Four Ways to Improve Physician Meetings

I often see physicians on my Twitter account bemoaning sitting through staff meetings. Some of the tales they tell are pretty harrowing. I silently grieved for one group as I read about how their meeting was three hours over time. I don’t like sitting through unnecessary meetings any more than the next guy, even when I’m running the meetings.

Based on my experience with colleagues in the business world and the medicine world, medical meetings typically lack in structure and organization. This meeting dysfunction makes many physicians staff meetings either ineffective or worse, unnecessary.

Physicians already have schedules that are highly compressed throughout the day. Calling meetings that accomplish nothing not only waste everyone’s time, but they erode trust between administration and doctors. Given our current climate of distrust in healthcare, I do not think this is something we can continue to do.

With this in mind, here are four tips that can help you run a better meeting with your colleagues. Feel free to use them at the next meeting you run, or print this out and anonymously leave it on the desk of your boss!

Negotiate the agenda before the meeting

 Staff meetings should not be mystery events where you show up to find out what the next bomb is going to be that will drop. No one trusts a leader that holds back all the information until they absolutely have to give it to you. Meetings are an excellent way to be transparent in this regard.

Meeting agendas should be posted prior to the meeting. Ideally, the meeting leader will request all attendees to send any items they wish to add to the agenda. The meeting leader will individually negotiate any items proposed that are outside the scope of the meeting.

Physicians can then actively participate in the structure of the meeting and not just have the meeting “happen to them.” Hopefully, physician participation leads to greater enthusiasm and a more productive meeting for everyone.

An added bonus of this process is that you will often find that some agenda items can be removed. This has happened for me many times. There may be an item that I think requires group discussion, but the barrage of emails that I get after sending out the agenda indicate that everyone already agrees on the solution. If everyone already agrees about an item, then don’t discuss it further and waste everyone’s time.

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Apply time limits


Meeting agendas should not only delineate what items to discuss, but they should state exactly how long to discuss each item. This practice will allow your staff to know what to expect during the meeting and get a general sense of the depth of each agenda item.

Using time limits will also shape how much discussion occurs about a topic. How many times have you been a part of a meeting where a minor point on the agenda railroaded the entire meeting because you talked about it for too long? This is much easier to avoid if the agenda already has the time listed next to each item. If something is only slated to be talked about for two minutes, then cut off the conversation at two minutes and move on.

Agenda time limits can take some adjustment for some groups. I recommend giving warnings at one minute or two minutes so everyone knows where you stand. You may have to even cut off a few conversations without making decisions at first. However, once your staff gets the hang of it, then they will be able to tell when it is time to make quick decisions and when it is time to discuss at length.

small meetingLimit meeting size


As meeting sizes increases, the productivity of the meeting goes down. This is true across all industries. Medicine is no exception.

I don’t like strong arm tactics, but this is an area where you should be militant. Do not invite people to meetings that don’t need to be there. If people are at a meeting unnecessarily, then ask them to leave.

There is no need to be rude about this. When I have to explain this to people that I am kicking out of a meeting, I explain it in terms of their personal productivity. What is the best way for them to use their time today? Sitting in a meeting where they are not going to participate or providing clinical care?

Most physicians will appreciate this gesture. I have never met a doctor that does not have some type of work to do. If it is a better use of their time to see patients or attend to clinical duties rather than being in the meeting, then that is what they should be doing.

Steve Jobs was famous for using this practice at Apple. There are some pretty entertaining stories of people being removed from meetings who had no idea it was coming.
His explanation, however, was directly in line with my thinking. I hired you to do a certain type of work. It is best if I do not distract you from doing it as much as possible.

Build in flex time


As good as you are as a leader and as well as you apply the above principles, unplanned things always happen in meetings. So…plan for that. I never run a meeting where the time limits on the agenda add up to the entire length of the meeting. For example, a 60 minute meeting always has 50 minutes worth of agenda items and 10 minutes of flex time.

You can use this flex time for any number of things. I typically use it for questions at the end of the meeting. This is a great way to give staff access to administration for any pressing matters. This will also give you time to discuss something that may have come up in the meeting, but it was not already on the agenda. If the questions that come up more of a personal nature, and don’t forget to cut the other staff members loose so they don’t have to listen to someone else’s personal questions.

The most popular use of flex time is to end the meeting early. Remember that ending a meeting early is never a bad thing. You will likely increase your popularity as a leader if you do this often.

Sometimes, it is even necessary to end a meeting early before all the agenda items are discussed, especially if you determine that you do not have the people or resources needed to make decisions about the agenda items. Never be scared to do this. As a leader, you need to respect both your time and the time of your colleagues. They will appreciate you for it.

I’m hopeful that following these tips will lead to fewer horror stories from my colleagues and honestly, less meetings doctors have to attend. Doctors really do tend to be happier when they focus on clinical care. That’s what they signed up to do. Let’s make staff meetings help them in this mission, not hurt them!

Let me know some of your best meeting stories below. Have you been a part of a particularly painful meeting? Do you have any funny stories about your staff meetings? Share in the comments!

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