Effectively Leading Physician Relations

by Kriss Barlow, MBA, RN

Just as best-practice organizations need capable field staff, so, too, do they need capable program leaders. Effective leaders balance their ability to look at the whole ladder, while never losing site of the individual rungs. The best managers have a range of abilities that form the right skill set for the role. They:

[box]“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou[/box]

 Help staff members establish the right habits and stick with them. Good work habits are the underpinning for any position, yet it is much different when you can actively monitor performance in an office rather than out in the wild blue yonder. The best managers find creative methods and design systematic tools to keep apprised of their team’s level of effectiveness in the field. They use tools such as performance management systems, weekly reports, ride-alongs and field assessments to create a strong work environment. They trust their instincts in this area.

 Reward the positive. In a job that has a fair amount of rejection, the best leaders find positives and recognize them. The world of working with gatekeepers, sitting at a practice for an hour, only to have the doctor get called to deliver a baby, or stepping out of the car in August heat and humidity is not glamorous. In addition, those who are good at their jobs, add a full dose of pressure on themselves to keep up the pace.

 Recognize the positive attributes of their staff, and they do so in front of others. Put team members’ names in the reports and recognize team members for a good idea. Personal recognition goes a long way on a day full of rejection in the field.

 Let people whine just a bit, but continue to be proactive, the message is “Let’s move on with what we can control – forward focus is the way to go.”

 Keep the internal team on task and accountable to its obligations. The pace and the list of tasks on everyone’s plates – including the operations staff – are significant. Even when there are great systems in place, there are times when the changes may get pushed to the back burner. A leader who owns the system for managing this is a tremendous motivator for physician relations staff members because they know that there is someone who will go to bat for their needs.

 Are innovators who push themselves and the team further. What an awesome attribute for a physician relations leader to have. It is the blend of intuition and spark that lends itself to saying, “Let’s try to position the orthopedic service with Dr. Smith this way and see whether we can have an effect.” It is the willingness to try something new. It is not as though every idea is a magical success, but it does create wonderful synergy within the team. It creates market opportunity, even if only one out of four ideas is a keeper.

The part of innovation that separates great managers from the “all ideas, no substance” type is that the great leader will share the idea, test it, gather feedback, and realize that beyond the idea there is a process for implementation that must be fine-tuned.

 Create tools that demonstrate value. This is the attribute that is often the most obvious to people outside the department. Because the internal departments all have grids, outcomes, trended data, etc., they are interested in seeing whether a “relationship program” can do the same. The best program leaders carefully think about the tools they need to be effective in creating the role, evaluating the role, reporting about barriers to success, and advancing the position.

 Make work fun. Of course, when you have oversight for a group of people who are gregarious, there is an almost mandatory obligation to lighten things up every now and again.

 Are straight shooters. Every bit as important as a little fun in the workday is the ability to know that if things are not going well with performance or with the ability to fulfill obligations, the leader must work to educate, demonstrate expectations, and critique behavior that is below the norm.

 Have the right skills. The essential skill is the ability to balance people issues and organizational needs. There will be compelling needs that are gathered in the field, as well as from department leaders begging the relationship leaders to “go tell them about our new service.” On both sides, there needs to be careful management, the ability to ask good questions, and the ability to decide what fits with the strategic goals and what would be nice versus what is essential to address to earn more referrals.

 Are willing to be held accountable. There are many positions within healthcare where it’s assumed you are doing your part if people generally like you and you manage your budget. The leader who takes on the physician relations function needs to be comfortable with realizing that the program’s success is measured by new growth. The leader is heavily judged on his or her ability to facilitate and manage this between internal constituents and the external team.

Certainly, many of these attributes are consistent with those desired in every leader. The difference here is that the physician relations role is perhaps less understood in the operationally driven world of healthcare. The program leader does become the “face of the program” internally, so program positioning really does depend on how the leader carries the role.