A Chief Medical Officer (CMO) role is a position held by a physician who deals with business administration of a healthcare related company, often without any bedside clinical care.
Though most CMO’s are physicians, some are pharmacists, nurses, or scientists.
Think of a CMO as the intermediary between physicians and the executive administrators. Though the CMO will spend a lot of time worrying about numbers and budgets, they are held responsible for clinical implementation of the business.
There are CMO’s at the DMV, Amazon, Google, Johnson & Johnson, healthcare startups, and health insurance groups.
The starting salary for a CMO may not look that impressive, starting in the high $200,000’s as of 2018. But there are bonuses tied to this income which can easily double the base salary.
Stock options or other forms of equity are also common. And because you are considered a C-level employee, the company can often offer you benefits which they don’t have to offer to their common employees.
The driver for the salary is the size of the organization. At a startup you might get nothing more than business equity. At a megacorp you might start off at $1M.
If the CMO is involved in product development and sales then the pay is often much higher. If they are in charge of clinical operations then the pay may be more on-par with what the physician would make in clinical practice.
The responsibilities of a Chief Medical Officer really depends on the type of organization in which you work. Companies like Sony, Apple, and Daimler-Benz have a CMO who is either in charge of product development or overseas the physicians who work in-house to take care of their own employees.
The difference between a CMO and a Medical Director is that the CMO has to be more self-directed while the Medical Director gets their orders from higher ups.
As a Chief Medical Officer you are often given projects by the CEO which you have to own. You get to come up with unique ways of getting that project done but you’re evaluated on your results. The advantage here is that you get to utilize your delegation skills instead of your own sweat and tears, unless you’re in a small healthcare startup – there, it’s all on you until some revenue is generated.
Just like the CEO has to report their progress to a board of directors, the CMO has to report their progress either to a board or to the CEO – often the latter. But you’re not alone. You get guidance and help from all the different C-level members.
It’s common for a CMO to be in charge of:
- financial reports
- managing projects
- managing teams
- meeting deadlines
- a budget
- making connections with other CMO’s
- recruiting other health professionals
Do you need a JD or MBA or MPH in order to become a CMO?
If you have no executive experience then you will likely benefit from these professional designations, but that doesn’t mean you’ll do well at your job because of them.
Many CMO’s have nothing other than an MD or DO degree. It’s quite possible for you to pursue a JD or MBA after you’ve taken on a Chief Medical Officer role. This is a good way to have your company pay for your degrees.
Active medical license
Most CMO’s will have an active medical license. They may not be seeing patients but they might sign off on clinical work or make clinical decisions which requires them to have an active medical license.
On top of having an active medical license, it’s important to have had some clinical experience.
When I researched writing this post, most CMO positions which were listed required an active medical license in any US state along with clinical experience.
Does it matter if you’re a surgeon or a family medicine doctor?
Nope. If you look up the different CMO’s for different companies, they fall into all sorts of board specialties.
By the time you get so high up in a company, your specific specialty knowledge will become a lot less relevant. If you need a particular specialty expertise, you’ll be hiring that physician to consult on your behalf for that project.
As for an active board certification, I didn’t see anywhere where this was required. So, technically, you could just have an active medical license without being board certified. Or you could just be board certified with a group like NBPAS instead of our shitty ABMS alternative.
Usually, there is a natural career progression for a Chief Medical Officer. The physician takes on some administrative work at their medical group and either moves up the ranks or works at multiple different companies to gain relevant experience.
When a CMO position is advertised, it’s common for them to request that you have at least 5 years of executive experience. Meaning, that you have been in a position of overseeing others, delegating tasks, hiring/firing, and leading a team.
You will be asked if you’ve been responsible for managing projects from beginning to end.
Interviewing for a CMO position is quite involved. Expect to interview with multiple individuals and go through several cycles where candidates are eliminated.
It’s always important to ask what’s happening with their current CMO or who was doing your role before this CMO position opened up. This will give you a sense of how the company is changing or evolving.
If you’re going to go down the path of becoming a CMO, you don’t want to waste 5 years of life in a shitty position.
Skills you need
Being resourceful is more important than your pedigree.
You are held responsible for the outcome of a project but you will have a lot of resources at your disposal. Delegation and leadership is important.
Communication is critical. Being able to come across confident and being able to get your point across efficiently is critical.
In a CMO position, expect to talk to a lot of people and build a network of like-minded individuals who can help you out. A good CMO should have several mentors and several individuals who they mentor.
The more diverse experience you have the better. It doesn’t mean that you have to have spent decades gaining that experience but it’s helpful to have led a few projects and successfully brought them to an end-point.
For example, as of 2018, it’s good to have a good sense of telehealth, digital health technology for consumers, understand the various health payer models in the US, and have had a solid work track record.
To gain some of this experience, there are numerous boards you can try to volunteer on as a physician. This will fulfill the leadership requirements and you’ll hopefully build a good network.
Any consulting work you do will definitely count in your favor. It’s helpful to keep track of the various projects you’ve taken on so that you can regurgitate them later.
A great place to start is with medical startups. Many fail to understand the importance of having a physician on their leadership team – this is often an opportunity for you to offer up your unique value proposition.
Because physicians are expensive experts to hire, many healthcare startups will consult physicians on and hourly basis. This creates interrupted expertise and isn’t useful.
You can offer up your services to a medical startup on an ongoing basis either in return for equity or for a set salary.
But don’t underestimate the level of work involved. You have to be a lot more proactive in a young startup than you would in a mature CMO role.
Pursuing a chief medical officer role
1. Start interviewing
The most you’ll learn about a particular job is by interviewing for it.
Even if you don’t meet all of the criteria listed, apply and aim to get a letter back or a phone call with a recruiter to at least have some conversations.
It’s quite likely that even without the adequate skills you’ll get an interview with an executive at the company. This will help you figure out how to fine-tune your resume.
2. Gain experience
Join a board or offer your services to non-profit organizations in order to gain relevant leadership experience.
If you’re employed, it’s likely that your employer has multiple positions which need chairing.
At Kaiser Permanente I was on the urgent care expansion team and I was on the hospital’s emergency response committee.
Later, I became the medical director and was also in charge of our weekly department meetings. May not sound like much but it has helped me immensely in my career endeavors so far.
3. Call some recruiters
It’s good to get a sense of the marketplace. There are recruiters who do nothing but find C-level employees.
You can find such recruiters on LinkedIn and have a phone conversation to see what experiences they recommend you obtain. These individuals will have the best sense of which candidates do well and which get passed up.
4. Connect with CMO’s
Many CMO’s publicize their work. Try to find a CMO whose work you’re interested in and follow them. Strike up a connection on social media and exchange some emails.
This is the best way to find a mentor. Someone who can give you a good sense of what the market is like and who can groom you for an ideal position.
5. Develop an expertise
Start blogging or Tweeting or whatever about some healthcare related topic. Become the expert on that field.
You’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. Even if you just summarize everything you learned in one week from digesting blogs and news, that’s more than adequate to make you a pseudo-expert.
Don’t just regurgitate facts, offer some commentary. Companies who might be your potential employer one day will want to see how you interact with your readers.
6. Highlight your resume
Go through your work history and fish out everything relevant to being a chief medical officer. Create a special resume to highlight the projects you’ve been involved in and anything remotely related to leadership.
Most of us have taken on some sort of leadership. We have been involved in some sort of project. The key is to find that and highlight it in your resume.
Look at some CMO profiles on LinkedIn. Pay attention to what their work history has been, what degrees they hold, what organizations they are a part of.
8. Join up with other CMO’s
You don’t have to be a CMO to go to meetings where CMO’s will be present. You can go to CMO conferences.
You can also go to a conference for healthcare technology. It’s very easy to rub shoulders with innovative and enthusiastic chief medical officers at such events.
If you’re shy, pay extra for a VIP ticket. For the extra money you pay, you’ll get an executive member of the conference who will introduce you to anyone and everyone.
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Going back to #5, whatever you learn, try to highlight it somewhere so that it becomes your live resume.