Doctors’ Day: Lessons in Leadership from Dr. Mike Cuffe

Male doctor examining a patient's heartbeat with a stethoscope

“Being a physician means being a servant first,” Dr. Michael Cuffe, president of HCA Healthcare’s Physician Services Group (PSG), said.

And, he would know. Dr. Cuffe, the MIT-educated and Duke University-trained physician, leads a community of 11,000 physicians in PSG, who serve nine million patients annually.

We caught up with the Milwaukee, Wisconsin native to talk about what sets HCA Healthcare and PSG apart, the challenges of the estimated physician shortage and what he’d like to say to physicians across the nation on this National Doctors’ Day.

Years at HCA Healthcare: 5.5

Life before HCA Healthcare: Before joining HCA Healthcare, I spent more than two decades at Duke University and Health System, most recently as vice president for ambulatory services and chief medical officer.  I also served as vice president for medical affairs and vice dean of the Duke University School of Medicine. During those years, I was also a practicing cardiologist.

What sets HCA Healthcare apart for physicians? What separates HCA Healthcare is that it was founded by three individuals, including two physicians – Dr. Thomas Frist, Sr., and Dr. Thomas Frist, Jr. – who understood the value that physician leaders bring to the table. In the next few years, I want to see more physician and nurse operators who can combine their clinical experience with business savvy to the benefit of patients.

Tell us about your road to becoming a physician: I always knew I was going to be a physician. Even while getting my undergraduate degree from MIT, where less than two percent of the graduates enter medical school, I felt called to the field of medicine. What drew me to Duke for medical school was the focus on the practical application of medicine. Many medical schools required two years of classroom, text-driven education, however, Duke reduced that to one year, giving students more time to practice applying those concepts in real care settings through clerkships and rotations. I believe life is an open book test and Duke’s approach just made more sense.

How would you describe your role in 140 characters or less: I serve our patients, our doctors, our market leaders, and our employees by leading teams that help each succeed in their physician practice.

What is the best part of your job?  I love when PSG gets it right, more than 9 million patients nationwide and our 14,000 PSG employees benefit.

What’s the hardest part of your job? The knowledge that so many patients and employees depend on us to get it right.

What’s an item on your bucket list? To hike the remainder of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Who is your biggest inspiration?  I had two great mentors, Joe Greenfield, the former chair of medicine at Duke and Rob Califf, who gave me my first administrator role. Both taught me the importance of humility. They always had the smallest office, drove the oldest cars, and put people, patients, employees, and colleagues first. They remind me every day that we’re here to serve and help people in every way that we can.

What is the greatest personal obstacle you’ve overcome, and how did you overcome it? Like many, the balance of family and career is complicated. With three children and two high-intensity careers (my wife is a professor at Duke), keeping us all organized and connected can be challenging. To solve for that, we all use a family Google calendar. It helps us stay on track and put our family first.

What advice would you give someone interested in becoming a physician? Being a physician means being a servant first. If you’re looking to make money, there are more direct paths. Being a physician can be emotionally challenging, so it is important to go into it for the right reasons.  I would also say be careful with how much debt you accrue through schooling. I’m a bad example, but a big fan of state universities (and Duke).

What advice would you give your younger self? I would tell my younger self to work harder, read more, have more kids – the best thing in my life are my children – and start earlier. I would tell myself to take advantage of the simplicity of the present. Life is complicated and it only gets more complicated every year.

You’re fascinated with… geology and behavioral economics. On the surface they seem to be unrelated, however, both disciplines help us understand the world we live in. Behavioral economics helps to explain today and why people choose to do what they do, and geology helps explain the long-term and everything around us. My kids and I have always been really interested in natural sciences, we’re what you would call rock hounds. We would stop on the highway to look at fault lines and mountain crests. Together, these sciences help me understand this world a little bit better.

What does the future look like for physicians?  I sincerely hope that in the next decade automation and technology will solve many of the documentation conundrums, because we all know that the documentation part of medicine doesn’t work the way it should. If I can ask Alexa or Siri for the latest weather update, then there definitely should be a way to resolve these issues or at least ease the time burden, so that physicians can focus on their patients.

What are some of the challenges of the estimated physician shortage for communities and patients? With current and anticipated shortages of more than 100,000 physicians, communities and health systems are turning to innovative solutions such team-based care and automation, but there’s still the important issue of access to care, especially in underserved and rural communities. The physician shortage makes it even more difficult for the already undertreated U.S. population to find the care they deserve.

What is your message to everyone on this Doctors’ Day? I want to let physicians across the nation know how proud we all are of the work they do. I don’t think that we as a society recognize and appreciate how hard our physicians work and the weight that they carry. Making decision after decision and diagnosis after diagnoses is a difficult job and it requires bringing one’s A-game every moment of every single day. It can be exhausting for those physicians, particularly those who deal with the extremes of life. I hope that people appreciate what they give. I know that I do.

*Outside of its Physician Services Group, HCA Healthcare has more than 40,000 physicians and cares for 27 million patients across the country every year.

HCA Healthcare Physician Services Group is a community of physicians, innovators, experts, and leaders who partner to provide superior, patient-centered care across our network of high-performing physician practices, urgent care centers, and in the hospitals where our service lines operate. In addition to managing more than 850 physician practices and 70 urgent care centers, HCA Healthcare Physician Services Group is HCA Healthcare’s graduate medical education leader providing oversight for more than 200 exceptional resident and fellowship programs.

About HCA Healthcare

HCA Healthcare, one of the nation's leading providers of healthcare services, is comprised of 182 hospitals and more than 2,300 sites of care, in 20 states and the United Kingdom. Our more than 283,000 colleagues are connected by a single purpose — to give patients healthier tomorrows.

As an enterprise, we recognize the significant responsibility we have as a leading healthcare provider within each of the communities we serve, as well as the opportunity we have to improve the lives of the patients for whom we are entrusted to care. Through the compassion, knowledge and skill of our caregivers, and our ability to leverage our scale and innovative capabilities, HCA Healthcare is in a unique position to play a leading role in the transformation of care.

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