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Member Spotlight—Karen J. Nichols, DO

Karen J. Nichols, DO, MA, MACOI, FACP, CS-F, is the Principal of her own business, Nichols Leadership.

What Are You Currently Doing Professionally?

I am lecturing and teaching workshops in leadership and women in medicine. The concepts I have been advocating have evolved into Physician Leadership: The 11 Skills Every Doctor Needs to be an Effective Leader, which was just published by Wiley.

Dr. Nichols is publishing a book on physician leadership.

Karen J. Nichols, DO, author of 11 Skills Every Doctor Needs to be Effective.

I’ve taught leadership to physicians for over 20 years. The skills and knowledge needed to be a great doctor are not always interchangeable with those required to be a successful woman physician leader. We need more women in leadership positions throughout medicine so I  captured what have been invaluable insights about the approaches that resonate when caring for patients and how to pivot to use strategies that foster effectiveness as a woman leader in medicine.

I’ve often thought that one common occurrence that physician leaders find challenging is that some of the approaches we use with great success in the delivery of effective patient care can totally backfire when employed in the leadership setting. I spend some time covering pointers about this observation in the book.

Conversely, another observation is that there are principles of communication that we always employ with our patients that also often work well in leadership situations but sometimes leaders seem to skip over them to their peril. Here, I’m thinking of two points —clarifying definitions and asking questions. If we don’t use these approaches in leadership exactly like we do with our patients, it is likely to cause a lot of unnecessary problems.

While this may seem counterintuitive, there are things that leaders typically do that we shouldn’t, and things we don’t do often enough as leaders that we should do more routinely. Learning which skills to employ in the patient setting and what practices we should develop for better leadership represent key messages that are explored in the book.

Tell Us About Your Career Path

I began my career in private practice with a double specialty in internal medicine and geriatrics for 17 years. In addition, I was the first chair of internal medicine at Midwestern University (MWU) Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine/Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine and then I was appointed dean at MWU/Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine where I served for 16 years before stepping away to focus on teaching and writing.

What Challenges Have You Faced in Your Medical Career?

Simply put, I have found that being a woman physician has presented myriad challenges at every stage and in every position. There were far too few women licensed to practice medicine in the US when I graduated from medical school, making us quite a rarity even in internal medicine. I knew I was good at what I was doing, and I worked hard and succeeded but it required extra effort that women physicians shouldn’t have to face just to do our jobs well.

Given Your Lived Experiences, Do You Have Any Advice for Women in Medicine?

My best advice given my own life experiences is to encourage you to try to prepare for the future but don’t think you can plan or anticipate everything that the future will bring. We are all in a F.O.G., meaning we must have Faith that the Future will have Options and Opportunities to reach our Goals. In plain language—Always be open to the unexpected.

Can You Recall a Lasting or Significant Influence that Has Impacted Your Career Trajectory?

I could never have anticipated any of the wonderful things that have come into my life. Don’t reject a position you haven’t been offered. Don’t decline an invitation you haven’t received. Don’t let preconceived ideas close doors before you have checked them out.

About Karen Nichols, DO

Dr. Nichols teaches nationally and internationally on the topics of end-of-life care, physician leadership, and women leaders in medicine. She was dean of the Midwestern University/Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine from 2002 to 2018, and before that, she was assistant dean and chair of internal medicine at the MWU/Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine. She specialized in internal medicine and geriatrics while in a private practice in Mesa, Arizona. She completed a doctor of osteopathy at the Kansas City University College of Osteopathic Medicine and she holds a Master’s degree in management with a specialty in Healthcare Administration from Central Michigan University.


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