Medical Leadership Academy
The first class of the Medical Leadership Academy pose with Dr. Paul Roth during their its 2014 ceremony.

There is no business training in medical school.  Students learn the art and the science of medicine, but seldom of how to ensure its financial health and bottom line. The UNM Health Sciences Center’s Medical Leadership Academy is seeking to change that with a two-year program designed to train medical providers and clinical administrators in the nuts and bolts of healthcare operations. The academy’s first class graduated this month.

“I grew up on a farm and that is a family business,” said Dr. Robert Fritch, chief medical officer for the UNM Medical Group. “Being aware of how that business operates is part of being any farmer or rancher’s kid.”

But Fritch said he had an awakening when he joined the Public Health Service after medical school and began a stint in an Española clinic. He quickly found medical practices operate differently from most other business enterprises.

“Medical leadership is a little different,” said Fritch, who holds a masters degree in medical management from Tulane University. “There is a lot of talk in most business organizations about the culture in which they operate. But physicians are trained to advocate individually.”

During the UNM School of Medicine’s early years, in the 1960s, faculty served in leadership roles part-time, often squeezing those responsibilities into lunch hours and before and after clinic activities.  But those days are gone, along with the days of the individual practitioner, said Fritch.

As the state’s sole academic medical center, the UNM Health Sciences Center hosts the single largest multi-disciplinary physician group practice in New Mexico. There are more than 900 clinical faculty and providers representing 105 specialties in some 70 clinics.

“The Medical Leadership Academy isn’t training future hospital CEOs but clinical leaders at the beginning of their careers and who are already on scene,” said Fritch.

The UNM Medical Group, Inc. began operations in July 2007 as a non-profit corporation created by the university to support the clinical, education and research mission of the Health Sciences Center and to serve as the faculty practice organization for the UNM School of Medicine. Several years ago the group’s leadership team began investigating ways in which they could provide a formal training program for interested providers, Fritch said.

Their inaugural program, the Medical Leadership Academy, began in 2012 and was a concept that was enthusiastically received by clinical management across the HSC.

“We have clinician educator and tenure tracks at the university. It’s time that there was a track for clinician administrators,” said Dr. Martha Muller, a member of the academy’s first class. Muller is the infectious diseases division chief in the UNM School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics.

“We did a lot of research in developing the program, a lot of reading and conversations with other chief medical officers (CMOs) at organizations that had done this,” said Fritch.

What emerged from the planning stage was a two-year program to teach leadership skills against a backdrop of both national and local issues. Not all participants were from clinical areas. Several were from research and hospital administrative management.

Participants committed to all-day quarterly meetings. The UNM Medical Group signed a contract with a training firm that brought in “world class” speakers during morning sessions. Afternoons were focused on  ”the nuts and bolts of how we operate, who does what here and how the money flows,” said Fritch.

There was always homework. Over the course of the two years, class members were required to create a quality policy research program with direct application to their current job areas.

“It has been wonderful,” said Dr. Melissa Martinez, medical director of the LoboCare Clinic. “The speakers were strong and knowledgeable. They also knew the literature and what's out there and what is important to know. They brought really good and grounded information.”

And, it was information that could be put to immediate use, she said.

“I remember one exercise in personnel coaching where I suddenly realized that someone I had been managing wasn’t being challenged enough, and I was able to take that knowledge back to the workplace,” Martinez said.

The national speaker presentations focused on data-driven change. There were sessions on facilitating team work and coaching employees to full their full potential. But while the “science” of leadership was being addressed in a formal way, the “art” of leadership was not left behind.

“So much at a senior leadership level is about a personal connection with people,” Martinez said. “The experience brought together people who we wouldn’t ordinarily have known and interacted with.”

“It gives you a chance to meet people across the entire organization,” said UNM Hospital Interim Administrator for Ambulatory Services Kori Beech, a nurse practitioner class member. “There is a slightly different focus on the hospital administration side. This experience created a great opportunity to interact with people I would not normally have met.”

The group camaraderie was great, agreed Muller. And it addressed another paradox of today’s medical environment: while healthcare is growing more and more interdependent, practitioners can be left feeling isolated.

“The experience gave us a sense of not being so isolated within our own area,” Muller said. “We certainly gained practical experience as well as knowledge from the group. I’m also excited to be part of the experience for the next cohort.”

The academy is taking applications for a class that will start in September 2014. According to the academy’s fact sheet, potential participants should be nominated by department chairs or other UNM senior leaders. The qualities they are looking for include:

  1. Physicians and administrative leaders who have demonstrated “fire” and abilities of the next generation;
  2. Good role models with demonstrated results;
  3. Interested in enhancing their leadership skills; and,
  4. Candidates committed to UNM.

Fritch said the organization has been pleased by the number, quality and interest of the applications they have received to-date.

“It takes a commitment on the individual’s part, a lot of energy and input,” he said. “But, there is nothing better than teaching people who like to learn.”