I didn't start out in healthcare on the executive track; my first job in this field was as an X-ray technician. While I was at that job, I became interested in how the radiology department fit in with other departments throughout the hospital. That curiosity led me to learn more about hospital administration, which then led me to return to school to further my education.
Each time I achieved a new position, I reached out to find out more about how my efforts affected my organization. Without that commitment to lifelong learning, both formal and informal, I wouldn't be where I am today.
Lifelong learning is crucial to our personal success as well as the success of our organizations. Gaining new skills and knowledge energizes us; it gives us the strength to tackle the challenges we face in our jobs every day. It also provides us with the tools we need to progress in our careers and, most importantly, to better serve our organization's patients.
There are numerous ways you can continue to learn throughout your career, depending on your needs, career goals and experience:
* Formal degree programs. If you haven't already done so, consider obtaining an advanced degree in health administration, business, public policy or a related field. This will provide you with a solid foundation as you grow and evolve throughout your career.
* Continuing education seminars. Organizations such as the American College of Healthcare Executives offer a wide range of seminars, online courses, teleconferences and other educational programs that allow you to build your general knowledge or develop specialized skills. Changes in both the financing and delivery of care continue to occur at a rapid pace, and the expertise needed to respond appropriately to the resulting challenges is always evolving. By regularly attending continuing education programs, you can ensure that you and your organization will keep up with our changing field.
* Earning a professional credential. Becoming credentialed by an organization relevant to your area of interest and expertise is not only a hallmark of professional success-it is also an outstanding opportunity to learn more about your field. When I prepared to become board-certified in healthcare management by earning my ACHE diplomate credential (and later my fellow credential), I not only gained new knowledge about healthcare management, but I was also able to revisit some of the concepts I learned early in my career and consider their continued relevance.
* Keep reading. Make a commitment to regularly read healthcare management periodicals, journals and books that provide insight into the trends, issues and challenges affecting the field. Publications such as the ACHE's Healthcare Executive, Frontiers of Health Services Management and Journal of Healthcare Management, as well as Modern Healthcare, can be invaluable in helping you keep current on the latest news and trends. Also be sure to explore other print publications and contemporary Internet resources offering broad-based business management information.
* Informal learning opportunities. Learning doesn't always occur in a class or seminar-learning opportunities are everywhere, if you are open to them. For example, early on in my career as a healthcare executive, my CEO asked me to serve on the board of a local social services organization that addressed issues such as abandoned housing and community improvement. This turned out to be one of the best learning experiences I had because I learned so much about the needs of the community.
* Networking. When you attend seminars and other events with your healthcare management colleagues, take the opportunity to network. Talking to leaders in other organizations can help you learn about best practices and the challenges everyone else is facing. Additionally, be sure to interact with a mix of people at different stages in their careers who are from different types of organizations and different parts of the country and the world. If you're always learning from people who are just like you, you're not taking advantage of the depth and breadth of experience that other executives have to offer.
To make sure you are pursuing the right type of education for your needs, conduct a periodic self-assessment. Take an honest look at your career in terms of professional strengths and weaknesses and current responsibilities, as well as your career aspirations. Then use this assessment to develop an action plan and determine the type of education you need to achieve your career goals. Be sure that your plan spans a mix of general leadership and management-skill development, including ethical decisionmaking, as well as topic-specific learning in areas such as finance, information systems or human resources.
If you are a senior leader in your organization, it is also vital that you promote the concept of lifelong learning among your management team and staff. For example, consider offering employees tuition reimbursement and other benefits to encourage them to pursue higher education. You might also include a continuing education element in each person's annual goals. Conducting in-house seminars with leaders from other departments or facilities can also provide staff members with a broader perspective of their roles in the organization.
The ACHE believes so strongly in the idea of lifelong learning that it has developed an official policy statement on this topic (accessible at ache.org/policy/lifelong.cfm). The need for healthcare executives to maintain professional competency has never been greater; by participating in and promoting lifelong learning, we can ensure that we, along with our organizations, operate at our full potential.
Samuel Odle is chairman of the American College of Healthcare Executives, president and CEO of Methodist and Indiana University Hospitals,
and executive vice president of Clarian Health, Indianapolis.