Medical leadership: boon or barrier to organisational performance? A thematic synthesis of the literature

BMJ Open. 2020 Jul 21;10(7):e035542. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2019-035542.


Objective: The influx of management ideas into healthcare has triggered considerable debate about if and how managerial and medical logics can coexist. Recent reviews suggest that clinician involvement in hospital management can lead to superior performance. We, therefore, sought to systematically explore conditions that can either facilitate or impede the influence of medical leadership on organisational performance.

Design: Systematic review using thematic synthesis guided by the Enhancing Transparency in Reporting the synthesis of Qualitative research statement.

Data sources: We searched PubMed, Web of Science and PsycINFO from 1 January 2006 to 21 January 2020.

Eligibility criteria: We included peer-reviewed, empirical, English language articles and literature reviews that focused on physicians in the leadership and management of healthcare.

Data extraction and synthesis: Data extraction and thematic synthesis followed an inductive approach. The results sections of the included studies were subjected to line-by-line coding to identify relevant meaning units. These were organised into descriptive themes and further synthesised into analytic themes presented as a model.

Results: The search yielded 2176 publications, of which 73 were included. The descriptive themes illustrated a movement from 1. medical protectionism to management through medicine; 2. command and control to participatory leadership practices; and 3. organisational practices that form either incidental or willing leaders. Based on the synthesis, the authors propose a model that describes a virtuous cycle of management through medicine or a vicious cycle of medical protectionism.

Conclusions: This review helps individuals, organisations, educators and trainers better understand how medical leadership can be both a boon and a barrier to organisational performance. In contrast to the conventional view of conflicting logics, medical leadership would benefit from a more integrative model of management and medicine. Nurturing medical engagement requires participatory leadership enabled through long-term investments at the individual, organisational and system levels.

Keywords: health services administration and management; human resource management; medical education and training; organisational development; qualitative research; quality in health care.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Delivery of Health Care / standards*
  • Humans
  • Leadership*
  • Quality Improvement*