Medicolegal Issues

Converse Like a Leader


Communication is an integral part of a hospitalist’s job: from admission interviews to conveying orders to nursing staff, communicating clearly and precisely is part of numerous best practices. When a hospitalist assumes a leadership role, however, the types and styles of communication change. A committee chair or department head must be aware of the messages they send—both literally and in the most general sense of the term. This transition to leadership can be tough.

“Physician communication is focused on clinical outcome. That’s easy for someone trained in medicine. But in leadership communication, there may not be a defined outcome,” says Timothy J. Keogh, PhD, assistant professor at The Citadel School of Business Administration in Charleston, S.C. “That’s a difficult switch from clinician to leader; maybe half of the problems a leader faces can’t be solved.”

Dr. Keogh and William F. Martin, PsyD, MPH, summarized their research data in “Managing Medical Groups: 21st Century Challenges and the Impact of Physician Leadership Styles,” published in the September-October 2004 issue of Journal of Medical Practice Management.

In the transition to leadership, [hospitalists] sometimes forget that they have these skills, and they can use these to be a great leader.

The Basics

The most basic communication skill a hospitalist leader should practice, according to Dr. Keogh, is “being less direct than [he or she] would like to be.” Dr. Keogh, who teaches communication skills as part of SHM’s Leadership Academy, says, “Data shows that physicians prefer to be more precise and cover topics quickly. In a leadership role, the initial part of the communication or conversation needs to be chattier. Some physicians believe that this uses up too much time, but, in fact, it doesn’t take that long and it’s a necessary step.” Acknowledge others’ need for connection by making eye contact, pausing, and exchanging quick pleasantries. “Leaders need to be able to say things in passing, greet people, et cetera,” Dr. Keogh stresses.

But what about in-depth communication?

Don’t Wait—Collaborate

A guide by general surgeon Kenneth Cohn, MD, provides unique strategies for managing collaboration among healthcare professionals. “Collaborate for Success! Breakthrough Strategies for Engaging Physicians, Nurses, and Hospital Executives” (Health Administration Press, 2006) offers case examples and practical tips help readers use constructive conflict to improve communication, maintain the loyalty of outpatient physicians, encourage physicians to reach consensus on clinical priorities, use clinical teams to reduce malpractice risk and improve outcomes, adopt disease-based approaches to patient care, and more.

What Makes Physicians Happy

What would make you—and other physicians—more satisfied with your work? “Secrets of Physician Satisfaction: Study Identifies Pressure Points and Reveals Life Practices of Highly Satisfied Doctors” by Richard J. Bogue, et al, published in the Nov. 1, 2006, issue of Physician Executive, offers the results of an in-depth physician satisfaction survey conducted at a Florida hospital. Factors including prestige, relationship with colleagues, and availability of resources all come into play. Download it.

Career Satisfaction Resource

Released in 2007, SHM’s comprehensive “A Challenge for a New Specialty: A White Paper on Hospitalist Career Satisfaction” can be used by hospitalists and in hospital medicine practices as a toolkit for improving or ensuring job satisfaction. Based on a review of the literature on physician burnout and general career satisfaction, the white paper outlines four pillars of career satisfaction: autonomy/control, workload/schedule, reward/recognition, and community/environment. Access the document in the “Practice Resources” section of SHM’s Web site.

Management Topics

If you supervise hospitalists, you can condense discussions of your expectations—at least compared with managers in business fields. “Physicians are skilled, well-trained individuals, so you don’t have to do so much of this,” Dr. Keogh says. “They have an internal sense of quality and you don’t really need to motivate them. It’s a matter of adjusting the edges.”

A hospitalist supervisor might need to address a situation in which a physician on the team has been disruptive or needs a disciplinary talk. In these instances, Dr. Keogh says, “The leader has to somehow collect data on what the hospitalist has displayed that doesn’t fit in with teamwork. The hard part is that the data is likely to be hearsay—what was said by whom, when. That’s management.”

For example, you might receive complaints from nursing staff of abrupt or rude behavior from a hospitalist. “Physicians may not think of this as data, but it is. What someone said or did, or gestured,” Dr. Keogh points out. “You have to be able to say, ‘Here’s what we know happened on this date. Help me understand what happened, because we have to change this. This behavior is not acceptable.’”

The key to all official management communication is to carefully consider how to frame the conversation and keep it flowing for both parties: Speak with hospitalists, not to them. Here is an example: “In a performance appraisal, one suggestion we make is to have a conversation about data,” Dr. Keogh explains. “Look at some numbers on quality assurance, patient load, or whatever you’re discussing. Do your homework and allow the other person to have a look at the data before you sit down with them. That’s a sign of respect.”

Styles of Communication

Dr. Keogh’s training for physician executives—including what he teaches at the Leadership Academy—is based on the personality profile system developed by Carlson Learning Company (now Inscape Publishing).1 The DiSC model outlines behavior or characteristic leadership preferences in four dimensions:

  • Dominance (D): People who score high in this category have behavioral characteristics that include being motivated by control over tasks and work environment, directing others, and achieving specific stretch goals. In general, physician managers who score high on dominance tend to be results-focused, fast-paced, and value autonomy.
  • Influence (I): People who score high in this category are motivated by interacting with others, giving and receiving immediate feedback, and acknowledging emotions as well as facts.
  • Steadiness (S): People who score high in this category are motivated by job security, predictability, and clearly defined expectations.
  • Conscientiousness (C): People who score high in this category are motivated by needing to be right, working alone, and preferring to work on tasks rather than dealing with people.

“This model provides groundwork for seeing that other people have different ways, different preferences of communicating,” Dr. Keogh says. In his own research, he says, he has found “nearly half of all physicians are some combination of time-sensitive and perfectionist,” meaning they fit the dominance style.

The trick to effective communication is learning to modify your style when necessary. Task-focused individuals must practice taking a minute for a greeting or a pleasantry, even if it initially goes against their routine. “Someone who is extremely outgoing and open can have trouble, too,” Dr. Keogh points out. “You can’t start a conversation with a lot of chit-chat, if you’re addressing someone who is direct. … That won’t work, either.”

The solution is to practice stepping outside of your normal communication style. “You can learn how to adjust your style, how to flex to others’ styles,” Dr. Keogh says. “Depending on whom you’re communicating with, you can mirror the style of the other person.” This helps to ensure that what you’re saying is received and understood.

Practicing new ways to communicate means making a fundamental shift in your behavior. It sounds difficult, but Dr. Keogh promises it’s not.

“The transition is not as hard as you think, because hospitalists have been trained to do patient interviews,” he says. “They’re skilled at observation and listening. In the transition to leadership, they sometimes forget that they have these skills and can use these to be a great leader.”” TH

Jane Jerrard is a medical writer based in Chicago. She also writes “Public Policy” for The Hospitalist.


1. Straw J. The 4-Dimensional Manager: DiSC Strategies for Managing Different People in the Best Ways. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.; 2002.

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