An Evolving Need for Surgeon-Leaders to Navigate COVID-19 and Beyond

Fiona Myint standing at a podium

If you’re a high-level surgeon practicing anywhere in the world, chances are you have been struggling with the many impacts of COVID-19 on your health system. You are also probably eager to glean insights from your peers on how to lead more effectively during this difficult time.

Even before the pandemic, the most successful surgeons have found that moving up in their organizations requires being highly proficient in leadership, management and business skills, along with their expertise in the operating room, according to Fiona Myint, FRCS, MA (Clin Ed), LLM, SFHEA, a consultant vascular surgeon in London. Now, she adds, amid of this public health crisis, the need to build on these skills has become magnified as surgeons are dealing with the effects of the pandemic on many levels—including facing an increase in thrombosis, strokes and amputations—and also are being redeployed in new areas beyond their expertise. These and other current challenges require strong leadership and teamwork in the surgical suite, as well as on a broader level.

Preparing Surgeons for Leadership Roles

During COVID-19, surgeons can benefit more than ever from connecting with other experts and peers to strengthen their aptitude in a range of areas. Myint points out that for many surgeons, once they reach consultant- and professor-level status, they usually have a superior technique in the operating room, but they typically do not have much formal training in executive skills. To fill in the gaps in nontechnical matters, surgeons can obtain many advantages from participating in structured learning opportunities.

Some areas where she believes surgeons might strengthen their aptitude include: becoming more adept at implementing leadership strategies both within the operating room and beyond; learning how to enhance their expertise in quality, safety and informatics; and increasing their understanding of the legal and commercial aspects of innovation in surgery. Myint also says surgeons can find it useful to try new ways to build and manage effective teams, to use teamwork to drive improved patient outcomes and to manage change across their organization. All of these skill sets can help surgeons position themselves to be more effective.

Learning from Peers

“There are so many challenges in everyone’s daily work that are not in any textbook, so surgeons have been trying to figure it out as they go along,” she says. But while the challenges are steep, so are the lessons learned in organizations across the world. Myint says this makes it essential to bring together surgeons to discuss these and other pressing issues with their peers. In the process, they may quickly realize that many of the problems they are facing are universal, cutting across countries, cultures and settings. This makes the ability to network across the world so valuable as it can be to everyone’s advantage to share experiences and brainstorm, Myint says.

“People all manage things differently. It’s important to prepare by studying different health system responses so that as the pandemic continues, organizations can be poised to respond as needed,” she explains.

For example, some strategies health systems around the world are using to respond to COVID-19 include having designated areas for COVID patients, thinking through the pathways on patient floors to avoid COVID and non-COVID patients passing each other and cleaning and disinfecting all common areas regularly. By talking through how these approaches play out in real-time, surgeons can be poised to help lead their organization’s response.

In addition, many surgeons find it useful to engage in conversations with their colleagues across the country, or around the world, so they can ask questions as they arise or share concerns and get input from others, so they feel less alone.

“Surgeons are competitive people, but when you bring them together to share ideas, they can bring real value to their peers,” Myint says.

Building Mentoring Skills

“Leadership is important to cultivate in any surgical field,” she says. “By building on your education and taking the chance to reflect on yourself and determine how you can continue to progress, you not only grow from being mentored, but you also can become a better mentor yourself,” she says. This will enable surgeons to better address the technical, cultural, behavioral and educational needs of trainees to foster their development as next-generation clinical and academic leaders.

Leading for Success

When surgeons make an effort to cultivate their skills in such a wide range of areas, it helps them position themselves for a more successful career. It also provides an opportunity to be more reflective about their strengths and their goals—both personally and professionally. Over the long term, this can help them facilitate transformational change for their organization.

“All surgeons can be better at what they do. Being a better leader can help you have a more meaningful role in improving quality, safety, and informatics to drive sustainable improvement in your organization,” Myint stresses. As a result, so many people will ultimately benefit from these efforts.


Written by Lisa D. Ellis

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