Leaving Physician Leadership and Returning to My First Love

Jennifer Frank, MD


January 26, 2022

I have been in administrative leadership for the past 7 years, most recently as chief medical officer. The experience has been challenging, rewarding, humbling, empowering, and educational. It's not only a difficult choice to step away from a leadership position but an unusual one, leaving people to wonder why. That said, I heard from a number of colleagues who have left leadership positions, albeit not CMO-level positions, to return to full-time clinical medicine. They reported that the experience made them better doctors, parents, and spouses, allowing them time to spend with family, exercise, or engage in hobbies. As I'm making my own transition, I find myself enthusiastically embracing my return to clinical medicine as well.

I've always done at least 1 day a week of clinic, even when I was CMO, for a number of reasons. The first is, incidentally, the same reason I returned to full-time clinical medicine — I love my patients. As a family physician, the relationship part of what I do is the most rewarding. Some of my patients have been with me for over a decade, and some just a short while. I've had the privilege of delivering a number of them back when I still did obstetrics and have cared for a number of their loved ones, also my patients, in the final moments of their lives. I am lucky enough to know my patients' stories and what is important to them. This is a unique and privileged relationship and one that I increasingly missed.

There were, of course, so many wonderful aspects to being CMO as well. One of the most valuable was the opportunity to build relationships across our organization and with colleagues in other organizations. Given how much I value the relationships with my patients, it is not surprising that this was one of the best parts of being a leader. However, beyond the ability to connect with people, it gave me the dual perspective of seeing varied differences in how people practice and what leaders do, while also illustrating that so much of what challenges me as a leader and as a physician is a shared, common experience. Stepping away from leadership does not deny me these relationships, but it does make them harder to maintain.

The days of serving time in physician leadership as part of the obligation of being a member of a medical staff, or because it's your turn to be president of your medical group, are coming to a close. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as leadership is a learned skill that is best developed over years. However, I also consider the risk of having career physician leaders at the helm and how this may limit both diversity of thought and the assurance that at least one person around the conference table spends the majority of their time caring for patients.

I am so fortunate to have had a number of years in physician leadership for all that it has taught me and allowed me to accomplish. I am equally fortunate to have the ability to return to my first love — caring for my patients. Physician leadership is a unique challenge, one that medical school does not prepare us for well. However, it is a privilege to serve as a leader of your peers and one that can grow you in many ways.

Have you assumed the mantle of leadership, either now or in the past? Did you enjoy it and what did you learn? 

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About Dr Jennifer Frank
Jennifer Frank has the unbelievable privilege of being a family physician, physician leader, wife, and mother in Northeast Wisconsin. When it comes to balancing work and life, she is her own worst enemy because she loves to be busy and enjoys many different things. In her spare time (ha!), she enjoys reading suspense and murder mysteries as well as books on leadership and self-improvement. She also writes her own murder mysteries and loves being outdoors.
Connect with her on LinkedIn


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