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6 Leadership Lessons for Strong Surgical Departments

By Vaughn A. Starnes, MD
Chair, Department of Surgery
Keck Medicine of USC

Surgical techniques and technology continue to evolve, but the core principles of effective management have endured for surgery department leaders.

Even the most advanced programs need excellent oversight and strategy to thrive, and they’re characterized by a culture of respect, collaboration and surgeons’ deep commitment to patients — and to each other.

It might feel daunting to tackle these concepts as day-to-day duties beckon.

But in my three decades running surgery departments, I can attest that taking the time to nurture interpersonal issues is worth the effort. Your surgeons must feel seen and valued and be able to envision their long-term career paths. It’s critical, then, to anticipate staffing needs in advance and keep bringing new faces to the team.

Here are a few pointers for surgery department leaders to remember:

  1.       Constantly examine new research and techniques

Medicine changes every day, and you obviously keep up with it in the literature and stay abreast with your readings. And you stay invigorated by the residents you’re training, who are also reading things and asking you questions: Why aren’t we doing this or that?

You then go explore those areas and say, “Yeah, that’s something that we ought to be incorporating into our practice.” I also attend three to four national meetings a year where new topics and strategies are discussed, and new techniques are proposed. You must really try to stay abreast of what’s on the cutting edge and what people are looking for.

  1.       Tap your networks to build an all-star team

You want to recruit the very best in their fields to lead the divisions of surgery. You start by reaching out to some of the other chairs, as well as colleagues in that particular field, to get an idea of the young stars out there today.

You may have the opportunity to see them present at national meetings. You start formulating your list and bringing candidates in for interviews. Then, you work with those new hires to find the best faculty to work under them. It’s sort of a tree approach: Pick out the best “trunk” and have them recruit the branches.

  1.       Always have a growth mindset

When I took over the faculty of the Department of Surgery in 2008, I think we were 35 or 40 surgeons. Today, we’re 135. You always want to look for ways to grow and growth within specialties — as well as opportunities to hire really bright people who will grow their practices, which will then require more people.

It should be the mission of any academic department of surgery to train the next generation. Our residency pool is, of course, the key to that. You want to have the very best faculty and mentors for those people coming through your training program. You can’t stand still.

  1.       Leverage the power of reputation and referring physicians

Patients, in general, look for expertise in the field where they’re having a medical problem. Over years in practice, you develop an expertise in a particular space so that people then seek you out, either by YouTube or social media.

But a lot of times it’s by referring doctors that you’ve worked with for 15 to 20 years who refer the patient to you, and you talk to the patient and develop a relationship. It’s a twofold strategy: developing a cadre of referring physicians, but also developing a national reputation in specific areas of surgery.

  1.       Foster strong relationships with your employees

My staff sees me in the operating room working every day, and I talk to them in the hallways. About once a month, I have them in my office to talk about what’s going on — how are things, how’s your family — to really show that I care, not just because they’re surgeons, but because they’re people. We try to take care of each other.

I enjoy meeting the residents, trying to mentor them into their next career opportunities, and meeting with my staff about research. I spoke to a young bright surgeon who’s new to our staff. We talked about his PhD and what he’s interested in in terms of research. I worked on trying to find him a lab and some seed money to get started.

  1.       Deliver excellence at every step of the care journey

We want to exude professionalism, caring and kindness toward our surgical patients, and to communicate that we’re going to care for them and their families. I introduce them to the team as they come into my office.

We have a teaching hospital, so residents will be at the bedside, and the patients will be glad they’re there, because in the middle of the night, that’s who will come by and see them and try to take care of their problems — in consultation with myself.