Contact Us

Should Doctors Keep a Foot in the Exam Room When They Enter the Boardroom?

Thought Leader: Geeta Nayyar
May 19, 2022
Source: Medscape

No one has a better view of the pandemic’s effects on the American public, from the puzzling to the tragic, than physicians.

Some patients, stuffed on a diet of disinformation, have targeted us as agents of fantastical conspiracies. Other patients, who haven’t visited a doctor in years, become bewildered when asked to do something as simple as disrobing for an exam. And we’ve all seen too many deaths — many of them preventable.

It’s no wonder that some physicians are leaving the exam room for the boardroom.

One in five US doctors plan to leave their practice in the next 2 years, according to the American Medical Association. In the country’s hospitals, the workforce has already declined by 1.8%  since before the pandemic.

Many are heading to corporate America. Airlines, food and beverage giants, and financial services firms are all clamoring for chief medical officers. Before COVID-19, this kind of hire would’ve been unthinkable.

As CMOs for technology and information companies, we get it. The business world offers doctors the opportunity to scale their impact far beyond a single practice.

But following a new career path doesn’t mean that docs must slam the door on medicine altogether. In fact, the same patient visits that induce headaches in full-time physicians might open physician executives’ eyes to new opportunities.

Straddling two distinct roles causes new challenges, but it can prove invaluable for us doctors, our new employers, and the healthcare system. That’s why we both continue to see patients.

Here’s why departing doctors should consider keeping a foot in medicine.

The Nation Needs Doctors Now

The United States is facing a healthcare crisis.

Back in 2019, the country was about 20,000 physicians short. By 2034, the Association of American Medical Colleges estimates that the deficit could hit 124,000 doctors.

As more doctors leave healthcare for desk jobs, it’s tempting to envision the worst-case scenario. But what if medicine’s great migration turned challenge into opportunity by forcing a cultural shift?

Rather than cutting all clinical ties, physicians entering the C-suite could bake a curious new component into their new roles: a commitment to work for a different organization, like a local hospital or a volunteer clinic.

Clinical hours would differ little from professional development and team-building exercises. None are immediately beneficial to the bottom line, but when done right, they pay dividends down the line.

In a white-hot job seeker’s market, physicians might even get the green light to practice medicine on company time.

Meanwhile, the stressors that drive so many people away from medicine could lessen in part-time or volunteer work. Long hours entering data into the electronic health record? Not anymore. Anxiety over COVID-19 exposure? It might not be so bad when your shift comes around once or twice a month. Seeing upwards of 20 patients a day? Forget it.

Clinical Savvy Boosts the Bottom Line

For companies, it pays to have eyes and ears in the clinic.

In our respective roles as the chief medical officers of Salesforce and WebMD, we each need to understand up-to-the-minute health trends and how they affect our customers, employees, and daily operations. Plus, we’re always on the lookout for new business opportunities.

Reading medical journals provides a strong, evidence-based foundation for our work. But it’s also like thumbing through your favorite food-delivery app for a meal you want 17 years later. (That’s the average time it takes for scientific research to become clinical practice.) The grub might look good, but by the time you’re ready to order, the restaurant is probably closed.

Speaking with former colleagues or customers can offer good insights, but that’s also lacking. It doesn’t make sense to innovate for a population you don’t know intimately. Would you base your next big project on a hunch from a friend?

When physician executives carve out regular clinical time, we don’t need to wonder what makes sense. We see patients and we hear what they’re saying. In fact, our work in a DC practice and a Miami clinic for underserved patients inform our companies’ COVID-era coverage, safety protocols, and innovations.

Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin Group, once said, “Opportunities are like buses — there’s always another one coming!” That’s only true if you’re at the bus stop.

Managing Dual Roles Isn’t a Breeze

At a time when 47% of physicians report feeling burned out, we can’t overlook the fact that some docs just want out. We recognize that COVID-19 has battered many clinicians. We don’t fault anyone for leaving what has long been one of the most stressful fields.

The reality is that many physicians consider their work a calling. If you belong to that group but are building a new career, it doesn’t hurt to examine whether maintaining some presence in the clinic is worthwhile.

After all, splitting your time between the boardroom and the exam room might reignite the passion you once had for medicine. It certainly has for us.

Subscribe to the WWSG newsletter.

Check Availability

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Speaker List
Share My List