Blog Post

Will non-physician CEOs become extinct?

February 24, 2017

    There is a rising tide of physician executives across hospital and health system C-suites.

    In fact, Cleveland Clinic physician James Stoller and two professors recently wrote in Harvard Business Review that leading hospitals in U.S. News and World Report's Best Hospital rankings are disproportionately led by physician CEOs. 

    They noted that research has found a strong association between higher hospital quality rankings and the CEO being a physician; in one study, physician-run hospitals scored approximately 25% higher on U.S. News' assessment of overall hospital quality.

    So, will non-physician CEOs become increasingly rare?

    The short answer: We don't think CEOs should start updating their resumes quite yet. 

    The findings detailed in Harvard Business Review are consistent with studies from other industries, indicating that "expert leaders" (e.g., physicians leading hospitals, former star players coaching NBA teams) are linked to better organizational performance and employee satisfaction. This research suggests leaders who understand the complexities of meeting the highest job standards are more likely to set appropriate goals and create beneficial work environments. Putting industry experts in leadership can also signal an organization's top priorities to both internal and external stakeholders.

    Applying this rationale to the health care world, which increasingly depends on physicians to succeed under value-based care, executive teams should consider a few questions: Do we have sufficient physician executive representation at the highest levels of the organization? Are these executives in the position to set and execute clinical strategy? And, are we doing enough to enfranchise the broader medical staff in care delivery reform? 

    New roles for physician executives

    Many organizations historically answered "no" to those questions, but are now encouraging physicians to assume more expansive (and sometimes higher-paying) C-suite roles such as chief strategy officer, chief transformational officer, chief innovation officer, and chief integration officer. And one of the top trending physician executive roles is that of the chief clinical officer (CCO)—a physician executive with significant authority across the clinical and physician enterprise, tasked with the (not-so-simple) mission of driving system-wide care delivery transformation and physician alignment.

    So, while health system success doesn't require a physician CEO at the helm, there should be a physician executive or executives with the visibility and authority to drive clinical priorities. We spoke with four organizations that created a CCO role to do just that, and they would tell you that being a successful health system requires having a physician executive helping to steer the ship.

    Of course, simply being a physician is not enough to thrive as a CCO or in other executive roles. It takes social skills and emotional intelligence, strategic vision and an appetite for driving change, and—critically—support from other C-suite colleagues.

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