Academic Medicine and the Peter Principle

Over four years of medical school, a one-year internship, a four-year radiology residency, a one-year neuroradiology fellowship, and now some time as an attending, one of my consistent takeaways has been how well (and thus how badly) the traditional academic hierarchy conforms to The Peter Principle.

The Peter Principle, formulated by Laurence J Peter in 1969, postulates that an individual’s promotion within an organizational hierarchy is predicated on their performance in their current role rather than their skills/abilities in their intended role. In other words, people are promoted until they are no longer qualified for the position they currently hold, and “managers rise to the level of their incompetence.”

In academic medicine, this is particularly compounded by the conflation of research prowess and administrative skill. Writing papers and even getting grants doesn’t necessarily correlate with the skills necessary to successfully manage humans in a clinical division or department. I don’t think it would be an overstatement to suggest that they may even be inversely correlated. But this is precisely what happens when research is a fiat currency for meaningful academic advancement.

The business world, and particularly the tech giants of Silicon Valley, have widely promoted (and perhaps oversold) their organizational agility, which in many cases has been at least partially attributed to their relatively flat organizational structure: the more hurdles and mid-level managers any idea has to go through, the less likely it is for anything important to get done. A strict hierarchy promotes stability primarily through inertia but consequently strangles change and holds back individual productivity and creativity. The primary function of managers is to preserve their position within management. As Upton Sinclair wrote in The Jungle: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” (which incidentally is a perfect summary of everything that is wrong in healthcare and politics).

The Three-legged Stool

Academic medicine is sometimes described as a three-legged stool, where the department/institution is balanced on the three pillars of clinical care, research, and education. There is a pervasive myth that academic physicians can do it all: be an outstanding clinician, an excellent teacher, and a prodigious researcher. The reality is that most people don’t have all three skills in sufficient measure, and even those that do are not given the requisite time to perform meaningfully in all three categories.

While polymaths exist, the idea of the physician-scientist is increasingly intractable in modern medicine. The demands of clinical work have increased substantially with increasingly advanced medicine, increased productivity/RVU expectations, often overwhelming documentation burdens, and greater trainee oversight. Meanwhile, research has gotten more complex at the same time that the grant money has dried up. More and more of the funding pie goes to fewer and fewer people. And, lastly, education is typically taken for granted as something that should just take care of itself, something we expect “clinician educators” to do without faculty development, dedicated time, or even credit.

It’s very easy to have an unbalanced stool. Departments tend to lean in one direction or another precisely because they are aligned to do so and are staffed accordingly. As Arthur Jones of Proctor & Gamble famously remarked, “All organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they get.”

Putting pressure on individuals to do everything—deliver excellent clinical care, teach/mentor students/trainees, and contribute to high-impact research—fails to acknowledge the reality on the ground that doing high-end work in any of these dimensions is hard. Without dedicated time and sufficient support, doing anything successfully for very long is a challenge. Trying to work toward impossible expectations (even self-imposed ones) is a big contributor to burnout. At least a veneer of control, self-determination, and respect are prerequisites–not luxuries–for a successful “knowledge worker”-type career. We could more reasonably expect people in every role to excel at one role, be competent at another, and largely ignore the third.

Hospitals and large academic institutions are not filled by flat teams of equals working on a common mission, they are occupied by layers of committees and bureaucracy. Rising stars often contribute more to their superior’s careers than their own. Progress, change, and new initiatives are choked by a spinning-wheels-grind of proposals, SOPs, committees (and subcommittees), amassing nebulous “stakeholders,” and every other trick in the large organization toolbox that isn’t bad in theory but should never be implemented universally and thoughtlessly. It’s all leadership in the I-attended-a-leadership-conference sense without any true leadership.

Physicians who focus on producing excellent care are derided as “worker bees” while those who believe in education are labeled “doesn’t like research.” And the managers rise to the level of their incompetence and perpetuate the hierarchy.

Meanwhile, the consultants and nonphysician leadership consolidate power outside of the traditional hierarchy. And how can we stop them, when we do such a bad job ourselves?

15 Comments

  1. Recommend “Sex and the 21st Century: AT-W/(P-I) x ATroc = Q” Vol I, “God Made Men Too” is a start. Vol II, “The Rrice of Eggs Is Down” will be on Amazon soon. Vol III “Every War Is An UnCivil War” will be a while, still 675 odd notes and references.

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  2. Thank you for the redux of the Peter Principle and a current succinct analysis of it as a medical problem. Somewhat amazingly, just yesterday I made the remark that the CEO of our fairly large clinical academic health program was “a poster-child for the Peter Principle”, then wondered how many persons today know what I meant.

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  3. Thank you for those thoughts. I just retired after 40 years of practice. I was a “Community” Staff Physician in OB at Stanford. I occasionally consulted with Medical School Staff on research projects . However the place couldn’t be less collegial to physicians in the community. Many clinical teachers used to come from community ranks, their interaction was valuable in training. The fiefdom of “privileges” at the hospital is guarded jealously by the academics and they have retired the title of Community Physician. Stanford is busy promoting their HMO in competition with other HMO’s. Needless to say it is a loss to medical education, in particular to residents who no longer have practicing role models from the community.

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    • It’s a real loss. A lot of programs overemphasize high-acuity inpatient care that doesn’t necessarily prepare young doctors well for the predominantly outpatient practices many physicians have, not to mention the lack of outside perspectives from outside the academic bubble. It’s a disservice to trainees.

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