August 2016 | 

Helping Physicians Become Leaders: A New Wharton Program

Helping Physicians Become Leaders: A New Wharton Program

For all the vigorous debate about radically reforming American health care in the 21st century, there’s been little talk about how to shape physicians to become skilled to lead that overhaul — to re-invent the highly individualistic field of medicine for a new era of collaboration toward a stronger focus on wellness and prevention.

“Today we know that good care is really a team sport, and therefore the physician leader now has become a coach — or an orchestra conductor — of a variety of critical components that need to be woven together in order to deliver the best of care,” said Dr. Ken Abrams, managing director and Deloitte’s US Life Science and Health Care Chief Physician Executive.

Over the last year, Abrams and colleagues at Deloitte have worked with the Wharton School to design a first-of-its-kind program to address this gap. The Physician Leadership Academy will launch this fall, combining classroom sessions at Wharton’s Philadelphia and Deloitte University’s Dallas campuses with leadership coaching and peer mentoring to mold a new breed of health care executives.

“The future of health care demands physician leaders who are innovative, interdisciplinary thinkers with the skills to envision and shape the future,” says Wharton Associate Professor Guy David, who is the academic director of this new program.

Organizers say that what sets the Physician Leadership Academy apart from more traditional advanced education for physician executives is its dynamic, laser-like focus on the qualities of leadership, instead of a more conventional emphasis on business fundamentals.

That blind spot in traditional training for physicians seeking a management role is something that Abrams and the program’s other lead organizer — Dr. Andrew Wiesenthal, managing director in Deloitte’s Life Sciences Health Care Practice — say they experienced in their own careers.

Wiesenthal said that when he earned a masters degree in health care management from the Harvard School of Public Health, he was taught how to read balance sheets and perform cost accounting, but discovered that “the way that classical business schools teach management is not the same thing as leadership.” Most of what Wiesenthal says that he eventually came to know about leading a large organization came during three decades of on-the-job training at health care giant Kaiser Permanente; at Deloitte, he started to ponder a better way to teach leadership skills to physicians.

The problem became more urgent, Wiesenthal and Abrams argue, as the drive for health-care reform moved away from the traditional fee-for-service model, with its emphasis on autonomous doctors or nurses — “the heroic individual model,” Wiesenthal called it — making treatment decisions about sick patients. “We’re shifting away from the break-fix model, where if you’re broken we will fix you,” Wiesenthal said. “We do that very well, but what we want to do is keep you from getting broken now, to the extent possible. It’s the old line from the car repair commercial, ‘You can pay me now or you can pay me later.’”

In 2013, Wiesenthal and three colleagues from Deloitte Consulting authored a piece for the New England Journal of Medicine on “The New Physician Leaders: Leaders for a Dynamic Health Care Industry.” The article noted that a 21st-century physician leader will need to grasp efficient operations management and finance, better understand using data to improve the quality of care, manage entire populations of patients rather than just individuals, and think about talent management for fellow doctors just as a top HR manager might. Those skills, they wrote, would lead to a more collaborative approach to improve patient outcomes at a lower cost.

Physician Leadership Academy grew out of that article. It now includes a Board of Advisors packed with leading health care executives, and an ambitious agenda that will begin almost as soon as participants sign up, with a leadership evaluation and formal coaching support. In addition to three separate three-day learning modules at Wharton and Deloitte University taught by experts from the school and elsewhere, participants will receive additional leadership mentoring, with the goal of joining a lifelong learning and support group.

Abrams said the academy will benefit both aspiring physician leaders and current executives looking to expand their portfolio and influence; it may, he noted, help some promising young doctors determine if a health care managerial role is the right path. Life sciences companies, medical-device firms, and governmental health-care organizations might also benefit from sending their rising talent, added Abrams.

“We anticipate,” said Abrams, “that organizations will have targeted physicians at earlier phases in their careers and want to invest in them, want to understand if this person is someone they would benefit from having in a responsible leadership role — and want to test that probability by having them engaged at a course like this.”

(To find out more about and apply to the Physician Leadership Academy, visit PhysicianLeadershipAcademy.com)