As the healthcare industry continues to address newer challenges and dynamics, the role of strong leadership assumes greater significance. But leadership can be a challenging factor for many healthcare organisations. According to a Deloitte study, recruiting and retaining leaders was among the top concerns faced by healthcare CEOs.

The best healthcare leadership practices involve physicians who set an example, says Dr. Robert Pearl.

Physicians as leaders 

So, how can hospitals ensure a strong leadership model? How can they groom future leaders? According to Dr. Robert Pearl, the best healthcare leadership practices involve physicians who set an example, says Dr. Robert Pearl. His view is borne out by a Harvard Business Review report which says that physicians-run hospitals scored 25% higher in quality rankings across geographies.

Dr. Robert Pearl is the ex-Executive Director & CEO of The Permanente Medical Group (TPMG), the largest physician led medical group in the US, TPMG, which has 9,000 physicians and 34,000 staff members across 21 medical centres in Northern California, ranks amongst USA’s top 10 programs for quality, per the National Committee for Quality Assurance.  Dr. Pearl himself has been selected by Modern Healthcare as one of the most powerful physician leaders in USA. 

Dr. Pearl’s contention is that physicians naturally make good healthcare leaders because of the qualities that their professional role demands of them - empathy, good communication and the ability to make quick decisions, stay calm under stress, multitask, and take up ownership. In this article, he talks about the importance setting a structure in place, bolstered by regular training programs, to develop effective physician-leaders. At TPMG, physicians start their leadership journey early, assuming responsibility for their clinical departments. They are also mentored and given additional training in regular group meetings. At this stage, potential leaders are identified and moved to roles with greater responsibility. TPMG also has region-wise education programs to help train leaders.

THE ABCDE Principle 

Dr. Pearl sums up the key qualities of leadership with the five letters: A-B-C-D-E. These serve as effective guideposts for healthcare decision makers to groom successful hospital administrators.


Physicians, according to Dr. Pearl, are usually driven by a purpose. Tapping into this can help groom them to be leaders. This means helping physicians clearly identify their goals and work towards them.


Behaviour that is aligned with the goals and organizational values is required to meet the aspirations of a leader. As this Deloitte report points out, many hospitals are seeking to bring about behaviour change through physician activation, where physicians are involved in improving the quality of care delivery.


Physicians can contribute better to organisational changes once they understand the reasons behind the changes, or the context. For example, in Cleveland Clinic USA, a survey finding on employee engagement was used as the trigger to initiate relevant changes. The survey commissioned revealed that the clinic scored only in the 38th percentile on employee engagement, despite high rankings for its physicians. When these findings were presented to the management team, there was immediate support for the HR to initiate the necessary changes.


Dr. Pearl believes that data is at the core of defining a hospital’s future course of action. Right from mortality rate to patient experience, every relevant aspect of healthcare delivery is captured through data. Hospital leaders should leverage latest technology to gather data and draw insights from it.


Hospital administration also needs to consistently engage with physicians so they can play a more active leadership role, feels Dr. Pearl. Cases studies of successful hospitals show that engaging with the entire hospital staff, including physicians, as partners is the key to improving patient experience and care delivery.

For example, one of the things that Cleveland Clinic did to engage with physicians was to launch a Caregiver Celebrations Program which rewarded outstanding performance. Clinic leaders were encouraged to reward their department staff based on parameters such as behaviour, quality of caregiving, adherence to organisational values, compassion etc. Post this, the hospital scores on employee engagement shot up considerably, resulting in enhanced overall performance too.

These were just some of the leadership insights shared by Dr Robert Pearl at the Abbott Hospital Leadership Summit.

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