Lessons from COVID-19: The business skills doctors need

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, physicians faced unprecedented challenges. Vital supplies such as face masks and cotton swabs were in short supply. New protocols had to be developed to isolate infected patients. Treating patients remotely through telemedicine has suddenly become common practice.

All of these abrupt changes have required healthcare professionals to have some level of managerial prowess, says Robert Huckman, Albert J. Weatherhead III Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

“Apart from the development of a vaccine, the biggest concerns were not about the development of new medical innovations. These were issues running known activities,” he says. “Particularly early on, the pandemic really placed a premium on those with management expertise.”

As Huckman details in a newspaper article Academic medicine, however, most physicians receive little training in leadership and management, such as supply chain management, interpersonal communication, and strategic planning. Yet these skills are important to the well-being of physicians and their colleagues and can mean the difference between life and death for patients, Huckman argues in the article he co-authored with physicians Lisa Rotenstein, associate medical director of Brigham and Boston Women’s Hospital; and Christine Cassel, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

For many doctors who are exhausted by the pandemic and may not know where to start to get additional training in leadership skills, the document offers a roadmap of what medical professionals could learn from the COVID pandemic.

“There’s a thirst for this type of information among clinicians,” Huckman says. “Many clinicians are looking for ways to combine management tools, such as finance, strategy, operations, and leadership, to take on larger leadership roles.”

Manage difficult conversations

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the importance of these skills, say the authors. As the virus initially spread through hospitals in early 2020, many doctors had to abandon their traditional specialties to treat patients affected by the virus. Given the isolation of coronavirus patients from family members, many doctors and nurses who were unaccustomed to providing end-of-life care have become the main source of comfort for dying patients and their families. . At the same time, these providers had to deal with their own mental health and that of their colleagues.

“There was already a high level of burnout before COVID, and not being able to afford to do anything to alleviate the suffering must be extremely taxing,” says Huckman.

In addition to ensuring the health of their patients, their colleagues and themselves, doctors have had to implement new methods of treatment, whether in person or via Zoom. Finally, they had to manage challenges related to securing rare equipment and restructuring operational flows. All of these activities, says Huckman, required skills both in leadership to “get people to understand a vision of what might be possible” and in management, “to get there and put it into practice.”

Technology offers challenges, opportunities

Many of the new opportunities that have arisen during the pandemic have been facilitated by technology. Yet with these opportunities came managerial challenges. Telemonitoring of patients is a good example. “Medicine has traditionally relied on a doctor seeing a patient in person at some point, but the pandemic has highlighted that there are a lot of things that don’t necessarily need to be do it in person,” Huckman says.

In fact, says Huckman, many physicians have realized that remote medicine can open up new possibilities for ongoing patient care, for example, allowing patients to constantly monitor blood pressure at home with a blood pressure cuff, rather only once every few weeks or months in the office.

However, to take advantage of these new techniques, physicians will need to learn a variety of new skills, including process improvement, negotiation, and change management. “You first have to convince the provider that a new technology makes sense in terms of delivering effective patient care. Next, you need to ensure that the incentives physicians face do not interfere with their use of the most effective approach for a given patient. For all of this to happen, physicians may need to initiate and manage significant changes within their organizations or push for changes in external regulation and public policy,” says Huckman.

Changing medical education

Of course, even if medical schools recognize the need to develop these management and leadership skills, they may not see a way to devote time to them as part of their busy clinical programs. The good news, Huckman says, is that many of these skills can be learned alongside clinical skills. “Like medicine,” he says, “leadership is best taught through observation, experience and practice.”

In fact, the case study method used in MBA programs at colleges such as Harvard, University of Virginia, and Stanford University is similar to how doctors are trained through medical residencies. , in which they face specific clinical dilemmas. There’s no reason, says Huckman, that management and leadership training can’t be built into this process, so that when medical students learn how to properly diagnose and treat patients, they also face supply management, operations design and communication issues.

“As you work on those clinical skills that involve interacting with patients,” says Huckman, “you can also develop those management skills that involve interacting with colleagues.”