I left medical practice 15 years ago. Since then, I have held executive posts in academic medical centers, managed-care organizations and pharmaceutical companies. I have degrees in medicine and business. Although some people think of me as a physician-executive, I prefer to think of myself as a physician.
The multitude of titles bestowed upon physician-executives reminds me of a quote by 18th century playwright Oliver Goldsmith. He said, "I have known a German prince with more titles than subjects, and a Spanish nobleman with more names than shirts."
Don't get me wrong. I firmly believe that physicians have a legitimate claim to managing the medical-industrial complex. They deserve to be medical directors and vice presidents of medical affairs.
Physicians bring vital skills to healthcare management that other executives do not possess: clinical training and clout with their peers. My peeve is the way some physician-executives view themselves and their authority.
A title I really like is "director of first impressions." It belongs to a receptionist who works at my car dealership. I wish we could clone her in the healthcare industry. Like many healthcare consumers, I am concerned about how impersonal healthcare has become.
The longer I am away from practice, the more I realize healthcare providers need lessons in humility. Simply greeting people with a smile and kind words would be a good start.
The bedside manner of many healthcare providers is frightening. That's why I frequently fantasize about taking over as director of first impressions. Instead of sitting out front at a desk I would go undercover into doctors' offices and hospitals as a pretend patient and point out service problems in the spirit of quality improvement.
A physician once called me a double agent because, although I worked for an HMO, I appeared to have his patients' best interests in mind. I considered it a compliment and began thinking that the true calling of a physician-executive is to improve healthcare quality from the inside.
For example, several healthcare executives in my area have founded a patient advocacy company. They used to be executives at a managed-care organization. Imagine that: Former insiders once responsible for the hassles of managed care are now poised to eliminate them.
Most likely I will finish my career working for my current employer, a pharmaceutical company. My title isn't fancy, but it's appropriate for what I do: senior director of clinical research.
I hope that upon retiring I shall, as George Washington remarked, "possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man."
Arthur Lazarus, who lives in Chadds Ford, Pa., is the author of MD/MBA: Physicians on the New Frontier of Medical Management.