Emergency Physicians Must Embrace Leadership and Management as the Core of their Specialty

History’s great achievers—a Napoléon, a da Vinci, a Mozart—have always managed themselves. That, in large measure, is what makes them great achievers.

These are the words of Peter F. Drucker, father of modern management theory. They are especially relevant to emergency medicine today. The founders of our specialty and the wave of emergency physicians that followed them have carved us a unique position in the house of medicine. We have a reached stage where managing our specialty and its next steps carefully are critical to great achievement. 

It is hard to imagine that less than 35 years ago, we did not have primary board status with the American Board of Medical Specialties. At that time, other specialties questioned whether emergency physicians offered truly unique skills. They suggested that our skill set is merely a partial collection of those of several different specialties.

However, the skills to intubate a patient in respiratory failure, resuscitate a neonate, diagnose and treat a heart attack, and deliver a baby do not by themselves an emergency physician make. It is the ability to lead a team successfully through simultaneous medical, surgical, psychiatric, and social emergencies while managing the clinical and administrative activities of the ED as a whole that defines the consummate emergency physician. Leadership and management define the core of the specialty of emergency medicine.

We are clinicians. What separates us is that we are also managers. We need not redefine ourselves. We need only to embrace that which we already are. We have embraced our clinical prowess – gaining primary board status, growing in numbers, establishing strong research credentials, and becoming a popular specialty. Let us also embrace the core that ties our clinical work together. Let us embrace management – its theory, practice, and application to emergency medicine. Doing so will unleash the full potential of our specialty.

In what seems to be an uncanny coincidence, not only are we natural leaders and managers, but also we are afforded a view of health care that equips us to wield our core expertise beyond the emergency department. Each day at work, we take 10 hour-long swigs from the fire hydrant of the U.S. health and social system, MacGyver-ing our way through a shift to fashion the best possible result for each patient. Is there anything in patient care we don’t see? Is there any perspective we don’t understand? This torrent of information that we receive from our patients about their health, illnesses, and troubles with the health system is invaluable knowledge that needs to be put to use. We must develop a system to harness this knowledge.

Foremost, we must formally recognize and develop leadership and management as the core of our specialty. Currently, emergency medicine residents undergo pseudo- management training by virtue of working in the ED – on the job management training. Thus, all emergency physicians today are at least adequate managers. But as a specialty, we must raise the bar from adequacy to specialization by focusing the provision of emergent care through the lens of formal leadership and management training.

Management is a widely researched topic that is studied and applied in every sector. This repository of theoretical and practical knowledge belongs in every emergency medicine curriculum, where it stands to be most relevant. Every emergency medicine resident today is training to become a clinician and a manager. In most cases, the former is acknowledged and developed while the latter is largely ignored, despite a wealth of available resources.

Secondly, a wider range of educational options should be made available to enable emergency physicians to develop innovative healthcare solutions. Some programs already offer combined EM-Master’s degree opportunities. These opportunities must be promoted heavily. We should develop more EM-MBA programs (Masters in Business Administration) to promote leadership in the corporate sector and EM-MPA/MPP programs (Masters in Public Administration/Masters in Public Policy) to promote political leadership.

As management takes root and unleashes our specialty, the demand for such programs will increase. We should develop professional relationships and management experiences with local business schools and industries that demand the highest standards of management to ensure success and avert disaster. Emergency medicine must follow its natural tendencies and reach out beyond the health sector to glean the best from the best and bring it home to the bedside.

Today, the political and corporate worlds are converging at the health sector. This movement was reflected in the 2010 Adelaide Statement on Health in All Policies, a World Health Organization (WHO) publication:

To advance Health in All Policies the health sector must learn to work in partnership with other sectors. Jointly exploring policy innovation, novel mechanisms and instruments, as well as better regulatory frameworks will be imperative. This requires a health sector that is outward oriented, open to others, and equipped with the necessary knowledge, skills and mandate. This also means improving coordination and supporting champions within the health sector itself.

Taken together, the steps of formally developing leadership and management as the core of our specialty and promoting new educational options encouraging emergency medicine leadership will uniquely qualify emergency physicians to be the champions that WHO describes. It will undoubtedly fortify the position of emergency medicine as a powerhouse, cutting-edge specialty and attract highly motivated, superior talent to our ranks.

These steps are not only important, they are also necessary to accelerate the momentum our specialty has developed over the past several decades. Fully matured, emergency medicine will be a specialty representing highly trained, trans-sectoral, transformative clinician-leaders who provide superior clinical care in the emergency department and are dedicated to a healthy society through the advancement of health care on all fronts. By working toward this goal, the modern emergency physician stays true to the spirit of service in which emergency medicine was founded and guides the trajectory of our specialty toward health sector leadership.