Fewer than five percent of U.S. hospitals are lead by a physician CEO; most health care facilities are headed by managers with a background in business or administration. The prevailing viewpoint is that doctors should stick to treatment, as nonclinical executives are better-equipped to handle the business aspects of medical treatment.
Not so fast, says a study recently published in the respected journal Social Science & Medicine. The study’s author Amanda Goodall, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labor, points to data indicating that hospitals with a physician at the helm significantly outperform their manager-run counterparts.
Impressive Patient Care Report Card for Hospitals with Physician Leaders
In her study, Dr. Goodall gathered information from the 100 best hospitals as identified by U.S. News and World Report’s hospital quality ranking standards; hospitals from the list receive Index of Hospital Quality scores based on empirical performance and patient outcome measurements in a variety of specialties. Then, Dr. Goodall compared quality scores between those facilities run by a “physician-leader” (a medical doctor) and those lead by a “non-physician manager.”
The results ran contrary to the conventional wisdom that administrators out-manage doctors: overall quality scores were approximately 25 percent higher for hospitals headed by a physician-leader. For some specialties, the discrepancy was even more pronounced: in cancer care, for instance, hospitals with a medically-trained CEO scored 33 percent higher.
However, even though there are a number of reasons why doctors may make excellent hospital leaders (a better grasp on the treatment process, experiences that contribute to a focus on patient safety, etc.), Dr. Goodall was careful to caution that her research does not necessarily prove that physicians are better leaders than professional managers; her findings simply support an association between doctor-run hospitals and improved patient outcomes.
A Route to Improved Patient Safety?
Even though Dr. Goodall is uncertain about why doctor-run healthcare providers outstrip their competitors, it is clear that the best American hospitals are choosing doctor CEOs.
The general trend in American hospital care is toward selecting management-trained leaders rather than doctors for CEO positions. However, the results of this study should have hospitals, at least those concerned with patient care and safety, rethinking the traditional paradigm.
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