Rethinking Physician Development

By Terri Christensen, Ph.D.

Acceptance to medical school is the first step in a long journey for physicians. As the odyssey unfolds, classes and patient interactions reinforce the joy of medicine and with this comes the realization that a life-long pursuit of clinical excellence is a given, not an option.

Along the way physicians establish goals—touch points they hope will answer the burning questions when ascending the medical ladder:  What is my role or purpose? How do I find meaning? Do I have to worry about falling off? The answer to each question is a defining moment, a rung if you will, on the ladder to goal achievement. What happens, then, when external forces shake the ladders your team of physicians are climbing?

Much of physician discontent today can be traced to the changing healthcare climate. By and large, Physicians feel that the values of the profession and the organizations they work for have drifted so dramatically that they no longer recognize why they joined in the first place. While health systems can’t control external factors such as a pandemic, organizations need to step back and examine what they can control.

Right now, systems have a unique opportunity to examine processes and procedures to maximize physician impact. Organizational culture is one of the most important differentiators for a physician, and it is challenging work since the pandemic. 

Now is the time to create a culture of development.  The environment is ripe to consider ways to reignite the passion in physicians, and in this instance, the small things matter:

  • How are you onboarding physicians? According to Cejka Search, the average cost of physician turnover is over $1.0 million. In addition, the physician candidate pool is slowly decreasing. You want to create an onboarding program that drives retention and performance. Your onboarding program is the first step in a physician’s journey to help answer the following questions:  What is my role or purpose at X system? How will my work create meaning for me and the system? What happens if I fall off-What systems or support are in place? 
  • What is the “hidden curriculum” inherent in your meeting structures? How can we work with leaders to design meetings that foster individuals’ ideas and engage the group to be part of the solution? This embeds learning and continuous improvement processes within daily activities, enhancing individual physician development and team dynamics, workplace culture, and daily innovation.

We don’t need day- or week-long training seminars to foster learning. Today’s constantly changing environment is much too complex for that. Therefore, our solutions must be simple.

Development happens with every interaction. Out of sheer necessity, the physician experience has evolved into a series of metrics. Expanding these metrics allow physicians to articulate what working at “top-of-license” means to them in ways that allow for creativity and innovation. Productive physicians have become increasingly frustrated by the accountability measures that do not focus on individual performance. . Organizations must find ways to combat this, allowing for greater autonomy in defining what it means to be a care provider.

I am working with a client to understand how to support physicians and their professional aspirations. We have a team of physicians working to enhance the policies, procedures, and infrastructures, hence defining the parameters that will allow them to climb the career ladders of choice.  Clearly, we don’t have all the answers — no one does. But it’s a start, and with minimal financial investment required it reaps innumerable rewards — physician involvement, investment, and impact—something the metrics can’t quantify.

Physician development must be reimagined in the “new normal” as hospital systems return to full operations.  I believe there are four things you can commit to today as you think about the next quarter:

  • Define the Physician Experience at your institution

What does the “Physician Experience” consist of? What role does physician development play in the experience, if any? How are you going to measure and improve the experience?

  • Dust off your physician engagement data

Look at the qualitative data over the last three to five years. What are your physicians telling you? What are the trends? What can you address now? How can that be translated into new policies, procedures, and systems?

  • Interview previous on-boarding participants and their leaders

This allows you to better understand the effectiveness of the program and its ability to convey the system’s culture, values, and expectations.

  • Work with Chairs to better understand ground-level development needs

Chairs have their fingers on the pulse of the development needs. They can provide detailed information regarding what support is needed and how it is received in that particular area.

Let COVID-19 be the defining time for your system. The pandemic has wrought enormous personal, professional, and social damage leaving physicians searching for meaning in medicine. The meaning in medicine is there, I would argue the experience just needs reinvigorated.  Take a few moments to ponder how you can help your physicians find meaning again.

Terri Christensen, Ph.D.

CEO, H&H Associates, LLC

Terr Christensen PhD

Dr. Christensen is the President of H&H Associates, a talent management firm based in Cleveland, Ohio. She has provided executive coaching and consulting services in the healthcare, higher education, and professional services sectors.

Terri can be reached at and her LinkedIn profile is here: