How Do We Improve Collaboration between Physicians and Hospital Administrators?

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An Opinion Poll for Doctors, FAs and Patients

By Jennifer Tomasik MS [Principal:]

“It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”

– Charles Darwin

Beyond institutional mergers and joint ventures, collaboration in healthcare is being driven by other factors; there is a need to move from a healthcare system driven by volume and characterized by fragmentation, waste, high cost, and inconsistent quality to a system where care is coordinated, costs are lower, and quality is higher.

Merger Mania

Merger mania in the 1990’s was driven by similar concerns, including the fear of for-profit competition and the rise of managed care. The results of this earlier round of mergers were unexpected. The 1990s ‘consolidation fever’ raised hospital prices by at least 5%, and did not measurably improve quality.[i] Hospitals purchased physician practices without a great deal of thought about expectations and mutual accountability, and many of those relationships failed—usually with significant financial implications.

Of Savvy Healthcare Leaders

Fearful of history repeating itself, savvy healthcare leaders are thinking differently about how to develop the collaborative relationships they need to succeed today. They see Accountable Care Organizations [ACOs] and Global Payments—where institutions will take on greater risk for the cost and quality of the services a patient requires—as an opportunity to get clear about how they can best position themselves across the full continuum of care. They believe potentials gains are not likely to show up simply as a result of mergers and acquisitions or consolidation per se. Rather than just integrating the bottom lines of their institutions, they are focused on ensuring that those individuals and teams who actually care for patients can productively collaborate with each other, and that they understand the clear and compelling rationale for why that collaboration is necessary.

Nowhere is this relationship more important than between hospital administrators and the medical staff.

What is “Collaboration” Anyway?

Merriam-Webster defines collaboration as “to work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor.” While true, we find this definition insufficient for our purposes. Our colleagues at The Rhythm of Business, a consulting firm focused exclusively on collaboration, provide a more productive way to think about collaboration:

“Collaboration is a purposeful, strategic way of working that leverages the resources of each party for the benefit of all by coordinating activities and communicating information within an environment of trust and transparency.”

We add to this definition one additional, yet critical dimension. Collaboration also means working with, and through, differences. Any highly functioning team will, by its very nature, have differences – team members are ideally bringing innovative ideas that compete for “idea space” at the table.

Effective collaboration requires that teams not only value differences, but in fact encourage them to be surfaced. Viewed in this way, collaboration is not an event or an idea. It’s not “agreeing to get along.” Effective collaboration is an ongoing, systematic, strategic process. It is also, we believe, a business imperative – and nowhere more so than in healthcare.


Given the often difficult nature of relationships between hospital administrators and medical staff, how do you improve collaboration to increase productivity and performance?

NOTE: [i] Vogt, William B and Robert Town. “How has hospital consolidation affected the price and quality of hospital care?” Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: Policy Brief No. 9. 2006.


And so, how do we improve collaboration between Physicians and Hospital Administrators?

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About the Author

Jennifer Tomasik, Principal,  leads CFAR’s Health and Hospital Systems practice. She works with her clients to solve complex strategic and organizational challenges. Her approach to consulting emphasizes communication and collaboration, supported by a blend of quantitative and qualitative analytics. Jennifer has worked in the health care sector for nearly 15 years, with expertise in public health, clinical quality measurement, strategic management, and organizational change. Her clients include some of the most prestigious hospitals, health systems and academic medical centers in the country. She has a Master’s in Health Policy and Management from the Harvard School of Public Health.

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Why I Rue the Hospital “Team-Based Medicine” Approach to In-Patient Care

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Or, Whose Patient is it – Anyway?

By Dr. David Edward Marcinko MBA, CMP™

[ME-P Publisher-in-Chief]

Ok, I admit it; I may be an aging curmudgeon [just ask my wife and daughter] who has not regularly seen patients in the office for the last decade. A consult here, Independent Medical Examination [IME] there, or a surgical assist when needed has been the extent of my patient experience since my transition out of direct care medicine in 2000-01.

Moreover, I admit to not being an ardent fan of hospital-based medicine [with all due respect to colleague and uber-hospitalist Robert Wachter MD, who I admire and have frequently mentioned in my books, white papers, speaking engagements and here on this Medical-Executive Post].

I am also not completely in favor of the many new-fangled “specialties” and medical business models.  And, as recent models and linguistic evolution occurred, the nomenclature designation of hospitalist was followed by that of hospital-intensivist, hospital-proceduralist and hospital-nocturnalist, etc [ and personal communication Richard L. Reece MD].

Enter the Team-Based Hospital Doctors

And now – for the last five years or so on my radar – there is a new term to add to the lexicon: team-based hospital medicine [practice], or similar. But, I ask, whose patient is it? Who is accountable? Where does the buck of responsibility stop?

The Quintessential Example

On Friday, May 9, 2003, a 5-year-old boy was undergoing diagnostic testing for his epilepsy at Children’s Hospital in Boston when he suffered a massive seizure. Two days later, on Mother’s Day, he died. Despite the fact that he was in intensive care at one of the world’s leading pediatric hospitals, none of the physicians caring for him ordered the treatment that could have saved his life.

The death was tragic, but even more troubling from an organizational perspective was the series of events that led up to it. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health investigated the death, and The Boston Globe reported on the results that, “the investigation portrays a situation where lines of authority were deeply tangled, and where no one person had accountability for the patient. Each of the doctors who initially worked on the case–two at the bedside and one consulting by phone–told investigators that they thought one of the others was in charge.” In the end, no one was in charge.

This is a striking example of how even the most talented clinicians in one of the world’s best hospitals can fail not only to provide adequate care, but to save a savable life—all because the lines of authority were unclear. The lack of clarity resulted in this team’s inability to collaborate effectively at a time when the stakes couldn’t have been higher.

Here are two other benign, but more personal, examples circa 2011.

My Personal Experiences

My Sister

This past summer, my sister was in a VA hospital [extremity injuries, nothing serious] for about a week. She was seen by 13 different physicians who were on her “team”; not to mention the plethora of other allied healthcare “team-members”. Me, my wife [RN], and/or her boyfriend [Army Medic and a PA] were at her bedside at least 12-15 hours each day. She was rarely left alone, by design, as we all recalled the admonition of former AMA President Tom R. Reardon MD, to always have a bedside advocate while in the hospital.

Yet, she was offered the wrong medications on one occasion, personally mis-identified twice, and it was obvious that her team-members rarely communicated or discussed her case [by their own admission], or even reviewed her electronic medical records [vistA system] before rounds. Here, the “system is down” was cited as causative:

My Dad

Now, later this same year and under the same patient advocate approach, my dad was in two different hospitals sequentially, both using the “team-based” care model. In each, members did not know, or were loathe acknowledging, who was in charge of his case! Malpractice phobia was apparent despite the coterie of, no doubt brilliant, MD/PhD interns, residents and fellows making daily rounds by starring at their shoes. One physician even cited her hectic return from vacation as the reason she examined my dad – for the first time – without reading his paper chart. “Doctors need vacations, too”, was her flippant response when challenged.


Fortunately, our insider knowledge and – shall we say – “charming swagger” was helpful in avoiding major complications with the continuity-of-care in the above two examples. But, most patients are not so blessed!

Our Newest Book

These stories reflect just one of many difficult collaboration challenges in healthcare, today.

In her textbook chapter, Collaborating to Improve Operating Performance in a Changing Healthcare Landscape [Opportunities for Improvement Widespread], contributing author Jennifer Tomasik MS, Principal at CFAR [Center For Applied Research Inc, in Cambridge, MA], focuses on the increasing need for collaboration among physicians, clinicians, hospital executives, and administrative leaders in the dynamic, complex healthcare environment. She looks specifically at collaboration along three different dimensions, including

  • inter-professional teams,
  • institution to institution, and
  • physicians and administrators.

In each instance, she describes useful tools that can be applied to improve collaboration and overall institutional performance—all in the service of providing better patient care.


To me, it seems pretty obvious that “hospital team-based” medical care is an oxy-moron. On one hand, it appears to reduce risk, but on the other hand, it appears to reduce quality care as well. Moreover, it also seems to be an invoice generating machine, and revenue enhancing mechanism

And so, beyond this individual ME-P, and its’ tragic and trivial examples, it is important for hospitals and healthcare organizations to improve collaboration. Our patients depend on us to get the philosophy of “hospital team-based” care right, if it is to continue. Otherwise, it will become another good intention, gone awry, in the changing hospital ecosystem that is domestic health care.

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Your thoughts and comments on this ME-P are appreciated. Feel free to review our top-left column, and top-right sidebar materials, links, URLs and related websites, too. Then, subscribe to the ME-P. It is fast, free and secure.


Speaker: If you need a moderator or speaker for an upcoming event, Dr. David E. Marcinko; MBA – Publisher-in-Chief of the Medical Executive-Post – is available for seminar or speaking engagements. Contact:



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