I am pleased and excited that you are willing to abandon your plan for being a vagabond and will give serious consideration to joining the faculty of the Department of Pediatrics to become a core member of a new [general pediatric inpatient] program that I believe has exciting potential.
So reads the first line of my very first job offer letter. Obviously, my chairman had a sense of humor. But he also was not off target, as before May 21 of my third year of residency, I had no meaningful work lined up. Dreams of locum tenens work in Hawaii or a California coastal town quickly disappeared as I received only offers for work in small-town Mississippi and Oklahoma. Eleven years later, I don’t think I could have planned a more fulfilling early career, particularly when the alternative might have been surfing on the Mississippi River.
I would like this opportunity, in my final column as The Hospitalist’s pediatric editor, to reflect on this odyssey from vagabond to hospitalist.
The Early Years
As a new attending, I was appropriately terrified of how much I didn’t know. I also had ambitious goals at first, wanting to emulate my two favorite role models from residency, Charles Ginsburg and Heinz Eichenwald. We might call them hospitalists now, but back then they were old-fashioned, generalist inpatient clinician-educators, even while chairing the department of pediatrics over their separate tenures. They were the smartest and wisest teachers that I have ever met. These early years were a pseudo-fellowship of sorts; under their tutelage, I soaked up more than I ever had during residency.
Despite all of this learning, I remained sheltered in my clinician-educator bubble. The path to excellence for me was defined through frequent trips to the library (where journals used to be stored) and trying to teach as well as my mentors did. I largely was ignorant of the national hospitalist movement, until the 2007 SHM annual meeting was held in my backyard in Dallas. Listening to Bob Wachter that year, and then Don Berwick the following year, I suddenly realized the tremendous and intertwined importance of the quality movement and hospitalists. We were going to fix medicine. OK, maybe not all of medicine, but it happened to be the perfect time for me to learn about our health-care crisis, quality, and the role of hospital medicine.
If my first five years were about clinical medicine, the next five years were all about lessons in leadership. I had a new role, directing 8 15 20 25 hospitalists—and now was accountable for the group’s results. I’ve often said that an explicit leadership role is like stepping behind a curtain, where your own previous n=1 perspective is now the challenge of herding a group of n=25. And let’s be clear that it’s one thing to manage the group and keep the ship afloat, but it’s entirely another thing to lead the group toward success.
A Path for Me
Although the cacophony of managing that many voices was deafening early on, I found solace in the lessons of quality improvement (QI), where no project lives without a team that is all going the same direction. Between the national opportunities for collaborative improvement and the day-to-day experiences within my group, I found two simple principles worked well: 1) engage the team and 2) deliver objective results.
And just as I had craved a clinical learning environment early on, I now found myself learning from local and national peers putting their leadership skills in action to produce quality outcomes. The beauty of collaborative teamwork is that it creates self-sustaining capacity for more positive results.
Looking forward, the opportunities seem limitless for pediatric hospital medicine. From the inherent fulfillment of our day-to-day bedside work to the explicit leadership that we offer the complex hospital system, our family of pediatric hospitalists has blazed career paths in all directions. We are program directors. We are directors of quality and safety. We are division directors and section chiefs. We are professors. We are fellowship-trained. We are CEOs, of entire hospitals and the CMO of CMS. There has never been a better time to be a pediatric hospitalist.
This rapid ascent has to be the fastest in the history of medicine and might surprise the unsuspecting, but these career paths really should have been expected. Residents and students still identify the most with their ward months—we always will be leaders in education. Hospitals and health-care systems recognize the value of hospitalists as systems improvers and will forever need enlightened physicians to guide safer, better care. But we also remain generalists, perched over the exact intersection of acute illness and health. From this vantage point, we have the perfect perspective from which to lead the transformation of our health-care system. I’m not sure there is a leadership position in health care that a hospitalist will not fill in the near future.
A New Frontier
With all of this opportunity before us, there exists an imperative for true leadership. And unlike all of our past requirements for achievement, relying on our quantitative abilities will no longer be enough. Rather, we will need to focus on the qualitative “soft” skills, whether you call this emotional intelligence, interpersonal communication, or behavioral economics. The creation of value-based, care-delivery systems requires high-functioning units. We will need to design and lead teams from the bedside to the boardroom.
In the coming years, this leadership imperative will only intensify, as we all will be pressured to do more with less. We will be asked to improve quality and decrease costs. We will need to broaden our focus to health in addition to acute illness. Doing more with less will require courage and leadership. If you look at our growth curve to date, we have an abundance of both.
Dr. Shen is medical director of hospital medicine at Dell Children's Medical Center in Austin, Texas. He served as The Hospitalist's pediatric editor since 2010 and this marks his last column in his role as editor. In his newfound spare time, he looks forward to defining value in health care.