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The What and Why of Physician Engagement

By Kenneth H. Cohn, MD, MBA, FACS  /  02 Feb 2015

As Mark Dixon pointed out in The Changing Role of the Physician, the healthcare industry continues to undergo transformation that will improve outcomes of not just one patient, but that of the entire population. This transformation will require physicians to step up and lead their peers through these critical changes. Physicians influence every step of the care process. However, physicians’ background, outlook, and training are different from hospital leaders, creating challenges in how to respond rapidly to marketplace and regulatory change.

A seat at the table
Why is physician engagement so critical for a successful patient care experience in hospitals today? A physician from upstate New York said, “When we are not invited to sit at the table, we feel like we are on the menu.”

When physicians feel a lack of engagement, it manifests itself in ways ranging from burnout to leaving their jobs. Physician employment alone does not yield engagement. The same skills of communication and collaboration are needed regardless of the percentage of employed physicians (Perry MR. A Local Solution for Hospital-Physician Relationships. Frontiers of Health Services Management 24(1):31, 2007).

What is engagement?
There are two definitions of engagement. One meaning involves a promise, as in engaged to marry. The other involves conflict, as in engaging the enemy. Perhaps it’s this dual definition that makes healthcare organizations struggle to understand how to get physicians engaged. According to Tom Atchison in Leading Healthcare Cultures: How Human Capital Drives Financial Performance, physician engagement is an intangible process that depends on the degree to which doctors are proud, loyal, and committed to a hospital’s mission, vision, and values. It differs from alignment, which is a tangible, time-delimited state reflecting compensation and contractual mandates.

Easier to pronounce than to achieve
Physician engagement is challenging because physicians and hospital administrators have different backgrounds and outlooks on how to deliver care. Physicians are trained to think in hours or days, whereas administrators’ time horizon may extend for years. Physicians and administrators also may differ in their perception of teamwork. As Joe Bujak wrote in Inside the Physician Mind: Finding Common Ground with Doctors, physicians view themselves as members of an expert culture who conceive of teams in terms of individual performance, like members of a golf team who compete in their own matches. However, administrators tend to see themselves as part of an interdependent affiliated culture, like members of a volleyball team, who dig, set, and spike to win points.

Dr. Cohn is CEO of Healthcare Collaboration that works with disgruntled doctors and hospital leaders to improve clinical and financial performance. He has mentored physicians since 1998, finding that physicians enjoy learning from fellow physicians. His recent novel, Dead at His Desk, explores the conflicts between physicians and hospital administrators using the framework of a mystery thriller. His webinar, Physician Engagement: A Case-Based Approach, will take place Tuesday, February 10, 2015 at 1:00 PMEST.

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