Following a Congressional hearing into antisemitic harassment on the campuses of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania, there were several changes in leadership at Penn. Jonathan A. Epstein, MD, was named interim dean at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, replacing J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, who became interim university president.
Epstein, 62, is a cardiologist and researcher who trained at Harvard and has been at Penn since 1996, most recently serving as the executive vice dean and chief scientific officer of the medical school. In his new role as interim dean, Epstein will oversee 3,000 full-time faculty at Penn and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, with responsibilities including research, medical education, and the treatment of patients.
The main mission of the school of medicine is focused on caring for patients and finding cures and science. But we are not immune from the controversies that affect the entire campus, the city, and the country. To that extent, it is disruptive and upsetting to see conflict and pain in the world. That affects our students and our faculty and our staff. But as I walk around the hospital and the campus, I don’t see disruptions or other activities. I read more about it in the newspaper.
Epstein’s response to the grave problem of mounting antisemitism on college campuses seems incredibly naive and parochial. His comments do not appear to have the substance one would expect from a world-class leader charged with solving hate speech on college campuses and determining what role, if any, should donors play in deciding school policy. Epstein may turn out to be an excellent dean, but if it is true that all physicians are leaders, then someone in his position must inspire others, engage them in action, and have a blueprint and buy-in for change on and off campus.
I believe the problem with many physicians is that they do not view themselves as leaders. They may think, for example, that because the questions raised at the Congressional hearing ultimately reverberate beyond academia, the problem of antisemitism is not their responsibility. But physicians are often looked upon as leaders, and they must have answers to wide-ranging issues far afield from medicine. Shying away from them only perpetuates the myth that physicians cannot lead on the global stage. This begs the question: What skills are required for physicians to leverage their training and experience to become world leaders outside the field of medicine?
Transferable skills. Medical leaders possess skills such as decision-making, problem-solving, team leadership, and communication which are transferable to other sectors. These skills can be used to lead teams, organizations, or even countries.
Public health policy. With their in-depth knowledge of public health, physicians can effectively contribute to the development of public health policies. They can work with governments or international organizations to improve health care systems globally.
Education and research. Doctors can contribute to the field of education as professors, researchers, or administrators. They can use their expertise to train the next generation of leaders or to conduct research that influences policy and practice.
Philanthropy. Many medical leaders are involved in philanthropy, contributing their wealth and influence to causes they care about. This can lead to leadership roles in non-profit organizations or foundations.
Health advocacy. Physicians can become advocates for health, working to raise awareness about health issues and to influence policy. This can lead to leadership roles in advocacy organizations or in government.
Entrepreneurship. Doctors can also become entrepreneurs, using their knowledge of the health care sector to start their own businesses. This can lead to leadership roles in the business world.
Consulting. With their knowledge and experience, medical leaders can become consultants, advising governments, organizations, or businesses on health-related issues. This can lead to leadership roles in the consulting sector.
Politics. Medical leaders can enter politics, using their knowledge and experience to influence policy and legislation. This can lead to leadership roles at the local, national, or international level. There are 19 physicians in the 118th Congress (2023 – present), of whom 15 serve in the House and 4 serve in the Senate.
Global health perspective. Physician leaders often engage in global health initiatives beyond clinical practice. This could involve participating in international health organizations, contributing to global health policy, or leading initiatives that address health disparities on a global scale.
This list is not all-inclusive. There are many other skills, knowledge, and leadership qualities physicians can leverage to become influential world leaders outside the field of medicine. What’s most important is staying informed about global issues, developing a broad perspective, and actively seeking opportunities to contribute to positive change beyond the boundaries of health care.
Physicians have transitioned from successful medical careers to become world-class leaders in diverse fields. Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland is the former prime minister of Norway. She served as the director-general of WHO from 1998 to 2003. Dr. Brundtland played a key role in climate control and sustainable development. She chaired the Brundtland Commission, which introduced the concept of sustainable development in the report “Our Common Future.”
Dr. Paul Farmer (deceased 2022) co-founded Partners In Health, an organization that provides health care to impoverished communities worldwide. He was a leader in global health and social justice, advocating for equitable access to health care.
Dr. Jim Yong Kim was the 12th president of the World Bank Group from 2012 to 2019. He co-founded Partners In Health with Dr. Paul Farmer and served as the president of Dartmouth College from 2009 to 2012.
Dr. Bernard Lown (deceased 2021) was a renowned cardiologist and inventor of the direct current defibrillator, Dr. Lown co-founded the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. His advocacy work focused on nuclear disarmament and peace.
Dr. Ernesto “Che” Guevera (deceased 1967) has the dubious distinction of having his occupation listed in Wikipedia as “guerilla” as well as physician, diplomat, and author. Guevera is best remembered for his role in Cuba’s revolution, where he was both revered and reviled. Time named Guevera one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
These are just a few examples of physicians who have demonstrated that doctors can leverage their medical expertise and leadership skills to address broader global issues, ranging from public health and sustainable development to diplomacy, peace, and activism. Their diverse contributions showcase the potential for physicians to become influential leaders on the world stage.
Arthur Lazarus is a former Doximity Fellow, a member of the editorial board of the American Association for Physician Leadership, and an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of Every Story Counts: Exploring Contemporary Practice Through Narrative Medicine.