There has never been a greater need or more abundant opportunities for surgeons to become involved in leadership. At the national level, the American College of Surgeons and its leaders have been doing their part.
A new building for the College’s Washington, D.C., office has been constructed, and representatives of the College frequently visit key legislators and testify before Congress on health care issues. But what is happening at the grassroots level? Are surgeons as involved in leadership as they could be and should be in their operating rooms, hospitals, health care systems, and state and county medical societies?
Surgeons are often thought to be "natural leaders" because as a group they tend to be assertive and decisive. But do a sufficient number of surgeons possess the skills and knowledge to take on the leadership challenges within an increasingly complex and rapidly evolving health care environment in our country? Have our residency training programs in surgery taught neophyte surgeons how to effectively lead on their own turf, namely in the operating room and in their hospitals?
Dr. Thomas Russell, former executive director of the American College of Surgeons, and Dr. Ajit Sachdeva, director of the ACS Division of Education, thought the answers to these questions were all "no." To address this perceived deficiency, in 2003 they called 25 surgical leaders from diverse backgrounds to a meeting in Chicago to develop a course on leadership to be sponsored by the ACS. After many hours of discussion with a wide variety of viewpoints being expressed, the following tenets were agreed upon:
1. The course should emphasize leadership rather than management.
2. It should be of short duration so that busy surgeons could attend.
3. It should be taught by surgeons.
4. It should be directed toward surgeons in private practice as well as those in academe.
A faculty was chosen and the course was initiated in June 2005. The seventh iteration of the course was held last spring. Each cohort of surgeons taking the course has embraced it enthusiastically and has given it high marks. As a testament to the need for such a course and its evolving popularity, each year there have been many more applicants than could be accommodated. Graduates of the course now number over 300, and many report that what they learned has helped them to achieve their career objectives as well as to lead more effectively in their communities outside of surgery.
One disappointment is that surgeons in private practice have represented only a small fraction of course participants. Although the main reason for this is likely the business of their practices, they may also perceive that the course is oriented toward those seeking leadership positions in academic surgery. However, the principles taught in the course apply equally well to the private practice setting and, in fact, there may be a greater need for such education among nonacademic surgeons – many of whom may have a leadership position, such as chief of surgery or a position on their hospital board, unexpectedly thrust upon them.
Because surgeons have not always been facile in adjusting their leadership style to their environment, the course has been aptly named "Surgeons as Leaders: From the Operating Room to the Boardroom." It will next be presented May 6-9 at the College’s headquarters in Chicago. A postgraduate course on advanced leadership will also be presented at the 2012 ACS Clinical Congress. This postgraduate course will be oriented toward surgeons who have previously learned the basic principles of leadership. Likely many of them will have taken the College’s course.
In order for our specialty to put its imprint on the nation’s evolving health care system, leadership will be required by surgeons at all levels. The ACS’s course is an excellent opportunity for surgeons to acquire and/or hone their skills.☐
Dr. Rikkers is Editor in Chief of Surgery News.