What Doctors Wish Health Care Business Professionals Knew About the Practice of Medicine

Just as clinical health care professionals who work in care delivery contribute toward successful patient outcomes, so too do health care business leaders at all levels of the industry.  

Illustration of health care professionals outlined over a crimson background.

Just as clinical health care professionals who work in care delivery roles contribute toward successful patient outcomes, so too do health care business leaders at all levels and across industry roles. From population health analysts to drug developers, insurance providers to social workers and many more, everyone involved contributes to the value creation process in health care. Communication, empathy and real-world understanding of the perspectives of clinical and non-clinical industry players help deliver the best care for patients. 

“It’s so important to have good collaboration and strong working relationships to understand what the needs and values of people in the health care industry are. We need to understand what’s working and what’s not working,” says Margaret (Molly) Hayes, MD, assistant professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and director of the Medical Intensive Care Units at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. 

Here are four things that a group of HMS faculty physicians wish health care industry teams knew about the practice of medicine. 

A lot about practicing medicine is uncertain. 

When Richard Schwartzstein, MD, communicates with his patients, he sometimes has to tell them, “I’m really not sure what’s happening here.” Dr. Schwartzstein, a professor of medicine and medical education at HMS and the Chief of the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess, says that his conversations with patients often convey the uncertainty that is inevitable in medicine.  

“When you think about the history of medicine and the culture of medicine, we like to pretend that we are all-knowing when we’re not,” he says. “Now, I actually think that times have changed, and people don’t expect that [certainty] all the time.” 

Dr. Schwartzstein, an internal medicine physician, uses a method he borrows from meteorologists. Rather than just tell his patients about possible outcomes, he refers to scientific research to communicate the likelihood of each outcome — like a weather reporter saying there’s a 60 percent chance of rain tomorrow.  

“It takes more time, obviously, to have this kind of conversation,” Dr. Schwartzstein says. “However, in my own personal experience, the vast majority of patients and families actually appreciate what they view as real honesty — sharing with them and engaging them in the decision-making process.” 

For people in the health care industry, it’s important to realize that uncertainty is a part of medicine, but so is evidence and data. In an uncertain medical situation, highlighting both the knowns and the unknowns can help give patients a fuller understanding of what’s happening. 

Industry-clinician teamwork is vital for progress. 

In the experience of David Levine, MD, MPH, MA, industry-clinician cooperation leads to the best solutions — ones that address the needs of doctors, patients and the health care industry stakeholders. Conversely, less collaborative work can sometimes lead to solutions that are divorced from clinical problems and to products that aren’t very useful. 

“One thing I wish that non-clinical health care leaders in industry knew was that we want to work with you,” says Dr. Levine, an assistant professor of medicine at HMS and internal medicine physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “We need to work with you.” 

Often, the teamwork should continue after a product is developed to help integrate new products into medical practice, Dr. Levine says. One of his mentors, Atul Gawande, wrote a 2013 article for New Yorker Magazine in which he shared insights into why some medical innovations spread faster than others. Hint: it has more to do with follow through and getting ideas to take root than it does with breakthrough technology.  

For industry professionals, it’s important to involve physicians and patients in the entire development process, from ideation to implementation. 

Doctors treat people — not diseases. 

The idea that doctors treat diseases is a misconception that can affect clinical care, but it can also have implications for business professionals who develop medical devices and products – as well as those in pharmaceuticals, health insurance and at other health care companies with direct impact on patients. Geoffrey Gilmartin, MD, a pulmonologist at Beth Israel Deaconess and global product leader at AstraZeneca, explained. 

“It’s ridiculous to think that when you’re in the hospital room or the ICU, you’re treating heart failure,” says Dr. Gilmartin. “You’re treating a person who has heart failure and all that comes along with that, which will actually guide the decision making by which you execute a treatment plan.” 

Industry professionals might wonder, so what? Why would we need to know about the doctor-patient relationship? Doctors are often the link between patients and the broader industry, so understanding this specific doctor-patient interaction will help provide value to the patient and to health care companies. 

“Ultimately, misunderstanding who the right patient is for this medicine will not generate value for the company that invested to bring the new treatment forward,” Dr. Gilmartin says. “If you’re not running a sustainable operation, then whatever potential benefit you could deliver is irrelevant because it’ll go away.” 

Efficient isn’t always better – there needs to be time for emotions and human connection. 

At the hospital, Dr. Hayes’s primary goal is to do her job well, not efficiently. After all, much of what makes Dr. Hayes such a good physician wouldn’t be considered “efficient” from an outsider’s point of view, but it helps her deliver excellent patient care. Throughout the day, Dr. Hayes switches between a variety of roles — doctor, teacher, social worker, friend — driven by her underlying philosophy to offer what’s needed in any given moment.  

“If what’s needed is to talk to a family for two hours to help them process a death, then that’s my job,” said Dr. Hayes. “I’ll do my notes and billing later and come home later. It’s not, and will never be, a 9-5 job.” 

The hospital, and particularly the ICU where Dr. Hayes works, can be a scary, emotional place for patients. With her medical students, Dr. Hayes recommends practicing “perspective-taking” — putting themselves in the shoes of their patients or patients’ families to understand what they’re going through and how to help. 

“Perspective-taking” is also a method that can help clinicians and industry professionals work well together, Dr. Hayes said. “I think it’s super important, not just that they understand us, but also that we understand them,” she said. 

With this method, it’s possible to bridge the clinical and non-clinical sides of the health care industry. Working together can be more fruitful and impactful, leading to strides forward in the practice of medicine and in patient care. 

Corporate Learning 

Health care industry teams have turned to HMS to learn the nuances of health care and medicine. A cohort from Allergen, for example, left its custom executive education program having learned critical insights into the perspectives of patients and physicians and updates on specific disease conditions of interest. In a different executive education program for athenahealth, a group of cross-functional leaders learned about real world workflows and pain points facing front-line doctors to inform how they develop digital solutions that create value for physicians and care organizations.  

Harvard Medical School designs and delivers innovative, high-impact corporate learning experiences based on faculty expertise from throughout HMS and the entire Harvard University community. These experiences are utilized by individuals and teams seeking to gain new perspectives. To learn about Corporate Learning at Harvard Medical School, read about the approach or hear from clients themselves