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Leadership Lessons from a Chair of Orthopaedic Surgery

By Jay R. Lieberman, MD
Chair, USC Orthopaedic Surgery
Keck Medicine of USC

We have a tripartite mission at USC Orthopaedic Surgery at Keck Medicine of USC: to provide excellent patient care, to advance patient care through research, and to train the next generation of surgeons.

The mission itself is not complicated, but it can be challenging for any health care organization to achieve these goals without the right team in place.

During my past 11 years in a leadership role at USC, I have learned just how important it is to create an environment that attracts talented, highly engaged physicians — and, perhaps more important, inspires them to stay for the long term. 

Here are my recommendations for how to run a successful orthopaedic surgery department.

Gather faculty input when creating a departmental vision

It is critical to hire excellent people and then collaborate with them to create goals and a game plan. If I have a vision about where the department should go but nobody agrees with it, then that plan will not succeed.

You must also provide the teamwith the infrastructure they need. This includes hiring appropriate staff members to help surgeons in the clinic or bringing on additional staff to assist with the research programs. 

Listen to your subspecialists who have expertise in specific areas

Orthopaedics surgery is filled with smart, talented people who are spread out across multiple subspecialties. As a department leader, I cannot be an expert in every single subspecialty. 

To continuously improve patient care and determine what strategies will actually work, I can learn from faculty who have spent their lives dedicated to total joint replacement, sports medicine, spine care, trauma, hand surgery etc.

Analyze new technologies carefully before purchasing them

Listen to your faculty when deciding whether to invest in new technologies. It is easy to get excited about new equipment — but remember, new is not always better.

Subspecialists can help answer the question, “Will this technology help us provide better patient care?” If the answer is no, then that tool may not be necessary.

Still, thereare many new technologies that may help surgeons be more accurate. If that is the case, the next questions leaders need to ask should include:

  • Is the technology proven to work?
  • What resources will be needed to train surgeons on the new equipment?
  • Does the department have enough volume to justify the investment?

Hire employees who can fulfill the specific needs of your department

We want a diverse workforce with respect to the faculty and the staff. Fortunately, there are a lot of talented people who choose orthopaedic surgery as a career. One needs to be intentional to develop a diverse department. It is essential when hiring to make sure that they are interested in providing compassionate care to their patients.

Beyond that, hiring decisions are like building a baseball team. You need to find people with different strengths and interests to meet all of the department’s various needs. 

For instance, if your unit needs a clinician-scientist, do not simply focus on hiring a good surgeon who has some research experience. Instead, find someone who expresses that research is their passion. That person is more likely to stay for the long term and boost your department’s research credentials. 

Allow staff members to leverage their strengths and interests

Surgical department leaders must be cognizant about creating an environment in which faculty members consider their job a success. Allowing faculty to pursue their passions is one way to do this. If we need a physician to do clinical research, but their love is education, that is a mismatch. 

People’s ambitions and interests may also change over the course of their careers; leaders need to be flexible about that if at all possible. Otherwise, you risk having that physician leave. Losing faculty members is not good for morale — it can negatively impact patient care, and it is expensive to replace someone who has already built a practice. 

Your team members need to believe that you care about them beyond their work and that you are interested in their success as an individual. This is valuable for creating a positive environment that will inspire surgeons and staff to stay.