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Open Access Research article

Managers' perceptions of the manager role in relation to physicians: a qualitative interview study of the top managers in Swedish healthcare

Mia von Knorring1*, Angelique de Rijk12 and Kristina Alexanderson1

Author Affiliations

1 Division of Insurance Medicine, Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden

2 Department of Social Medicine, Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands

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BMC Health Services Research 2010, 10:271  doi:10.1186/1472-6963-10-271

Published: 17 September 2010

Abstract

Background

This study focused on the manager role in the manager-physician relationship, considered from the manager perspective. The aim was to understand how top executives in Swedish healthcare regard management of physicians in their organisations, and what this implies for the manager role in relation to the medical profession. Abbott's theory of professional jurisdiction was used to inform thinking about managerial control and legitimacy in relation to physicians.

Methods

Data from semi-structured individual interviews with 18 of the 20 county council chief executive officers (CEOs) in Sweden were subjected to qualitative analysis.

Results

The results show that, when asked about their views on management of physicians, the CEOs talked about "how physicians are" rather than describing their own or their subordinate managers' managerial behaviour or strategies. Three types of descriptions of physicians were identified: 1) they have high status and expertise; 2) they lack knowledge of the system; 3) they do what they want in the organisation. The CEOs seldom reported that general management strategies were used to manage physicians. Instead, they described four types of physician-specific management strategies that were used in their organisations: organisational separation of physicians; "nagging and arguing"; compensations; relying on the physician role. These strategies seemed to reflect pragmatic behaviour on behalf of the managers that helped them to maintain control over physicians in daily work. However, in a longer perspective, they seemed to decrease the legitimacy of the manager role and also contribute to weakening of that role in the organisation.

Conclusions

Many CEOs seemed to regard the manager role in their organisations as weak and described difficulties in both taking and defining that role (for themselves or others) in relation to the physician role. Further research is needed to elucidate how managers in healthcare organisations assume the manager role in relation to the medical profession. Studies indicate that lack of clarity concerning manager role authority and responsibility may have negative consequences not only for the working conditions of managers, physicians, and other healthcare professionals, but also for the quality of care.