What does it mean to be a leader in fellowship—and how do you get there?

By Jules Murtha | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published June 23, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Medical leadership is crucial to effectively addressing health inequities, as well as navigating new standards of care and changes in access, according to the AMA.

  • Physicians in fellowship can hone their leadership skills by practicing professionalism, self-management, and team management; garnering influence; maintaining good communication skills; and other core tenets of medical leadership.

  • Fellowship presents an opportune time to foster strong leadership skills, but it is each fellow’s own responsibility to find the time during training to do so, with the goal in mind to be better positioned to improve healthcare for all.

As the medical profession evolves, strong leaders in medicine are needed more than ever. And medical fellows are in a good position to develop strong leadership skills if they put their minds to it.

In order to become well-equipped to handle modern healthcare challenges, physicians in fellowship will want to develop and hone qualities like initiative, professionalism, strong communication skills, and effective management skills—all requirements of an effective leader.

The importance of leadership to your career

Fellowship provides physicians with the opportunity to set and meet individualized career goals, therefore it is a fellow’s responsibility to grow his or her leadership skills.

Related: The evolution of fellowship: New tech, more competition, and the quest for inclusivity

Fellows may look to the American Association for Physician Leadership’s Physician-Mapped Leadership Assessment & Development Tool and similar resources to gain insight about fostering these skills.[] 

One skill that is especially important to not only be an effective leader, but a good physician, is communication. According to Kevin R. Loughlin, MD, MBA, in an article for Harvard Medical School, more than ever before, physicians today are expected to exhibit excellent communication skills.[]

“Undoubtedly, physicians in the future will have increased obligations to interact with the public, the lay press and the media with both the written and spoken word,” Dr. Loughlin wrote.

Related: The old boys' club: Female physicians are often excluded from networking opportunities

Leaders provoke change

It’s important to develop these strong leadership skills during fellowship, as leadership among physicians is necessary to address healthcare-related challenges that result from population growth, as well as those related to changes in access, policies, and standards of care, according to Timothy M. Smith writing for the AMA.[]

The AMA offers the Medical Justice in Advocacy Fellowship, designed to empower physicians to “advance health equity and remove barriers to achieve optimal health for all,” according to Kevin B. O'Reilly, writing for the AMA.[]

Physicians who are selected for this fellowship will harness their skills as advocacy leaders to devise and share solutions, as well as “drive meaningful policy and structural changes.”

According to Ramona Rhodes, MD, MPH, in an interview with the AMA, the Medical Justice in Advocacy Fellowship “will influence my clinical practice, research, and teaching by giving me the tools to address topics like political determinants of health—things that I would not have thought or known about had I not participated." Dr. Rhodes is currently an associate professor and the associate director for health services research for the Geriatric Research, Education and Clinical Center of the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System.

This fellowship will ultimately provide each physician with the mentorship and expertise needed to develop strategies that will ensure better health outcomes for all—something that should be the goal for all physicians.

Tips for medical leadership

You know that leadership is paramount to the evolution of healthcare, so how do you become a leader in fellowship? As noted in an article published by Chest, achieving success in fellowship hinges on mentorship, scholarship, and taking responsibility for one’s learning.[]

Physicians at every level can become leaders through the following practices, per the AMA:

  • Outcome-oriented action: Whether you’re in a management position or not, your title isn’t nearly as important as the results you generate. A good medical leader will aim to improve patient health outcomes while decreasing clinical and operational costs. On top of that, physician leaders take action to promote efficiency, increasing staff satisfaction; they have a significant impact on the culture of their workplace.

  • Taking advantage of opportunities: Prove your leadership capabilities by taking your healthcare objectives to the next level: How can you advance patient safety? What can you do to drive quality initiatives? Getting involved in research, education, and public health may provide you with answers to these questions. So might your involvement in leadership seminars or council memberships.

  • The six core competencies: Leaders in clinical care possess the following: professionalism, self-management, team management, influence and communication, systems-based practice, and executing toward a vision. 

As Smith writes for the AMA, possessing these core competencies will allow a physician “to be a catalyst for change in clinical care.”

Related: Myth busters: Dispelling 4 common misconceptions about fellowship

Finally, there is the importance of practicing oratorical skills as a physician leader, as Dr. Loughlin stressed in his article for Harvard Medical School.

“Physicians are called upon to utilize oratory in multiple circumstances,” he wrote. 

"Communicating with patients, interacting with hospital personnel, interviews with the media and professional presentations are all opportunities to leverage oratorical ability as a means of enhanced leadership."

Kevin R. Loughlin, MD, MBA, writing for Harvard Medical School

What this means for you

Medical leadership requires physicians to move beyond basic management skills and find ways to improve patient health outcomes, mitigate clinical and operational costs, and be an agent of positive change in their organization’s culture. Fellows can become leaders by exhibiting professionalism, effective management of oneself and one’s teams, communication, and influence while continuing to sharpen their leadership skills through formal training.

Read Next: Practicing medicine as a minority: What fellows need to know

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