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Don’t be afraid to lead, physicians told

“Show the courage to lead” was the rallying cry as almost 400 physicians attended the 2014 Canadian Conference on Physician Leadership in Toronto.

The April 11-12 conference featured workshops on a wide range of topics ranging from physician performance assessment to social accountability, but delegates were repeatedly brought back to the meeting’s main theme: “Courage: Bringing Authenticity to Action.” The meeting marked the fifth time the CMA and Canadian Society of Physician Executives (CSPE) have partnered to deliver a national conference on MD leadership.

Dr. John Van Aerde, the CSPE president, said the conference theme was a direct response to last year’s address by keynote speaker Jeffrey Simpson, who said it was up to Canada’s physicians to take action to ensure sustainability of the health care system. “In order to take real action we need courage,” said Van Aerde. “We have no choice. We really have no choice.”

The emotional heart of the conference was provided by the opening keynote speaker, Dr. Aidan Halligan, who is principal of the National Health Service Staff College for leadership development in the UK and chairs Pathway, a charitable organization providing health services for the homeless and disadvantaged.

He said the essence of professionalism for physicians involves balancing self-interest and idealism, and urged his audience to return to medicine’s core professional values of compassion and leadership. He said physicians often forget that that “the public trusts us for our unique compassion and our courage to put their needs ahead of any other competing needs. Patients want to know how much we care before asking how much we know. You get your authority from how much you care.”

Similar comments were heard throughout the meeting. During a panel discussion, which featured high-profile physicians who have served as CEOs for hospitals or health regions, Ottawa Hospital CEO Dr. Jack Kitts noted it was "easy to be courageous in health care by putting the patient first in everything you do.”

Dr. James Merlino, a colorectal surgeon and CEO at the Cleveland Clinic, described the steps that facility takes to provide patient-centred care and improve the patient experience. “It is about standardization, competency and accountability,” he said, noting that the clinic has not hesitated to dismiss disruptive physicians or those who refuse to follow basic protocols such as hand-washing.

Other keynote speakers presented alternative models for putting physician leadership into action, with Bonnie Blakley of Health Shared Services Saskatchewan discussing how the lean management system is being used to transform health care in that province.

Throughout the meeting, CMA President Louis Hugo Francescutti challenged speakers to reflect on how the frameworks they described could be applied in practice. “Stop talking, start doing,” was one of the audience comments posted on the second morning when Francescutti demonstrated an instant mobile response system to gauge audience views.

The conference will be followed by a survey of physician leaders this June, with a goal of determining areas of physician leadership that are lacking. It will be conducted by CSPE, with the CMA’s support.

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