Leading the way

Becoming a chief medical officer: How DOs can rise up in executive leadership

Interested in becoming a CMO? Two DOs share what you need to know.

Stepping away from clinical medicine to pursue a health care administration role can be a difficult choice for a physician.

“I miss clinical medicine, but now I feel fortunate to take care of clinicians as well as patients,” says Jennifer Hauler, DO, vice president and chief medical officer at Premier Health in Dayton, Ohio.

As a CMO and physician advisor at Cary Medical Center in Caribou, Maine, Regen Gallagher, DO, oversees care for the hospital’s patients.

“I’m still looking at the care of patients every day, even when I’m not personally providing that care,” Dr. Gallagher says.

Ensuring efficiency and safety are often the main responsibilities for chief medical officers, but exact duties vary depending on the organization. Some CMOs wear several hats.

Dr. Hauler is responsible for three hospitals and five campuses. She also oversees the emergency trauma institute and the hospitalist division and contributes to Premier Health’s strategic planning.

In addition to being CMO, Dr. Gallagher serves as her hospital’s compliance officer and risk manager, where she oversees the operations for several departments, including anesthesia, pharmacy, oncology, health information, infection control, quality and case management.

In this edited Q+A, Drs. Gallagher and Hauler provide a behind-the-scenes look at life as a CMO and share how DOs who are interested in health care leadership can get started.

What does success as a CMO look like for you?

Dr. Hauler: The stories we love are when we have patients with difficult medical and social needs and we get them through the system efficiently where they are set up for success.

Great care stems from taking care of your physicians and making sure it’s easy for them to navigate the system, making sure processes are streamlined and removing any barriers or inefficiencies so they’re not burning themselves out.

Regen Gallagher, DO

Dr. Gallagher: There are individual wins, for instance, when you helped a physician accomplish something with a patient or you represented the physician well to the administration. There are bigger wins too, like managing operations for the bottom line responsibly, growing services, and contributing to overall financial vitality. As a rural hospital, we are the largest employer in our town. If something happens to us, something happens to our town.

What are some of the challenges you face in your role?

Dr. Hauler: Finding the right physicians. I know we’re producing more students, yet there are still physician shortages and holes that we just can’t plug and manage. Staffing, in general, is very challenging. Finding great environmental service workers and dieticians is just as important as finding great physicians.

Dr. Gallagher: The physicians—there are management classes where they talk about herding cats. We now train people in team-based care, but most of the people practicing currently were trained before that. The youngest physicians are trained in a team model, but most of the folks were trained in the authoritative model, where what they say goes. Trying to get physicians to swing that viewpoint around is definitely one of the most challenging aspects.

Medical schools and residency programs don’t train physicians in management, operations or finances. Is an MBA necessary for physicians interested in pursuing an administrative leadership role?

Dr. Hauler: I don’t think an MBA is an absolute requirement. The great thing about physicians is that they are leaders by nature. They are either leading a two-person team, themselves and the patient, or a multi-person team, the health care team.

Dr. Gallagher: An MBA is very helpful because it tells other people you know the lingo. It gives you credit right out of the gate. It opens more doors for you, particularly if you’re looking to move outside of your current organization.

What advice would you give to physicians interested in administrative leadership?

Dr. Hauler: What I love about the osteopathic profession is that we really are a big family and the role of the mentor is huge. You can always find DOs who are willing to help out and talk about their leadership journey and help you identify where you want to be.  Physicians are always asked to serve on committees and working groups, and that’s a great way to dip your toe into the pool. Take the opportunity to take on an area of medicine you’re passionate about.

Dr. Gallagher: Just say yes to things. Show interest and people will take you under their wing. Find opportunities in your organization and state medical association committees where you can network and meet people.

Why is it important to have physicians in leadership roles?

Dr. Hauler: Health care is all about the patients. Who understands the patient better than the physician? Having a physician’s voice, therefore the patient’s voice, involved in the decision-making makes all the difference in the world because physicians are advocates for their patients. You need someone who has a sense of both sides seated at the table when the stakes are so high. These are lives we’re talking about.

Dr. Gallagher: The whole reason a hospital exists is to take care of patients, and that’s all physicians train to do. The patient can get lost easily in the viewpoints of some people who haven’t taken care of patients.

It’s important to have people in leadership who have been on the ground providing care to patients to help make decisions, especially when you’re trying to weigh financial priorities. Having people who keep the patient at the center of those decisions is imperative in order to have high-quality care.

Related links:

AOA Advanced Degrees: AOA members can save up to $16,000 on an MHA or MBA degree.

AOA Career Center

The academic medicine life: Why it’s a calling for some DOs

One comment

  1. David A. Rearick, DO, MBA, CPE

    Dr’s Hauler & Gallagher give good advice for a hospital based CMO position, but DO”s wishing a CMO position in a non-clinical position will find the job quite different. CMOs in managed care, healthcare consultancies, pharm related entities, healthcare technology industries will find a difference business environment. As someone who has held CMO positions in three of the above referenced entities I would highly recommend a MBA, solid financial management skills, a team player attitude, strong technical skills and the ability to understand and play the necessary politics found in any large organization. Business is a different ball game, but we need more physicians involved in making the business decisions that drive the healthcare industry.

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