, and focusing on time management.

Continuing your clinical practice affords physician leaders leverage with their constituents—the hospitalists. Working in the trenches, especially during critical times, yields legitimacy and credibility. It also allows the leader to identify with and respond to concerns raised by members. This can connect the leader to the group, avoiding the “suit vs. white coat” dynamic. The same principle extends to other stakeholders who are part of the care team, such as nurses and referring physicians.

Other Factors

Maintaining clinical aptitude ensures that leaders stay apprised of current practices, and are aware of the latest techniques, data, and evidence. This is critical for ensuring group performance in quality initiatives, and for setting standards of clinical excellence in the group practice.

In academic centers, ward teaching allows leaders to train future physicians, pass on knowledge, and gain an understanding of the next generation and its priorities, thus keeping an eye on the future and having a clear vision.

Perhaps the most important benefit direct patient care provides in leadership is the ability to accomplish the group’s mission. A firsthand experience brings understanding of issues around workflow, efficiency, and career satisfaction. It allows leaders to audit best practices. It inspires innovative ideas for healthcare delivery and processing improvement changes.

The model of successful physician leadership is based on clinical excellence. The construct of a separation between clinical and administrative roles is a false dichotomy; the two are interdependent. HM directors have a duty to perform both, as it is the combination that makes leaders successful. TH

Dr. Wright is associate clinical professor and chief of the division of hospital medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison.


Physician leaders should relinquish clinical practice, focus on leading

Dr. Yu

I believe the vast majority of hospitalists agree with the “pro” side of this debate, but I also believe that this kind of knee-jerk reaction reflects the core deficiency that plagues physicians’ thinking regarding leadership.

The way medicine is being practiced and delivered in the hospital setting is rapidly changing. In fact, our specialty is based on this premise. Yet hospitalists still have a stone-age mentality when it comes to physician leaders. The concept of leadership, in most cases, is an afterthought.

Our Role as Leaders

The HM leader is expected to act as a caretaker: set the schedule, organize and implement QI programs, and represent the hospitalists to administration. Most HM directors are accidental leaders who sheepishly step into a position when the opportunity presents itself. This usually happens as programs grow. Few industries would accept this business model. Leadership should be considered critical and given its due respect in terms of resources, training, and experience. Rarely are supervisory positions rewarded to accidental, part-time volunteers. Leaders are chosen, groomed, and given the sufficient time and resources to carry out their mandate.

When HM programs become dysfunctional, hospitalists are quick to blame the administration—some refer to it as the “evil empire” or “the dark side.” But interesting research by Gallup Inc. has shown that the majority of employees who leave their jobs actually are leaving their manager.1

Wants vs. Needs

Leaders face dilemmas every work day. For instance, leaders need to communicate the administration’s goals and weave them into HM department systems and policies. Conversely, HM leaders have to negotiate with administration to secure the resources they need to execute those goals. Technologies are mere facilitators; people actually produce results. Yet many administrators and HM leaders are fixated on the latest software without giving much thought about how staff will implement the changes.

HM leaders need time and resources to be effective. As hospitalists, we’ve been bombarded by the evidence-based medicine mantra. But most hospitalists have never heard of, or they laugh at, evidence-based techniques that were first documented in the 1970s.2 Data is available regarding management skills that can be used to effect positive organization behavior.

We also need to be authentic leaders to combat internal disruptions from medical staff. Gallup Management research has shown that 42% of physicians on medical staffs are actively disengaged.3 Physicians not only are distant, they also actively sabotage and poison new efforts introduced by administration or physician leaders.

The hospitalist leader should only perform clinical responsibilities if they are absolutely necessary. The HM director should be given all the time, resources, due respect, and training to be a dynamic leader. The hospitalist movement would be better for it. TH


  1. Buckingham, M, Coffman C. First, Break All the Rules: How Managers Trump Companies. 1999. New York City: Simon & Schuster.
  2. Luthans F. Organizational Behavior. 1973. New York City: McGraw-Hill.
  3. Paller D. What the doctor ordered. Gallup Management Web site. Available at: Accessed Nov. 9, 2009.

Dr. Yu is medical director of hospitalist services at Decatur (Ill.) Memorial Hospital.

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