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Inspiring Leadership: Dr. Michael O’Dell

Given all that is happening in health care, it is more important than ever for physicians to voice their opinions, whether conversations are taking place within politics, health care organizations, or communities. Metro Med is asking some physician leaders within our community how others can follow in their footsteps and become inspiring leaders.

This week’s discussion is with Dr. Michael O’Dell, a professor and chair of the Department of Community and Family Medicine at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine. He is also associate chief medical officer at Truman Medical Centers, serving primarily at the Lakewood Campus in eastern Jackson County.

A graduate of Kansas State University and the University of Kansas Medical Center, O’Dell is also president elect of the Metropolitan Medical Society of Greater Kansas City.

His career has included stops in Texas, Alabama and Mississippi, where his duties included serving as chief quality officer and Director of the Family Medicine Residency Program at North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo. O’Dell also served as president of the Mississippi Academy of Family Physicians.

O’Dell is a retired captain from the U.S. Navy. He earned the Meritorious Service Medal and other awards during his Navy career, and he deployed during the first Gulf War.

O’Dell is also an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church.

What has driven you to take leadership roles?

I think it’s important, and I’m going to do a little Saul Alinsky on you – if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem – and Gandhi – you have to be the change you want to see in the world – and so, there are lots of things that need to change, and I want to play a role in helping that change occur.

What tips would you have for a physician who wants to become a leader?

I think the first tip I would give to a physician who wants to become a leader is remember that it’s all about the patient.  As long as we focus on that, we are going to be operating in a zone of comfort, and frankly, in a zone of expertise as well. But in terms of reading and tips, I’m a huge fan of servant leadership, and Jim Hunter is somebody I have worked with for almost a decade now. Jim has a couple books out that are well worth reading. But half of leadership is being there, so it is a matter of saying, “Yeah, I’m willing to help on that.”

One of the concerns about medicine today is that consolidation is creating large health systems where the bottom line has the potential to trump best practice on the medical side. How can physicians, as more and more are becoming employed, how can they make sure the medical voice is heard in a big system?

If you are being asked to do things that aren’t in the best interest of your patients, then you have an obligation to raise your hand and say, “Can’t go there.”

While you are doing that – one of the tricks on saying no is to be very clear about what you are saying yes to – because every decision to say no is usually after you have said yes to a variety of other things. So while you are saying no to more CAT scans or whatever else might not be in the patient’s best interest, you need to be reminding those who are making that request – they are usually very well-intentioned souls – and here is what I’m saying yes to: I’m saying yes to higher patient satisfaction. I’m saying yes to higher revenue for the system. I’m saying yes to a variety of other things while I’m saying no to the specific request that you are making. Otherwise you come off as a curmudgeon, which docs have done on occasion.

So much in health care happens outside the physician’s office, outside the hospital – including this whole concept of the social determinants of health. How can physicians get involved with community activities that talk about wellness?

I think most of us have to understand that giving antibiotics and prescribing antihistamines – any of the variety of things that we do – are important, but not sufficient to improve the health of the community. And at some point you have to say, I need to get engaged in some of these community activities as well.

Physician expertise also gets overestimated on occasion, on planning committees and other things. I have no idea how many inches thick a bicycle path needs to be. If you are building it out of concrete, I don’t have any idea how much rebar needs to go into it. I have some understanding that stuff needs to happen, so it’s a matter of being willing to sit and listen when other experts really do have a more valid opinion than yours.

Many physicians, like you, have been in the field for quite some time, but are still not that close to retirement age. How can mid-career physicians redirect themselves to learn how to work in this new world order of health reform that emphasizes collaboration more than the captain-of-the-ship model?

It makes very little sense to anybody who looks at it carefully to have a fee-for-service system when what you are trying to achieve is high-quality health outcomes. So it really becomes very important to say, how does this help patients and how do we move forward with helping the patient?  And that’s a conversation that I think resonates even when someone is having to face some fairly bitter choices about reducing income, about reducing control, and in some cases, even fairly gut level, you know, what’s my value in this system sort of thing?

My hat is off to people who spent years and years becoming, say, cardiothoracic surgeons. In the health care system of the future, sending a patient to the cardiothoracic surgeon will likely be viewed as a failure of the system to deliver the outcomes that should’ve occurred. The need for that surgery should’ve been mitigated long before the patient ended up on that operating room table. It doesn’t diminish the work that cardiothoracic surgeon is going to do, but the system as a whole will view it as a failure.

What are the attributes of a good physician leader?

A good physician leader in many ways is going to have to take off the hat he has learned as a physician of giving those orders and is going to have to begin asking the questions that help other people come to the answers that the system needs.

That is something physicians are good at: asking the right questions and coming to the appropriate diagnosis, and moving forward on things. But we have not had to do it on the organizational level before, so there is some statesmanship and diplomacy involved. Physicians aren’t necessarily used to behaving in that role – they are more used to, “This is the answer, let’s move on,” and there’s going to have to be a lot more listening, a lot more careful questioning

What is that you like about taking leadership positions?

One of the real highs in life is having a group of people that you are fond of working together and actually accomplishing something that you weren’t sure it was going to happen. I have seen that on sports teams, I’ve seen that – I spent a lot of time in the military – seen it in major institutions, seen it in departments I’ve worked in. One reason I’m fond of “I think I can, I think I can,” the little train that actually did climb the hill, is because, I suppose, you can think about it as the wheels and the engines and all the components of the little train getting up the hill – it is everybody working together. A high-functioning team is a thing of joy.

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Connect &
Collaborate

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Events

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Practice
Opportunities

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For Retired
Physicians

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