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From clinic to C-suite: Training CMOs for strategic roles | Viewpoint


Physicians often find gaps in their skills when their careers take them out of patient care.

Between medical school, residency, fellowships and board examinations, physicians emerge fully prepared to expertly manage their patients' health.

Physicians often find gaps in their skills when their careers take them out of the clinic and into the C-suite. (Image credit: ©dikushin - stock.adobe.com)

Physicians often find gaps in their skills when their careers take them out of the clinic and into the C-suite. (Image credit: ©dikushin - stock.adobe.com)

But business management, including the management of personnel, technology implementations and corporate strategy, is typically not part of the medical curriculum.

Physicians often find gaps in their skills when their careers take them out of the clinic and into the C-suite, or into corporate settings that demand business skills for which they are untrained. Even if undertaking private practice or hospital management (which is usually a physician's first foray into the business world, both in public and independent healthcare systems), the scale at which they are required to operate is usually localized to the institution.

Chief medical officers (CMOs) must utilize business and management skills to create systems and processes to help their teams function effectively in a rapidly changing environment. This means, for example, helping clinician end-users take full advantage of new medical technology, ways of working, governance and digital systems. How effective a CMO is in their role can make the difference in an organization being just ‘average’ to truly transformative.

In healthcare organizations, the CMO plays an essential bridge between the C-suite and clinical staff, being able to translate the needs and imperatives of both, and find the correct balance, whether it be the implementation of a new electronic medical record or assessing the future services that should be offered when faced with tough financing choices.

Sometimes synonymous with ‘Medical Director’, the CMO usually sits on the executive team, reporting into the CEO, and may have their own team with responsibility for clinical and digital governance (with roles that include Chief Medical Information Officer, or CMIO).

The CMO role is also expanding into other industries, for example in the pharmaceutical, medical device, or healthcare technology industries. In organizations like these, CMOs must make sure their company's products and services meet the needs of their customers’ organizations, at both the business leader and clinician level. This means that if a company promises that its products will improve health outcomes, patient experience, return on investment, or operational efficiency, it's often the CMO's job to build the business processes and infrastructure to ensure success.

Although some may view this as a waste of clinical training, it is in fact a prerequisite for these roles. Many CMOs still see patients regularly to keep their clinical skills sharp and stay in touch with current trends. Even when they don’t, they uniquely understand what clinicians need and the challenges they face, at a depth that's simply not available to non-clinicians.

But what other skills and knowledge do they need, and what’s the best way to acquire them?

A combination of formal training and networking with similarly situated peers can help clinicians succeed when they move into roles that involve managing people, deploying technology, and driving a business. Such resources can position them to grow their careers and serve their organizations most effectively in the following areas (to name a few).

Understanding advanced information technology

Physicians are accustomed to picking up new technologies, particularly those in more tech-forward specialties such as radiology. Some may have done research in relevant areas such as informatics or data science, even teaching themselves to code so they can write software that they can’t find on the market.

But a knack for technology is not the same as an understanding of how it fits into the big picture, and CMOs need to grasp the often complex strategic implications of new technological capabilities.

Artificial intelligence is currently the most urgent example. AI algorithms are already being used to help read radiology images, pick up subtle disease symptoms in lab results, and suggest courses of treatment. Thousands of papers are published every year exploring new possibilities.

A CMO needs to understand the capabilities and limitations of AI, the legal implications of using it in patient care, and how to ensure that human oversight remains part of the patient experience. These kinds of insights can be more efficiently and effectively developed through formal study, with a knowledgeable instructor and a learning cohort that’s grappling with the same issues.

Integrating new tools into patient care

An often used quote is that "tech is easy, people are difficult."

For a CMO to lead effective change in the way healthcare is delivered, it has to start with the people and the processes. Implementing changes to workflows (for care providers as well as patients) is a challenging task, and one that has to be managed sensitively, usually identifying early adopters and champions who will be able to both demonstrate and celebrate the benefits.

Being able to implement change is a wholly transferable skill, that works across all industries, and it can be taught, as well as learned on the job.

Fostering new skills in clinicians

Being able to impart skills to others is a skill in itself. CMOs may act as coaches and mentors to their staff or their customers during times of change—for example, adoption of new technologies or quality improvement frameworks. They promote practices that lead to better patient care, more effective collaboration between medical staff and C-suite decision-makers, and improved financial performance across the organization.

But to accomplish these goals, most CMOs need to deepen their understanding of fields like finance, management and public health.

Participating in structured executive education programs is one of the most efficient ways to acquire this non-clinical expertise, and to create relationships with other participants who can be a source of ongoing mutual support.

Most physicians who are considering senior management roles, including those who may have had leadership roles in their clinical practice, should take heart! They often have far more transferable skills than they are aware of, as medicine does teach life-long abilities such as complex problem solving and the ability to deliver under stress.

However, where gaps are identified continuing professional development is essential. Fortunately, doctors are no stranger to professional development and are adept at being ‘life-long learners.’ Combining this with business and leadership skills can be a potent combination, and an excellent investment of time and resources for the future.

Dr. Rowland Illing is the Chief Medical Officer and Director of International Public Sector Health for Amazon Web Services (AWS). Ranil Herath is the president at Emeritus Healthcare, an online enabler for universities.

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