Like most people who rise through their careers, she was first taught, and then later developed, the varied skill sets behind being the person responsible. It’s a curriculum she learned early as the co-captain of her undergraduate school track and cross-country teams.
“I really learned a lot from my earlier years in leadership, notably in college, and some of you probably can go back to before undergraduate, even to memories from opportunities like student council in high school,” SHM president Kris Rehm, MD, MMHC, SFHM said at the closing plenary of PHM 2023 in Philadelphia earlier this year. “So many of those characteristics and those traits matter. You might be thinking, ‘I’m not really a leader in my hospital medicine program or my department of pediatrics or my section or anywhere’ … but you are. You are a leader. You are leading already.”
Dr. Rehm, the associate chief medical officer of children’s services in the department of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., used her keynote address, “Leadership and the Future of PHM,” to forecast a bright future for pediatric hospital medicine, and introduce the next generation of folks to the reins of leadership.
Like all good leaders, she’s not Pollyannaish that everything is always working well.
Health care in the U.S. faces issues, and pediatric hospital medicine is no different. There are concerns over changing clinical staffing models, stagnant reimbursements in the face of rising costs, and the specter of impending personnel changes tied to new Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) rules. Toss in the growing complexity of pediatric patients, and the fact that many children are living with complications longer, and pediatric hospitalists could be excused for being scared of the future.
That’s where leadership comes in.
“Strong leadership is what’s going to get us out of our current situation and lead us to a more promising future,” Dr. Rehm said. “We need strong direction, we need innovation, we need action. And I think having more leaders like you, all of you…is just what we need to get through this time.”
For Dr. Rehm, five traits of leadership stick out most.
First is authenticity, which she defines partly as being true to one’s values, and partly as building a professional brand.
“I think you can be authentic in personal relationships, but also professionally,” Dr. Rehm said. “And if you know who you are and are comfortable in who you are, then your team members know. They know how you’re going to respond and they know how better to respond.”
Dr. Rehm also preaches the power of positivity. Flexibility and positivity—which she ties together—help the best leaders view changes as solvable problems more than insurmountable challenges. Think diagnosis and action versus complain and capitulate.
“We have to be able to respond to change,” Dr. Rehm said. “I think when I was younger, I would get worried, I would get worked up, I wouldn’t be able to sleep because somebody turned in their notice, or I needed to come up with a whole new plan to staff a whole new hospital.
“Now, I feel like if you gave me a problem…I’m going to figure it out. Sometimes it takes a couple of steps to get that point, but you figure it out.”
Perhaps the most important leadership trait, according to Dr. Rehm, is engagement.
“By engagement, I mean be engaged in what you’re doing,” she said. “Be passionate. Be enthusiastic. Show your commitment and your loyalty. Make emotional connections and collaborate…if you have engaged with your team, you will be happier and more productive.”
As leaders, that sense of engagement has to extend to those who work for you, too.
“Being able to really celebrate other people’s success, for me, was really what leadership was about,” Dr. Rehm said.
For some, Dr. Rehm’s last two keys to leadership could be seen as one. But she purposely separates building a community from building a network.
“Think about your community being your friends who aren’t in medicine at all,” she said. “And think about your colleagues at work, and then think about your PHM colleagues at home and here, and then think about even broader than PHM, think about your subspecialty colleagues, think about those who really just help you to achieve.”
Dr. Rehm sees her network as a more strategic support system that helps her get from Point A to Point B.
“Your network needs to be a little bit more intentional and to help think about how you’re going to advance your professional goals,” she said.
Leadership traits are the bricks of success, but Dr. Rehm said practitioners still need to put in the work to build a wall.
Take conversations with C-suite executives. Good relationships with those leaders—via community and network building—only work if you’re engaged and true to your values, and leaders don’t want rigid negativity. They want positive flexibility.
So when it’s time to approach a chief financial officer to discuss adding new full-time equivalents, speak their language. Use financial analysis to talk to them in a way that shows value, as opposed to complaining about overworked staff and the added ease of more hands for the same amount of work.
“There’s a way we can all come together for the same goal, but what motivates you as a pediatric hospitalist and what motivates a CFO isn’t always the same,” Dr. Rehm said. “But usually, we can get there with effort.”
Of course, the future is daunting. But despite the headwinds facing pediatric hospital medicine and health care in general, Dr. Rehm sees one of the main goals of a leader to be part of the solution.
And what gives her the most confidence that the future is solvable?
“I’m most excited about the future of pediatric hospital medicine because of the people in this room,” she said. “I’m most excited that you guys are at a point where you have so many choices to lead us to the next version of ourselves. I’m so excited to watch you all do that.”
Richard Quinn is a freelance writer in New Jersey.