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How does one build a 41-year-old organization? My response today is different than it would have been 15 or so years ago, largely due to my increased understanding of the value of internships. During this time, we’ve hired numerous interns of differing backgrounds and skill levels and the overwhelming majority have made meaningful contributions that ultimately helped us build a stronger organization.

I define ‘stronger’ in differing ways. One is our ability to take on new projects where we can lead with creativity and enthusiasm; another, our reputation for offering interns – and staff – both direction and independence in their careers with us – which in turn helps identify us as an employer of choice; and, yet another, the relationships we build with our internship schools that lead to partnerships and opportunities not easily available outside academia.

For example, through the years we have hired more than a dozen interns through neighboring Oakland University. From exercise specialists to dietitians and, since its first graduating class in 2015, masters of public health students who brought us deep data skills at a time when outcomes reporting took on greater significance for reimbursement by health plans. So valuable were these MPH interns that we hired five of them upon graduation and all five are still with us seven years later. This cohort represented the next generation of services that could be offered by physician organizations, but also allowed us to meet new benchmarks set by the healthcare industry. It’s been a symbiotic relationship and one that continues to pay dividends for these one-time interns and their proud employer.

Not every intern stays with an organization, of course. In my experience, those that did not remain with MedNetOne after an internship but still wanted a healthcare career opted to pursue advanced degrees. Two former interns – both women now in their mid-30’s – come to mind. One is a vice president at national payor and another the director of operations for a major Michigan payor; both remain a valued part of our professional network. Perhaps the lesson there is to pick your interns wisely.

With fall intern recruiting season upon us at many campuses, and virtual recruiting a year-round effort, set high standards for interns as you would full-time employees. Look for go-getters who will roll up their sleeves to do the scut work but are also seeking stretch goals to maximize their internship. Grades are important, but so are leadership positions, extracurricular activities and a good cultural fit. Our interns, for example, frequently go right out into the field to interact with patients and clinical personnel, including physicians, and it’s important that they feel confident in doing so. While the comfort-level will grow as the internship progresses, there needs to be an underlying sense of excitement over the prospect of such real-world experiences.

Take care of your interns from the outset. First, they must be paid – regardless of what changing laws about paid or unpaid internships say at any given moment. In paying interns, employers are establishing relationships and showing value for the work being performed. There is also something that seems inherently discriminatory about not paying interns, as you then only get those who can ‘afford’ not to be paid.

Be sure to onboard an intern as you would a regular staff member. Starting a new position is daunting enough. Not having any guidance, direction or a go-to person to assist is frustrating and leads to meaningless internships where neither party benefits. And consider internships and mentorships in the same category. Young adults still in school yet on the precipice of entering their chosen field crave insights from a more senior professional who takes a personal interest in them. In mentoring, you are developing a future fellow industry professional or even a colleague. It is a privilege to have attained a position in one’s career that brings with it the opportunity to impart lessons learned and experience-based wisdom to the next generation.

As for my own internships? I don’t recall being termed an intern in those days, but early college experiences with political campaigns that originated in my Polish community in Detroit ultimately led me to meet mayors, governors, vice presidents and, yes even a president or two – not to mention foreign heads of state, ambassadors and even the revered Madeleine Albright. I’m sure it’s no surprise to readers that knowing political figures during a lifelong career in healthcare has its advantages! On a personal note, one connection helped me to bring my physician husband, then active in the Ohio National Guard 112th Medical Brigade in Honduras, home to be with his seriously ill mother. Interns never know where their connections may lead!