Practice Management Toolbox

Leadership development in clinical gastroenterology


“Average leaders raise the bar on themselves; good leaders raise the bar for others; great leaders inspire others to raise their own bar.”

– Orrin Woodward

Gastroenterology practices face numerous challenges every day. From addressing reimbursement changes to the development of new service lines to ensuring the highest quality of patient care – the cacophony can drown out the ability of even the most well-meaning groups from attending to the development of internal leadership skills. But thoughtful and intentioned “succession planning” is essential to the long-term success of any practice. At the bedside, we are all leaders – physicians are comfortable in this authoritative leadership role. But most physicians feel less confident assuming a leadership role when it comes to the daily activities of running a busy practice, or more importantly, developing business strategy in a rapidly changing world. Gastroenterology practices and divisions are increasingly challenged with numerous essential nonclinical tasks, including complex practice administration and employee management, intragroup leadership and maintenance of cohesion, and strategy development. Future success in the evolving health care market will depend on the development and execution of new business and service approaches, as well as emerging partnerships and alliances. It will be essential for leaders to effectively shepherd value-added organizational change, not an easy task, and to embrace more participative leadership skills to accomplish goals.

The majority of independent practices are run by a single president; most GI divisions are run by a single chief. A number of factors may inhibit the interest or cultivation of new leaders. There remains a minimum of devoted attention to training more junior physicians to fill leadership roles, and an autocratic practice structure does not naturally promote junior physician engagement in practice leadership. Few physicians receive formal business training through MBA, or other training programs or resources. Physician leaders may be expected to perform many leadership and management duties outside normal clinical activities. This creates stress, risks burn out, and can inhibit succession interest.

With the increasing corporatization of medicine, if physicians sacrifice key leadership roles and duties, they are quickly filled by administrators with priorities that may not align with patient care and physician well-being. In fact, between 1975 and 2010, the number of physicians in the United States grew by 150%. During that same time period, the number of health care administrators grew by 3,200%.1 Skilled practice administrators are of tremendous value to most practices, but physician involvement and comanagement at the administrative level remains crucial to align practice goals to optimize patient care.

How do we combat these trends and defend the role of physicians in maintaining control of fundamental aspects of their clinical practices? This begins with making the development of leadership skills an active priority, coupled with baseline levels of training in practice administration for gastroenterologists. There needs to be processes that allow junior physicians to determine their aptitude for and interest in leading, and conversely for established leaders to identify talent. Currently a minimum of this type of training happens during fellowship; the majority of physicians learn this after beginning their practice. Just as we must master clinical and endoscopic skills, we must also attend to the development of practical skills like understanding revenue cycle management, communicating effectively, and reading an income statement. Practices should consider supporting administrative education as an integral part of training, as well as time away from clinical duties to learn and participate in practice leadership, management, and mentorship activities. Physicians need the tools to understand how their practices are run. Arming our next generation of physicians with the necessary skills to thrive in corporate medicine is required.

Physician leadership development, however, remains the responsibility of both the individual and the organization. We each have a role to play in elevating our practices and our community. Passion for medicine and our profession necessarily motivates each of us to take on these challenges. But leadership skills also take mentorship and encouragement to grow.

The dividends to a practice attending to leadership development, however, can be exponential. When each physician member of a practice is encouraged to develop natural aptitudes and address practice challenges (within a shared vision), the practice as a whole benefits. Taking the time to foster leadership skill development for more junior colleagues allows a natural and comfortable delegation of duties over time. Just as physicians will need to commit time and efforts in developing themselves, gastroenterology practices need to commit to supporting their growth, and creating avenues for such tracks within incentive-based compensation models that can create barriers. Practically, leadership development in GI practices, both in the community and at academic centers, can be accomplished in a variety of ways. Some groups have formal internal practice leadership structures that allow for the natural development of physician leadership from within. Participation in an Executive Committee that supports the president and practice administrator can be highly educational and a fertile forum to develop junior leaders. Current physician leaders also have the opportunity and obligation to include junior physicians in strategy discussions, negotiations, and collaborations with administrators. Mentorship, whether formal or informal, is essential to leadership and business skill development. Many practices already have formal developmental programs in place to encourage leadership in office managers, in practice administrators, and at the nursing level. Arguably, most have been less structured in cultivating leadership at the physician level.

There are also numerous opportunities for leadership within your local medical community on hospital quality boards, industry partnerships, and community engagement/service groups. On a national level, working within a professional society can be an excellent opportunity for professional growth and leadership development. The AGA has several dedicated positions for young GIs on committees as well as several programs specifically devoted to leadership training such as the AGA Young Leaders program and Women’s Leadership program. All of these represent opportunities to give junior members a seat at the table to develop and hone leadership skills.

When a culture of leadership and ownership is established, increased engagement naturally follows. When we spend the time to encourage our colleagues to attend to not just the highest quality of medical care but also consider and develop the highest level of patient service through strategic practice development, our overall care is elevated. Developing leadership raises the bar for everyone.

With the increasing corporatization of medicine, it is the duty of physician leaders to be prepared to advocate and protect our patients, our practices, and our professions. But without proper cultivation of leadership within our practices and groups, a leadership vacuum will leave us all vulnerable to sacrificing these important roles to those who do not wear the white coat. Across the country, large and thriving gastroenterology groups are providing cutting-edge care for their patients, despite increasing challenges. Let’s remember to take the time to prepare future leaders for these challenges as well – ultimately the success of our practices and our patients depend on it.


1. Cantlupe J. The rise (and rise) of the healthcare administrator. Athenainsight.

Dr. Mathew is a gastroenterologist at South Denver Gastroenterology in Denver. She has no conflicts of interest.

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