You can be successful as a physician consultant. Here are the many reasons why.

Apr 20, 2020

A physician consultant comes in many types. The most familiar to us in the healthcare setting is a specialist doctor consulting on a patient case. But physicians and other medical professionals can be many other types of consultants. Consulting, in a general sense, is simply providing expert advice professionally.

Physicians frequently start side gigs or small businesses in which they provide nonclinical consulting services in an area of expertise. For example, medical practice startup consulting, health tech startup advising, or expert witness services for legal cases. It’s also not uncommon for MDs to take full-time positions with management consulting firms that specialize in healthcare or provide broad business consulting services to all industries, such as McKinsey.

There are endless possibilities. The reason for this is that physicians make great consultants. This is due to a combination of our education and training, experience, personality traits, and professional drive.

Here are 10 reasons why physicians make great consultants.

We have the necessary knowledge

You can’t get into medical school without a firm grasp of basic mathematics, biology, physics, chemistry, and the English language. And you can’t get through medical school without becoming proficient in physiology, pathology, pharmacology, biochemistry, genetics, anatomy, microbiology, medical science, and professionalism. Once in practice, you’re likely to gain deeper knowledge in a particular medical field, as well as learn about other topics, such as biostatistics and health policy and financing.

Doctors are knowledge powerhouses. This is the basis for being able to provide useful advice as a variety of consultant types.

We have relevant experience

We don’t just have knowledge sitting idle on the bookshelf of our brains. We have ample experience that requires us to apply relevant information in any given situation. Practicing clinical medicine requires that we pull from multiple disciplines and determine how our knowledge is pertinent to solving a real-world problem.

Our experience – whether it is experienced in treating patients or using our prior learning for any other type of work – sets the stage for consulting. Businesses hire consultants because they trust that the consultant’s experience has prepared him adequately to solve the problem at hand.

The particular types of experience you have will guide the type of consulting that you’re able to successfully engage in. Regardless of your background, though, it’s highly likely that you have the relevant experience for some type of consulting.

We garner respect

Being a doctor doesn’t come with the automatic respect that it once did, but this respect hasn’t gone away entirely. Both the general public and people in professional situations tend to have some level of respect for physicians. Regardless of our specialty, personality, or professional work history, they value the fact that we’ve achieved an MD behind our name.

This respect means that we can be change agents. A big component of most consulting work is change – often recommending change and sometimes implementing it, too. I’m sure you’re well aware that people and organizations find change difficult. It’s easier to be told that you need to change when the news is coming from someone you respect. And it’s easier for a company to take the necessary steps to make a change when they’re being led and advised by someone they trust.

We think in a structured manner

Consultants walk into messy circumstances. They face complex situations. They need to answer complicated questions.

Success in consulting of any type requires the ability to think in a highly structured and logical manner.

We’re used to this as doctors. It’s poor practice to start blindly ordering tests on a patient with a constellation of symptoms and complaints. The better approach is to systematically assess those symptoms and order specific tests based on what pathology the evidence suggests that those symptoms represent.

Moreover, a doctor needs to think about a patient’s symptoms individually, but simultaneously consider how they might be related.

This style of thinking is the same as that of a consultant. A physician consultant providing any type of expert advising services must work using structured thought processes. They need to consider the big picture, but avoid overlooking the details.

Not everyone excels at this. Doctors do, though. We’ve done it since we stepped foot in med school.

The rate at which we process and understand

Not only do physicians thinking a structured manner, we do it quickly and efficiently. Remember the sheer volume of information that was thrown at you in medical school? Of course you do. It had to be digested – and, in many cases, memorized – to pass exams and to be able to grasp the next chunk of material that came down the pike.

When a business or individual hires a consultant, in most cases they want a solution to a problem quickly. A major challenge for the consultant who is brought in to solve the problem is that they’re brand new. The consultant must rapidly learn about the company, their situation, and their problem. To provide appropriate advice, the consultant also needs to understand the industry, the competition, the regulatory landscape, and more.

Consultants need to swiftly wrap their heads around a lot of information, and then tease out what is important and what is irrelevant. Thankfully, this is second nature to physicians.

We ask the right questions

To gather the right information, consultants have to ask the right questions.

This is just another day on the job for physicians. One of the first things we’re taught during our clinical experiences in medical school is how to conduct a patient interview. You start off broadly:

“What brings you in today?”

…and then progress to pointed questions:

“Have you had any difficulty swallowing?”

This strategy lends itself well to all types of consulting, as well. First, ask broad questions to learn about the client and why they need your services. Then, delve in and ask the detailed questions you need in order to deliver the results they’re looking for.

We have stamina and tenacity

Stamina and tenacity. Two qualities that every successful consultant has. Two qualities that doctors already have.

You don’t need me to tell you that it took stamina to get through medical school, internship, and residency. You had to be persistent, determined, and adopt the right mindset.

Consultants need these qualities for a few reasons:

  • They often are brought in to a messy client situation
  • Some staff at the client organization may be resistant to change or even to having a consultant on site
  • The questions they’re hired to answer are difficult
  • Unexpected challenges and roadblocks pop up throughout the engagement

When you’re used to sticking with something you’ve committed to (which you are, as a doctor), consulting assignments will be much more pleasant.

We’re comfortable with being the authority

Consultants can’t be submissive, unassuming, or meek. They’ll be called out if they show hesitation and insecurity.

For many physicians who are beginning work as a consultant, it will take some time to feel confident. However, our baseline comfort with being authoritative is incredibly helpful to accomplish this.

Doctors are used to giving orders to nursing staff. We’ve learned to do this with conviction so that we’re taken seriously. We’re also used to advising patients on what to do for their health or disease control. We need to do it in a way that instills confidence. Successful consultants practice in a similar manner.

Moreover, many of us have excelled at being the “go-to” person for something, whether you’re the go-to for navigating the EHR, the go-to for advice in writing TPN orders, or the go-to for medical coding questions. A mark of a great consulting practice is that you are the “go-to” consultant for a certain issue or business need.

We are empathetic and emotionally intelligent

Consultants aren’t all business. To accomplish what they’re hired to do, things sometimes need to get emotional. The ability to balance empathy with a serious, corporate vibe is necessary for any professional wishing to provide expert advice and be paid well for it.

We practice emotional intelligence every day as physicians. It comes naturally for some doctors. For others, it takes effort and it’s draining. Regardless, all physicians can do it and most have gotten good at it.

This attribute doesn’t even need any modification when transitioning from clinical practice to consulting. Emotional intelligence carries over between fields and situations, and it will always serve you well.

We hold the right credentials

Finally, our credentials are a huge asset when it comes to working as consultants. The benefit of various credentials differs based on the specific type of consulting work. For certain types of consulting jobs, holding an MD will open doors for you.

There’s a reason that physicians list their degrees behind their names even for nonclinical job applications. A medical degree and other degrees such as an MBA or an MPH are an indication of what you know and what you can accomplish as a consultant.

Some consulting assignments will require that you hold an active license and be board certified. Expert witness consulting work, for example, is easier to get into if you’re currently practicing in your specialty.

So, keep your credentials updated if you’re starting or transitioning to consulting work.

In summary, medicine prepares us well for a variety of consulting work. Use these qualities to your advantage as you work to land a consulting job or get your first clients as a consultant.

5 Comments

  1. Hope Watts

    Great article are there certain companies that are looking for Consultants?

    • L4Z

      Yes! What type of consulting are you looking to do?

  2. Samar Gupta

    Yes, great article. Are there certain companies that are looking for Consultants?

    • L4Z

      For full-time management consulting roles, McKinsey and BCG consistently express interest in hiring MDs. If you’re looking more for part-time consulting work, there are companies looking to expand their physician panels for chart review (here’s a post about the different types of chart review work for doctors: https://lookforzebras.com/9-types-of-chart-review-jobs-for-physicians/) and companies that look for physicians for medical writing and medical education consulting work (often as subject matter experts).

  3. Jesus A Bianco,MD

    I have been 53 years in mostly academic cardiology (Harvard and others) and still licensed in Florida with ABIM IM and Cardiovascular boards. Active as ever(NEJM, Circulation, ACC, ESC,Healio,MedPage Today, Cleveland Clinic J etc). Agree the time for textbooks rests in the libraries with MDs lacking time for their attention. For many of us the health care is in continuing need of repair. I am no mechanic. COVID 19 shows to us that virtual learning using on-line established WWW techniques is remarkable. I am interested in in joining a group of physicians ready to invest in one of the activities described in the book of Sylvie Stacy but with virtual learning, consultations, perspectives, guideline yes, nos and unproven, growth and yes earnings. JA Bianco, MD

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