At hospitals throughout the country, surgery department chairmen have an important leadership role with regard to faculty and student affairs, budgetary requirements, research, and alumni and community relations. “There is general agreement that academic surgical departments are experiencing tremendous changes,” says Douglas P. Slakey, MD. “There’s a growing uncertainty among surgical department chairmen about the future of funding, expectations, and job priorities.” Complicating matters is that there is no established standard for the position of surgery department chairman.

Few studies have evaluated the responsibilities of surgery department chairmen, their methods of support, the determinants of job performance success, and the concerns of people who hold these positions, according to Dr. Slakey. “Given the importance of these positions, it behooves us to learn the details of current job requirements and about job-related stress and satisfaction. This information can be used to help medical schools provide the resources that are necessary to improve how these leaders are selected. It may also help to reduce turnover and increase the likelihood of long-term commitments.”

Surveying the Scene

In a study published in JAMA Surgery, Dr. Slakey and colleagues had a survey published that sought to better understand the complexities of the modern day surgical chairman’s position. “Our goal was to globally assess the allocation of time for the surgery department chair’s responsibilities,” says Dr. Slakey. The study team received 72 survey responses from current chairmen.



Most respondents to the survey reported that they maintained a clinical practice that consumed about 25% of their workweek. However, surgical department chairs attended an average of 4.3 essential meetings per year. In addition, research was not considered a high priority; less than two-thirds of respondents reported that they published one to six papers per year. “With all of the other responsibilities and meetings that surgery department chairs endure, it’s difficult to maintain clinical workloads,” Dr. Slakey says. “Much time is devoted to academic responsibilities, such as curriculum and teaching, residents, fund-raising, alumni, and community relations.”

Important Insights

Surgeons considering a career in departmental leadership and search committees trying to identify ideal candidates for surgery department chairman positions should focus more on leadership skills than on individual-oriented accomplishments, says Dr. Slakey. “Academic medical centers must recognize the realities that go with the responsibilities assigned to surgery department chairmen. These duties should be clearly prioritized in order to ensure that the best person for the job will be selected. Usually, the greatest leaders have humility as a core personal trait that underpins their own personal achievements. Leaders will need to put their institution above their own glory. By understanding these concepts, surgery departments nationwide may have more success with recruiting and selecting effective surgical chairmen.”


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