As ophthalmologists who care for patients over several years, our work may seem like a lifetime of service.
See a slide show of Dr. Higginbotham's board activities.
After all, our discipline offers a multitude of ways to change the lives of our patients by either saving or restoring vision. To be dedicated to service is truly a gift that drew many of us into the field. However, there comes a time in our lives when there is a preference that emerges to spend more time with family and friends, to fine tune or learn new skills and hobbies, or to do more traveling across the globe. For some among us who have served on boards of large and small organizations or nonprofits in our communities, we consider spending a greater amount of time serving on boards instead of taking on new activities.
For those of you who already have board service on your list, this brief article is not for you. However, if you have never served or you need convincing, then continue to read and reflect as we consider the potential benefits of board service. Before reviewing the potential reasons for considering board service, I will share with you my experiences and why I continue to serve on boards.
For the past several years, board service has held a prominent position in my professional portfolio. In the early ’90s, I served on the Academy’s Board of Trustees. As my first governance opportunity, it was the first time that I was asked to consider large issues affecting a complex professional organization in a complicated industry. The large issues were fascinating, as I quickly realized that the impact of decisions at the governance level can affect the sustainability of this vital professional organization and the livelihood of thousands of professionals.
It was there that I learned the benefits of understanding the critical elements of strategic planning and the art of governance. Following this experience, board service for some time resided primarily in medicine, serving on the boards of the Baltimore City Medical Society and the Maryland Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons, Prevent Blindness America and Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society.
One of the true highlights of my career was serving on the Defense Health Board, which advises the Secretary of the Department of Defense regarding matters related to health. For a decade, I had the chance to delve into key issues pertaining to military health, both in the theatre and active military. Issues such as ill effects of burn pits; the impact of the obesity epidemic on the recruitment and retention of service members; the care of the children of active military across the nation; and the care of active members who lost their limbs were among the topics we assessed. The board spent time also visiting bases around the country and learning from service members about the health issues that were most urgent.
This board experience was quite different from my tenure on the MIT Corp. and the Harvard Board of Overseers. These latter experiences provided opportunities to impact policies affecting these two major academic institutions, which of course became particularly interesting during the economic downturn in the early 2000s.
Currently I spend part of my time serving on the board of a large multibillion-dollar health system, boards related to the National Academies of Medicine, Engineering and Science and an independent faith-based K-8 school in North Philadelphia. I also serve on the board of a specialty hospital in the northeast. In summary, what I have enjoyed most about my experiences are the issues that we have tackled, the impact of our work both internal and external to these organizations, and the people with whom I have had the chance to meet and form meaningful professional relationships.
My interest in governance went beyond my participation, as I developed an interest in learning more about the key tenets of corporate governance. Driven by this goal, I was able to complete a masters in law at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School in 2020. It was during this experience that I was deeply inspired by the key principles of fiduciary responsibilities of board members: duty of loyalty and duty of care. When one considers these core responsibilities, it is clear that the role of boards is vital to the existence and sustainability of organizations. Although it is certainly not necessary to get a degree to serve on boards, I believe my masters degree provides a way to connect with fellow colleagues who are often lawyers and further deepens my commitment to meet fiduciary expectations.
The Triangle Community Foundation has noted four key benefits of considering board service:
To contribute your time to an organization or cause about which you feel passionate
To ensure that the financial infrastructure and investments are aligned with the core mission of the organization
To impact the strategic direction of the organization
To apply your skill set and talent to the mission of the organization
Applying one’s skills and talent is worth highlighting, particularly given what we as practicing ophthalmologists bring to the table. Consider the skills that you have acquired over decades of practice covering areas such as human resources, practice development and management, legal matters, employing analytical and strategic thinking and developing innovative strategies to engage community partners. When one steps back and reviews what has been accomplished over the expanse of an entire career, it is often extraordinary. There are organizations, both nationally and locally, which can greatly benefit from your expertise and participation. Industry is also in need of our practical knowledge for its mission to deliver care for patients as well as the fiduciary obligations to its shareholders. Participation on such boards is an opportunity worth considering and that can impact thousands as you apply your practice experience.
As ophthalmologists, there is another reason for considering board involvement and that is to advocate for eye health, particularly in those instances in which systems do not include ophthalmology as one of their specialties. Eye health remains underappreciated in population health, and yet ophthalmology remains critical to the health and wellness of populations. Eye health, however is often overlooked in discussions that often occur at the highest level of systems. A few years ago, the National Academy of Medicine convened a committee to consider the role of eye health as a population health priority. The committee’s recommendations can guide the conversations that may arise during discussions in health systems. As an informed advocate, your ideas do not need to be generated from scratch.
The horizon that lies ahead forms an endless landscape which offers great opportunities for engagement and involvement. Board service offers another option to consider on your list of possibilities as you craft your next steps in your new professional chapter. There is opportunity that such professional engagement may have the chance to add to your sense of purpose while benefiting the lives of patients. You can also influence innovations yet to impact our field and inspire future ophthalmologists who will join our field.