James Hesford: The covid-19 pandemic is a real world lesson in leadership for junior doctors

Throughout the course of this pandemic, junior doctors have been able to witness good leadership principles in practice, says James Hesford

It is widely acknowledged that junior doctors have very limited teaching in medical leadership and management as part of their training programme and during medical school.

Yet as the nation tunes in to daily briefings from our chief medical officer, and the CEOs and heads of departments of hospital trusts publish continuous updates, the decisions of our medical leaders have never seemed more tangible or more pressing.

The coronavirus pandemic has reduced the gap between doctors on the frontline and those in leadership and management positions. We have never had more communication from those in senior positions, nor directly felt the changes to services and systems more greatly than over the past few months. 

Throughout the course of this pandemic, junior doctors have been able to witness good leadership principles in practice. We have seen adaptive leadership used to prepare a healthcare system for an unprecedented crisis. Departments have had to provide plans for a minimum required service so that resources can be redistributed. Teams have been empowered to reconfigure services so that they can continue to provide care and deal quickly with any urgent cases, for example by moving to telephone consultations where possible in outpatient departments.   

Once we start to recover from the peak of the pandemic, opportunities will arise for junior doctors to take on new roles and develop as leaders. This could be by leading audits to streamline, improve, or develop new services to deal with an influx of postponed cases or patients who have delayed presenting to hospital. There may be roles for expanding existing wellbeing services within trusts to help with the fatigue and burnout that are at risk of ensuing from the increased workload demands we are likely to face. Focus groups may be set up to evaluate our response to coronavirus, with junior doctors representing important stakeholders in these discussions.

Furthermore, the different responses to this pandemic should be used as case studies and critiqued in leadership sessions. Too often leadership workshops can seem full of jargon and theory, without clear examples of how to apply these principles and why they matter. Our handling of the coronavirus pandemic provides a real world lesson in this, as well as representing a unique opportunity to study how our healthcare system responds in a crisis. We should highlight how good leadership has led to examples of ingenuity and problem solving among all healthcare professionals. 

The importance of aligning organisations to a common purpose has never been more evident than in what we have witnessed over the past few months. We should also remember to learn lessons from other industries that have adapted to handle coronavirus. For example, Formula 1 teams and engineering firms who have collaborated to help develop ventilators with extraordinary speed.

We must not miss the opportunity to learn lessons on leadership from our response to coronavirus, nor to foster a new generation of healthcare leaders. For whenever the next crisis comes, we will need the leaders to face it.

James Hesford is a clinical fellow at Southmead Hospital, Bristol, UK with interests in medical leadership and oncology.

Competing interests: None declared.