At the beginning of a contract, a person from the leadership (a physician) asked me: “Have you worked with physicians?” When I replied “yes,” he gave me a knowing look and said: “That’s good because, as you know, physicians can be tough to work with.”
Knowing how to work with physicians is a thing. It’s a skill in health care that is both an art and a craft.
Physicians are busy. They are often overworked and overstretched in their responsibilities and duties. Let’s be clear: it’s not that other health care providers have more time to spare. Nurses, pharmacists, social workers, and other providers face similarly demanding caseloads and administrative duties.
The reality is, health care is hierarchical and medicine is at the apex. This means new initiatives and projects aimed to change or improve systems of care often require physician leadership. There may be other providers involved in the project, or even spearheading it, but they often need physician engagement for the project to take off the ground and receive the attention it needs from funders and senior administration.
As a medical writer and research lead, I work with several committees of physicians to develop content related to systems change in health care. It is extremely challenging to convene a group of physicians for teleconference meetings. It is more challenging to engage physicians to review materials between meetings. Unless physicians have protected time to work on projects outside of clinic time, they are doing the work off the side of their desks.
Here are four tips for working with physicians who are juggling clinical obligations with project duties.
1. Don’t take it personally
When physicians don’t respond to your first email, don’t despair. Most likely they are not ignoring you. Or they might be ignoring you because they read your email in the middle of clinic day and they had to rush to the next appointment, forgetting your email thereafter. In any case, it’s not personal. Sometimes, it’s a matter of timing.
For social science and humanities graduates, this is similar to working with busy professors. The difference is that you’re not asking for something for yourself (e.g. feedback on your paper) but for project and initiatives that physicians will benefit from.
2. Develop email know-how
Write concise emails. Be polite but get to the point right away. One of the first emails I sent in my hospital job consisted of several wordy paragraphs. No one read them. Now, I use as few words as possible and shorter sentences using active tense. I often send emails multiple times but not too often. “When should we send the email again?” is a regular topic of conversation in supportive teams I work with. It’s a thingand it’s something you can brainstorm and strategize with others.
Here are some other techniques I use:
- Bullet points, bold, and underline to organize lists, create headings, and emphasize words. (I don’t use caps on more than one word because it’s the virtual equivalent of yelling.)
- Use the subject line strategically. If it’s a meeting reminder, I put the date and time in the subject line.
- Prioritize your ask. If you are at the second or third email without a response, you might want to ask for the one most urgent thing.
3. Understand the physician as a person
I try to identify my “way in” with each physician I work with. Some physicians are great over the phone and so I schedule phone meetings and use screen sharing apps to work on documents. In-person meetings are great but they can easily get cancelled. I make sure I am on friendly terms with the administrative assistant in the physician’s office (because they are the true heroes when scheduling meetings). I try not to contact physicians over the weekend or holidays to respect their time off.
The key in all these approaches is to be patient and empathetic. Sure, I feel frustrated at times, but I try not to show it because it won’t make the other person respond to me any faster. If you do the above things with respect and gentle firmness, physicians will appreciate your efforts and will more likely engage with you.
4. Embrace the fact that things will take time
You can’t rush people beyond what they can do. Meetings will be cancelled and deadlines will be missed. Regrouping and recalibrating are huge parts of being an administrative person in health care working with physicians and other busy health care providers. It takes patience, flexibility, and creativity.
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The end result can be immensely satisfying. With the right support, resources, and strategy, physicians are in a position to facilitate changes in health care delivery. This means that as a medical writer (or other supportive personnel) you can be part of projects that directly affect people’s care. The more you can master the art of working with physicians, the more likely you could be part of impactful change.
What other types do you have when working with busy health care (or other) professionals?