Supporting Leaders: What Family Medicine needs now

By Susan Cochella, MD, MPH


I just returned from a conference of the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine (STFM) focused on medical student educators, where I again heard a familiar message: Family Medicine needs to lead.  If you are involved with academic Family Medicine you have likely heard this message many times over the last few years.  Generally speaking, I agree with this message.  Family Medicine as a discipline has a lot to offer in the current climate of healthcare change.  Those of us with Family medicine training have perspective and skills that can help academic and clinical care systems move into a new age of coordinated efficient high-quality care.  For me the question becomes: How do we translate this into action?

Speaking for myself, I try to think of the system as a whole when I make decisions.  I have taken on some leadership roles that felt a little scary, but were great learning experiences, like directing new curriculum implementation for our dean’s office a few years ago, and chairing STFM’s National Clerkship Curriculum Editorial Board more recently.  Is this what we mean when we say FM educators need to step up and lead?  While I have learned a lot from these experiences, I don’t know if I am doing all I am capable of.

I have been approached by colleagues who want me to serve in higher leadership roles, and I quickly say no. I say, “I will keep a look out for people who might be good and send them your way.”  I believe my assumption is that the role will be too consuming and involve so much stress that distracts me from my family even when I am home.  I don’t want those things. I don’t think I am alone in shying away from formal leadership roles.  I also know that there are many gifted people in STFM who could make great leaders.  So many of my STFM colleagues are the people I would choose to approach if I were looking for a leader that I could mentor into a new role.  Would they quickly tell me “no” as well?

During my most recent rapid “no” to a lovely family doctor who wants to help develop Family Medicine talent, I learned something interesting: Did you know that there are resources available through the Association of Departments of Family Medicine (ADFM) for potential and new FM leaders? The ADFM has formal fellowships for FM faculty considering Chair leadership roles, and separate ones targeting Vice-Chairs and Division directors. They also have a mentoring process for new Chairs who want guidance from a seasoned Department Chair early in their Chair career, and a “hotline” for new and interim Chair leaders, or those considering those positions, through which established FM Chairs are available on short notice when they are seriously considering or new in a chair role.  Wow!  What a smart design! Leave it to Family Medicine to come up with this efficient smart structure.

As I finished lunch with this colleague, I pondered the trajectory of faculty through STFM’s offerings.  I considered what connections need to be made to move a faculty member from pre-contemplation to serious contemplation of leadership roles.  And I wondered, do faculty in the pre-contemplation stage have to sign up for the ADFM fellowship in order to learn that these support structures exist? I don’t think FM educators in the pre-contemplation stage would attend these fellowships; but I think this is where most of our talent is. So as it goes with compelling ideas, this left me with more questions – What other structures are out there to support new leaders?  What can STFM do to make all of our members aware of these structures?  If we inventoried these structures and shared them with our members, would our members help us brainstorm even more effective structures to support new leaders?  Would more family medicine educators become willing to take on leadership roles that currently seem too scary or inconsistent with our life priorities?  Would we at least be wiling to have more of a dialog before saying “no”?


Susan Cochella

Susan Cochella, MD, MPH is a Clinical Professor within the Department of Family & Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

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