America needs a nationwide reveille to find ways to improve our healthcare system—and doctors must lead the charge.

Unfortunately, physicians are mostly removed from critical strategic leadership roles in healthcare. While doctors provide excellent care and are deeply involved in the science of medicine, they are often not given the opportunity to serve in positions that would influence the strategic vision, the organizational direction, or the future of the healthcare profession. 

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These were my initial observations after retiring from the military and joining a large and innovative healthcare organization. What I observed was backed by comments from the doctors I worked with and the statistics I saw.  An example? One report claims physicians lead only about 235 of the 6,500 hospitals in our nation.

Doctors certainly know how to care for their patients, and while a growing nationwide chorus of voices is pleading with physicians to become better leaders, we have a huge problem to overcome. While doctors want to lead, and healthcare executives are asking them to lead, there is little opportunity for physicians to learn how to lead. 

From the beginning of medical training, physicians are taught to focus so strongly on the science of their profession that they are unable to focus on the art of leadership. Physicians aren’t taught the skills required to build a team, grow interpersonal relationships with others on the team, or develop their strategic acumen.  Unfortunately, these skills are what contribute to changing the landscape, addressing the issues, and bringing about real change in the Triple Aim: increasing access to medical treatment, improving patient care, and reducing healthcare costs.

We have begun teaching leadership development for physicians at Florida Hospital and the results are beginning to transform the institution. 

Leadership requires competency and confidence, which all physicians have in spades.  Leadership also requires humility, interpersonal tact, empathy, and great communication skills. These are attributes not always inherently found in individuals.  But they can be taught and trained. Once acquired, practiced and used with sincerity, those who have these traits can significantly and positively affect any organization. 

Regrettably, few physicians get such training. By necessity, doctors are taught that they must always have the right answer, the right diagnosis, the right approach, and the right prescription for every medical situation. In most cases, they have those correct answers.  After all, doctors are the experts in the human body and medicine.  But strong engagement between physicians and their patients, or between physicians and other members of the healthcare team, are also critical for moving healthcare in the right direction. 

When physicians are chosen for top positions, selection is based almost entirely on their reputation for excellent medical skill, or on the length and impressiveness of their published work. Rarely are physicians recruited because they have demonstrated success in analyzing human dynamics, communicating with and informing patients, engaging teams, building consensus, communicating vision, and influencing others to achieve an organization’s stated goals.  All of these essential skills are used by effective leaders, and they should be taught to and used by physicians. 

Physicians know in detail many of the critical issues related to our nation’s health; they are the ones best positioned to contribute to providing workable solutions to address and solve these challenges.  That will only happen if physicians learn how to effectively lead. Physicians must play a more significant role in the tactical and strategic running of our healthcare institutions. This will occur, to everyone’s benefit, as our doctors gain the true leadership skills they need to better relate to one another and to other healthcare professionals and administrators. 

Our physicians rightly want a seat at the table, but in order to gain that seat, they must first learn the required “table manners” associated with leading others, leading teams, and building effective and efficient organizations.


Lieutenant General (Ret.) Mark Hertling leads programs for global partnering, leadership, development and health performance strategies at Florida Hospital in Orlando. His new book, "Growing Physician Leaders," documents his work at Florida Hospital and provides a framework for other organizations as they tackle the challenges of building physician leadership.