We’ve all heard about how doctors are required to be leaders. You’re probably also aware of a few high-profile cases picked up by the media which focussed on when things went wrong: scandals which received thorough investigation, and reports which drew attention to how a lack of leadership can severely compromise patient care.
In fact, the need for a solid leadership foundation has been underscored more recently, by way of the COVID-19 pandemic, where many medical student volunteers sought to help ease the strain on the NHS. This sudden, almost overnight transition saw healthcare students ‘being thrown in at the deep end’, leaving plenty of students feeling ‘out of their depth’ and overwhelmed by the increased leadership responsibility.
Clearly, there is a need to support leadership development, ideally integrating this with students’ studies at University. However, despite calls for such development to be embedded within the training of medical students, leadership appears to be missing from the curricula of medical schools. Fortunately, there are a number of ways by which students can develop their leadership skills alongside their academic and clinical studies. Here are five suggestions for ‘kickstarting’ your leadership development as a student:
Intercalations: There are a select number of leadership and management intercalations offered across the UK. I found intercalating in Health Management and Leadership (HML) at the University of Birmingham, Health Services Management Centre to be a very worthwhile experience, and one which I greatly enjoyed. The HML degree served to broaden my understanding of the health sector. Alongside additional modules, there were three specialist modules focussing on: how health systems are structured and operate; how to lead change locally and at scale within an organisation; and strategies to drive quality improvement. There were opportunities to see how taught theory related to the real-world; for example, by attending medical leadership events and conferences (such as the annual ‘Leaders in Healthcare’ conference), interviewing medical leaders, and sitting-in on Trust Board meetings.
Electives: Students can also apply for elective opportunities. The Faculty of Medical Leadership and Management (FMLM) Medical Student Leadership Scheme is a six-week placement, whereby successful applicants are allocated a ‘host organisation’ for the duration of the programme. I chose to spend my time with the FMLM to gain an insight into the workings of the medical leadership body. I was able to find out more about the future strategy of the FMLM and how it supports organisations to develop the leadership of healthcare professionals. I gained these insights through attendance at team meetings and engagement with senior Trust-level executives. However, the elective also provided me with an opportunity to develop my own leadership through a combination of one-to-one mentoring with the FMLM Medical Director, and a programme of leadership development activities led by the clinical fellows. A highlight of the scheme was the ability to independently lead on initiatives and projects, whilst providing support to existing areas – with a diverse selection of activities ranging from app development to marketing.
Societies: Many Universities now how a medical leadership society (and if your University does not, then you could always found one). These societies can be a great starting place for students interested in leadership, who wish to explore this interest further. Aside from attending events and listening to experts and other speakers, the society may act as a platform to network with like-minded individuals who share an interest in medical leadership. Taking a committee position in the society can offer a chance to develop leadership whilst influencing the direction of the society – and that holds true for whether it’s the medical leadership society, or an entirely different society (which can be something completely unrelated to Medicine) that you are passionate about.
Leadership Programmes: The NHS Leadership Academy (NHSLA) has a suite of programmes catering to a range of leaders, building up from a foundational level to more executive programmes for experienced leaders. The Edward Jenner programme provides a good grounding for medical students, by offering a flexible study schedule which can fit around other commitments. The course seeks to build students’ understanding of: the significance of leadership; approaches for delivering patient-centred care; and reflection for facilitating development. Upon completion of the programme, students submit a reflective piece on their ‘leadership difference’, by considering how they can apply any key learning in the workplace. Similar to the point about societies, other leadership programmes are available and any learning can be just as valuable, so you should not feel constrained to solely medical leadership programmes, especially if you have a genuine interest in leadership which extends beyond the clinical-setting.
Mentor: I mentioned earlier how a mentor was useful to extract learning during my time on the FMLM Medical Leadership Scheme. I would highly advise finding a mentor – and you can have multiple mentors to support you along your journey. Mentors can be particularly useful for identifying priorities for personal and professional development. Also, by virtue of their experience, certain mentors will be able to work with you to plan the necessary steps to help you get where you want to be in the future, and they may be well-placed to provide useful advice to guide you based on their past experiences. Regular reflection is equally important in this regard, as it will encourage you to learn from any experiences and ‘take stock’, so that you can work out the best way forward. There are various tools available if you are interested in learning more about effective reflection.
Hence, when it comes to leadership development as a student, I hope that the above suggestions prove that there is something for everyone – whether you are looking for options to fit flexibly around your schedule, or willing to invest more time by committing to an elective or degree programme. Graduation can seem a long way off (especially, when you’re studies at University are lasting five or six years), but I truly believe that leadership development is a ‘journey’ and one that you can never ‘set route on’ too early, especially when leadership will play a central role in your future career.
Harjeevan Singh Kang
Harjeevan is a Medical Student at the University of Birmingham. Harjeevan also holds a First Class BMedSc (Hons) degree in Health Management and Leadership from the University of Birmingham.
Declaration of interests
I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: none.