As chief medical officer (CMO), one of your most important—and most challenging—responsibilities is securing the confidence of your physicians and bringing them into alignment with ongoing changes at your organization. That task can be doubly difficult when physicians don’t trust their executive leadership.  

Unfortunately, that’s very often the case. 

Barely Half of Physicians Trust Their Executive Leadership Teams—and the Cost Is High 

When it comes to trusting executives at their hospitals and health systems, physician trust is weak across the board, according to a new physician survey by Jarrard Inc., a Chartis company. Scarcely half of physicians have significant trust that their executives are honest and transparent (50%) or are making good decisions on behalf of the organization—that includes decisions that will benefit patients (53%), business operations (50%), and organizational finances (53%).

pie chart

In contrast, physicians trust their peers the most—and by a wide margin.

bar chart

Meanwhile, nearly 1 in 5 physicians think that their leaders are not doing a good job supporting them and their peers. Not surprisingly, about a third of physicians have weak loyalty to their organizations. The resulting risks are considerable. They include: 

  • Higher physician turnover: Those who don’t trust their leaders may be primed for poaching if an opportunity they perceive as better comes along. 
  • Unoptimized revenue: When physicians don’t trust that good decisions are being made, they may be less likely to engage in growing the organization through patient referrals, retention, and acquisition. 
  • Reduced patient satisfaction: If physicians don’t trust or feel pride at the place they work, it will affect how they show up in front of patients and, ultimately, lower patient satisfaction.  
  • Diminished public perception: Because your physicians are trusted voices in your community, their confidence in your organization’s leadership and direction is a critical component of ensuring community support and advancing your mission. 
  • Greater potential for failing at change: Your change initiatives—whether related to service lines, operational efficiency, or quality improvement—need physician support and engagement to successfully drive improvement. 

4 Critical Components for Building a Foundation of Trust 

As CMO, your goals reflect your organization’s objectives—and you can only succeed in achieving them with the trust of your physicians. Clearly, that’s easier said than done. 

But you can start building a foundation of trust with 4 critical building blocks: 

1. Get to know your physicians—without making assumptions. 

Beyond pay, what are the reasons physicians stay at your organization? What would push them to leave? 

Assess the clinicians within your organization to quantify their level of trust in your institution and its leaders. Use this data to identify where gaps in trust, engagement, and resources exist. Then, report back on the findings so physicians know they’ve been heard. 

David C. Pate, MD, JD, Of Counsel with Jarrard and former health system chief executive officer, also recommends getting to know your physicians on a personal level. “Walk the halls. Spend time on the units and in the clinics. Make sure your presence is known. You’re a person with a mission, striving for the same things as those caring for patients. People have to see you to know that. [When you interact with your physicians,] you should spend the majority of your time asking questions and listening, rather than talking.” 

2. Instead of simply communicating to your physicians, meaningfully engage them. 

Trust is built through consistency, transparency, and decision-making authority. Do you have the right communications channels to deliver those messages? Are they the ones that will reach your physicians at the right time and place? 

One crucial channel are the physicians to whom their peers are already listening. Identify, equip, and activate physician champions who can help improve two-way communication between clinicians and leadership and accelerate change through meaningful physician engagement. 

“Who are the doctors watching and to whom are they listening? It’s critically important for those informal leaders to be aligned with your goals,” Roger Ray, MD, Chartis Chief Physician Executive and a former CMO with more than 2 decades of experience, advised in a recent interview. “And physicians need to be involved in the design of whatever solutions the organization implements.”  

That requires transparency and honesty about the organization’s direction and objectives. It also means taking intentional approach to bringing physicians into the feedback and problem-solving process. “For example, if the goal is to increase patient access, physicians should weigh in on patient self-scheduling or standardized workdays and templates to enable call center scheduling,” said Ray. “Their subject matter expertise is critically important.” 

3. Boost physician loyalty. 

If physicians don’t think leaders are loyal to them, they may in turn be less loyal to the organization. The belief that leaders aren’t loyal to physicians often stems from the perception—whether accurate or not—of inequitable contracts, unfair compensation, or criticism that they’re underperforming or need to take measures to improve the organization’s financial performance but are not given the resources to make those improvements. 

“Show physicians that their priorities and mission are the same as yours: Caring for patients. Delivering quality care. Being a good employer and strong community partner,” said Pate. “Show it by talking about how the organization’s resources are being used to further its mission, while acknowledging how those financial and operational decisions affect physicians.” 

“Show it, too, by providing context from peer organizations and industry information. Docs are scientists,” said Pate. “They’ll appreciate data that buttresses the conversation and gives them benchmarks to either celebrate exceeding or to focus on working toward.” 

4. Foster a culture of transparency. 

Underpin your operational and communications initiatives with a commitment to responsible transparency—even when the information may be difficult or unflattering. This includes financial conversations about how resources are being deployed so physicians can see how their work connects to the financial health of the organization and their department. 

“Try to anticipate potential challenges and communicate them to doctors,” said Ray. “If you don’t do this ahead of time, the challenges that inevitably arise will appear as mistakes, deficiencies, errors, or flaws.”

Pate agrees it’s important to provide regular updates that acknowledge bumps in the road. “Physicians know that not every goal will be met or every plan be successful,” said Pate. “You gain credibility and trust by being open and honest, both about successes, but also about failures. Provide opportunities for physicians to ask questions and offer feedback.” 

This proactive planning and sharing can both engage physicians and help build your credibility. “The CMO is an influence role—credibility is everything,” said Ray. 

Exert Influence That Drives Change 

Building trust at your organization is no easy feat. But without it, your influence as a CMO will be limited. Investing in understanding your physicians and building their confidence in you and your organization can produce dramatic dividends.  

Chief medical officer collection

Related insights

Contact us

Get in touch

Let us know how we can help you advance healthcare.

Contact Our Team
About Us

About Chartis

We help clients navigate the future of care delivery.

About Us