When I decided to become a physician after obtaining an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering, I did so out of a clichéd but genuine desire to help people. I resolved to channel my passion for science and engineering into a career that could measurably improve the quality of people’s lives. Like me, most physicians pursue medicine as a career to take care of people. We didn’t “sign up” for electronic health records and meaningful use requirements, pre-authorizations and denials, PQRS, QRURs and the rest of the acronym alphabet soup that take away time and focus from patients. These initiatives are, however, a part of our daily lives. How can one be an effective physician leader in a health care environment that is vastly different from the one we trained for?
Former Jesuit-turned-J.P. Morgan executive Chris Lowney writes in his book, Heroic Leadership, “Leaders imagine an inspiring future and strive to shape it rather than passively watch the future happen around them.“ This is the choice we as physicians face every day. We can choose to passively watch others define our profession and shape the future of health care delivery, or we can engage in the conversation and be leaders in big and small ways every day.
When Dr. John Sanford of Farmington, IA, gathered 25 physicians in Burlington, IA, for the inaugural meeting of the Iowa Medical Society (IMS) in 1850, it was out of a profound sense of duty to advance the profession and to ensure safe, quality medical care for the citizens of Iowa. Dr. Sanford was so inspired to organize Iowa’s physicians, he took a stage coach to Keosauqua, Fairfield, Mount Pleasant, Washington and Davenport, and then by steamer to Muscatine, Burlington, Fort Madison and Keokuk to make personal appeals. As a result of his leadership, the IMS held its founding meeting in Burlington on June 19, 1850, and 165 years later the IMS continues its work to assure the highest quality health care in Iowa through its role as physician and patient advocate.
Dr. Sanford had a choice. He could watch others define and shape the profession, or he could engage and lead. His example as a pioneering Iowa physician is no less relevant today than it was 165 years ago. As health care and medicine constantly change, each of us is a pioneer in our own right. Because physicians have a disproportionate impact on the health care system, we therefore have a disproportionate responsibility – and opportunity – to influence and lead change.
A 2014 U.S. News & World Report article about pursuing leadership for a successful health care career advised, “Some leaders are born, but the majority are made by circumstances and unforeseen opportunities. Leadership is a skill like any other that can be learned…As a physician, regardless of your official role, leadership is an essential part of your position.”
I choose to lead in big and small ways every day: I spend extra time with patients and leave the computer in another room, jotting down notes to be entered in the EHR later in the day. Sure, it means additional work on the back end, but spending time with my patients – listening, answering questions, being present for them – energizes me and fuels my passion for medicine. I maintain memberships in professional organizations like the IMS, Iowa Osteopathic Medical Association and American College of Surgeons. I have experienced great return on my investments in organized medicine. They are our eyes, ears and advocates, allowing us to focus on patient care.
I am “DMU proud” of the physician leaders graduating from the University, and I’m equally proud of the current students who continually raise the bar for what it means to be a leader. At the May 2-3 IMS annual conference, “IMS 2015: Lead. Succeed. Thrive,” DMU student Emily Boes, M.S., D.O.’16, presented her poster titled “Livedo Reticularis and Mild Pruritis of Lateral Thighs.” DMU Clinic’s Katherine Heineman, D.O.’09, shared her experiences in transitioning from a resident to a practicing physician during the Young Physicians Track. DMU and IMS also collaborated to obtain a grant to offer a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategies (REMS) pre-conference session, “ER/LA Opioid REMS: Achieving Safe Use While Improving Patients.”
Everyone has leadership potential, and true leaders unlock that potential in others. Sometimes leadership is merely showing someone a door so they can turn the knob and walk through it. My mentors saw potential in me that I couldn’t see in myself. They pointed me toward that door of opportunity and leadership, and I walked through it. Seizing leadership opportunities both big and small has made me a better physician and colleague, and it has fortified me to survive and thrive in these times of constant change.