Building Elite Academic Medical Teams…lessons from the NHL

Teams are fundamentally important in academic medicine, as they are in most other highly complex endeavors in today’s rapidly moving world. Although academic medical teams are often compared to each other, or to teams in other knowledge-based enterprises, a useful analogy is to compare these teams to professional sports teams. In Manitoba, we have witnessed the development and evolution of a highly competitive NHL franchise, the Winnipeg Jets. Many members of our academic medical community are avid hockey fans, and faithfully follow the Jets through their inevitable ups and downs, wins and losses, player development and retirements, etc. Everyone has an opinion on how to get them better. It is a fun, and potentially illuminating exercise to compare academic teams in our complex academic medical organization to a professional sports franchise such as the Jets.

Consider this: The Jets need to have strong offensive output that results in consistent goal scoring, while at the same time playing sound defense that prevents goals from being scored on them. The formula is a simple one…score more goals than are scored on your team, and you win the game, win more games than you lose, and you become one of the “elite” teams that are perennial contenders in a highly competitive league. Have all of this come together, along with a generous amount of luck, and you might occasionally win that coveted championship, the Stanley Cup. Even Gary Bettman would agree with this simple analysis!

One can think of an academic medical team’s offensive output in terms of research and scholarly productivity (papers, grants, highly visible presentations, etc.). These serve as the academic “goals”, and the recognized metrics by which academic units everywhere are measured. In terms of defense, the delivery of excellent and cost-effective clinical care in a highly complex tertiary setting is an apt analogy. Breakdowns and weaknesses in this area can be thought of in terms of the “goals against” category and is a widely accepted metric used by policy makers, and the public at large. Elite academic medical teams accomplish both without sacrificing one for the other. How do we develop and support such elite teams?

As with the Jets organization, our academic medical teams have veteran players, rookies, a farm system, and a management “front office”. Our veteran players are easily recognizable, and an occasional fortunate one is destined for the “hall of fame” in their careers. Most of these veterans focus their careers on either the offensive or defensive side of the game. Expecting a “50 goal scorers” who brings in a ton of CIHR funding and publishes in high impact journals to also “kill penalties” and “block shots” when the team is shorthanded will predictably impact on their ability to score goals (yes, I know superstars like the Jets’ captain Blake Wheeler do this on a regular basis, but he is the exception). Ultimately, given enough frustration, the academic snipers may even choose to move to another team that better recognizes what they do best. In contrast, veteran players who choose a defensively oriented career by upholding excellence in tertiary clinical care cannot be expected to also score the team’s academic “goals” on a regular basis. They too may ultimately choose to play on other teams with whom their role is better defined and their skill set is better utilized. A team that overemphasizes and rewards only the offensive or the defensive part of their game will never become an elite academic team and will perpetually need to fill in their respective gaps.

How are these gaps filled? The approach adopted by the Jets organization is to draft and develop. Such an approach for an academic institution like ours would be based on identifying and developing promising medical students, residents, and fellows to ultimately have a meaningful and well-defined role on the academic medical team. Early in their career development, their role on the team needs to be sufficiently well defined to allow them to focus, while having enough flexibility to develop other parts of their “game”. Mentorship from veteran players, be they primarily offensive or defensive players, is critical for their development. Their level of responsibility on the team increases incrementally at a pace that allows them to develop their niche on the team and contribute consistently. Some may be destined to become snipers but few, if any, can score 50 goals early in their careers (a handful of generational players such as Teemu Selanne have done this at the NHL level). Others will specialize in defensive play and, based on our analogy, become experts in complex clinical care. Occasionally, we may witness the development of a gifted “two way” player, but to expect this as the norm for of all of our rookies is a recipe for failure.

Alternatively, we can try and entice superstars from teams at other organizations…say the “Leafs” or the “Bruins”. Often these are snipers with a well demonstrated ability to consistently score goals…sustained grant funding, publications, and notoriety. The problem is…everyone wants them. In turn, as with NHL hockey players, they are “expensive”. Although this is not necessarily in the form of their own personal income, but in academia, expensive is about finite institutional resources, a “cap” of sorts. Almost invariably this type of recruitment will take away opportunities from our rookies who are struggling to find their identity and niche. This leaves our academic organization with tough choices…sacrifice developing a potential future superstar for a veteran sniper who can help the academic mission today and raise our institution’s “impact factor”.

Ultimately, a key characteristic of elite teams is their ability to consistently play as an integrated team and overcome adversity together. The team’s coaching and management structure has a lot to do with this. In our academic organization, this is Section Heads, Program Directors, Department Heads, Deans and Faculty, and senior hospital administrations. They all have a role to play in our academic medical teams becoming elite. For those of us who have worked in an academic medical organization for a long time, it would be stating the obvious to suggest that each of these “front office” components are typically working from a different “playbook”. If we are to develop and sustain elite academic medical teams within our organization, this will likely need to change in a fundamental way.

Go Jets go!

Guest Blog from

Hani El-Gabalawy MD FRCPC FCAHS                                                                                               Professor of Medicine and Immunology Endowed Rheumatology Research Chair University of Manitoba

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