Recruiting and Keeping Clinician Employees: Tips for Business Leaders

Among traditional business mantras, the idea that “employees are a company’s #1 asset” is perhaps one of the most feel-good clichés out there.  It may also be one of the most misunderstood, because precious few organizations actually uphold the spirit of that phrase. Many instead take it a bit too literally, treating the people working there as truly fungible assets – pawns on a chess board to be sacrificed in lay-offs, furloughs, or pay cuts at the first sign of trouble.  So perhaps the idea needs some word-smithing. What if a company, even a publicly traded one, said aloud, “Our company’s highest value is the fair and respectful treatment of our employees; they are our most important stakeholder!”?  Some customers and shareholders might briefly have their feelings hurt, but they’ll feel better when they see how much better those happy employees serve them year after year.

I have the had the opportunity / responsibility of trying to live out that value statement over the years of leading teams in various business settings, and one group of employees where that ethic is absolutely essential for retention are clinicians.  Nurses, therapists, doctors, and other types of medical professionals only thrive in environments of mutual respect and good faith between themselves and their leaders.  Clinicians can be long suffering for a good cause, but they’ll also seek greener pastures when they’ve had enough, as their swelling ranks among those of the Great Resignation have demonstrated.

Perhaps the only upside to all these medical professionals leaving their clinics and hospitals goes to the various other business sectors that will benefit from having them as teammates and leaders.   I have been repeatedly surprised by how long many medical technology companies go without having clinical subject-matter experts on their bench.  It is not uncommon for engineers and their MBA-grad partners to spend years on medical product development and fundraising before ever having a staff clinician in the boardroom or in the field with would-be customers.  They shouldn’t be surprised when their product does not provide quite as much value, or is not getting paid for, like their modeling suggested it would.  Business leaders would do well to figure out how to specifically recruit and keep these wandering clinicians…but how?

Individuals of course vary tremendously. But cultures behave predictably, and the culture of medicine is strong and distinct from other guilds in several ways.  Business leaders who understand medical cultural forces are best equipped to find the right clinicians to join their staff, and keep them on board for the long-run.  Let’s discuss just a few of the most important norms for clinical professionals:


Mission Driven –

Speaking of clichés, the one about health professionals getting into their fields because they just want to help people is simply true.  Anyone who has written or vetted medical school and residency application essays has seen the myriad, tortured ways aspiring doctors try to express that without saying it verbatim.  And though long gone are the days when we took vows to Apollo, as clinicians get through their training most still take some Hippocrates-inspired oath promising to do good, not harm.  Business leaders seeking to hire clinicians, therefore, need to figure out how to align the value proposition of their company with that altruism, or risk only hiring the most cynical and disillusioned of the bunch.


Autonomy –

Healthcare providers think a lot about patient autonomy – the right of the individual to conduct their own affairs as they see fit. And they value their own work-place autonomy just as much.  Once their training is behind them, most clinicians – from grey-haired surgeons to newly minted nurses – expect to be trusted to carry out the specifics of their day-to-day work without a manager constantly looking over their shoulder.  Indeed, micromanaging healthcare systems trying to squeeze ever greater profits from their workers are a major reason that so many healthcare providers are heading for the exits.  Clinicians already want to be productive, and their intense training inculcates high levels of personal responsibility.  No one likes a micromanaging boss, but health care providers absolutely hate that unnecessary managerial trait.  Of course, you measure what matters, but take care to not be heavy handed about it and make sure your trained clinician employees feel like you trust them to get their work done.


Experience-Based Hierarchy –

Clinicians rarely get to lead teams in the healthcare setting until they have paid their dues in actual years (read decades) of experience.  Students of health professions are steeped in traditions of respect for their elders, but, once they become those elders, they count on being the top of the heap.  If you’re one of those young managers from the business world who got catapulted to leadership by some precocious accomplishments, well done, you!  But if you also find yourself trying to lead clinicians who are much older and more experienced than you, remember a little humility here goes a long way in getting to know people. While orienting a newly hired senior clinician, try out the phrase, “Under any other circumstance, I would be working for you, so I am really honored that you’re giving me the chance to lead here.”


Authority, Evidence, and Risk –

Following from that last cultural touchstone, we have to confront the fact that western medical professionals have been engaged in a generations-long struggle between deference to authority / tradition and deference to scientific evidence.  While academic clinicians spend their careers figuring out how to accurately measure and control for the effect of a panoply of traditional treatments, and throw out those that don’t help, plenty of things in medicine still get done because that’s how we’ve always done it.  Oh, and did I mention they’re trained to be really risk-averse?!  So, if you lead an innovative, disruptive, company – if what you’re building is just inherently novel and risky – put your clinicians’ inertia to good use and remind them you count on them to help prove/disprove your assumptions about your product and market.  Remind them that the value they bring is in helping to raise the standard of care in a way that will actually work like it’s supposed to after all the trial and error that comes from doing something new.


Ultimately, health care professionals make great teammates and leaders in all sorts of business settings.  The rigors of their academic training (remember many gave up over a decade of their life in countless nights of studying and apprenticeship to perfect their craft) require sustained discipline that has few equals in our modern society.  And the social / emotional intelligence required to gain the trust of patients, plus the cooperative spirit needed to work across disciplines in a complex health system, means that they are consummate team players.  All employees deserve to be treated as their company’s most important stakeholder. But clinicians are particularly well-positioned to insist on, as well as repay a thoughtful employer for, that respect.