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The business (school) of medicine

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The realization that business acumen is helpful to physicians is evident in the number of combined MD/MBA programs that are now available. The Association of MD/MBA Programs (mdmbaprograms.com) lists almost 60 on their website. The combined curriculum allows students to graduate with dual degrees, preparing them for both clinical practice and the potential to work in any number of health care administrative capacities.

For physicians who are already in practice and interested in pursuing health care business degrees, options are plentiful. Programs available include those that are fully on campus, partial residency with a hefty dose of online learning, and completely virtual. Some are aimed at physicians exclusively; others are open to a wide variety of health care professionals and others interested in the business of health care.

Why an MBA?

“Health care is complex,” says Michael Stahl, Ph.D., director of the physician executive MBA program at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. “Physicians used to go into practice and stay there for the rest of their lives. They might be elected chief of staff or chief medical officer based on their good clinical skills or popularity, but they didn’t need a lot of knowledge about the business side of health care,” he says. “In the turbulent and malignant environment we’re in now, if someone is going to lead, being good and popular isn’t enough. They need a skill set for the business of health care.”

Stahl says most of the doctors who complete the one-year degree at UT are interested in leadership roles. “That might mean being the head of a private practice, a department chair, chief medical officer or chief executive officer,” says Stahl. “The vast majority of our graduates combine clinical medicine and leadership, and we advise that. From a leadership standpoint, it’s the best way to find out if a new process or policy is positively impacting patients. And you maintain credibility and respect among fellow physicians.”

The UT program, which is exclusively for physicians, combines online learning with four week-long residency sessions on campus. Over the course of the year, doctors meet on 40 Saturday mornings from 9 a.m. until noon Eastern time for a live online learning session. “It includes two-way audio, PowerPoint and Excel spreadsheets on the screen, and everyone can hear everyone. We have students from all over the world,” says Stahl. Doctors who have an emergency and miss a Saturday class can download it later. In addition, students post assignments and reports to a website and get feedback from faculty.

The UT physician executive MBA program started in 1998 with 20 students in the first graduating class. This year, 50 will earn their degrees; 500 physicians have completed the program since its inception. Currently, tuition runs $74,000. “For most, the return on investment is very tangible,” says Stahl. “They either get a whole new job or a promotion in their current organization.”

Related: MBA options for physicians

Why pursuing an additional degree can be practical

Internal medicine, pulmonary/critical care and sleep medicine specialist Dana Supe, M.D., MBA, has a clear message for physicians—especially women—who are considering pursuing an additional degree: It can be done. Supe says being committed, organized, and having an ability to multitask is key.

Dana Supe, M.D., earned her MBA while working three jobs, raising two young kids­—and keeping focused on her goal of increasing her leadership and administrative skills.
Dana Supe, M.D., earned her MBA while working three jobs, raising two young kids­—and keeping focused on her goal of increasing her leadership and administrative skills.

“I was holding down three jobs and had two young children when I was working toward my MBA,” Supe says. “Some days you’ll be tired. You have to be goal-oriented.” Parenting responsibilities such as getting two daughters to tennis and piano lessons didn’t disappear just because Supe was busy. “I’d go to piano practice and take my laptop. Not a minute was wasted,” she says. “My kids didn’t suffer in the process. I’m a very involved mom.”

Over the course of just over two years, Supe completed 56 credit hours at George Washington University School of Business in a program that is 100 percent online. “Some people think online programs are not well-structured, but that is not true,” she says. Supe recalls taking tests online where only one or two minutes were allowed per question before the screen automatically moved to the next question. “It wasn’t like I could open a book and find the answers,” says Supe.

Supe’s goal in pursuing an MBA was to hone her leadership and administrative skills. “It helped me understand the business side of medicine and current trends in the medical field,” she says. Supe appreciated the fact that the George Washington program was both structured and flexible. “They offered recorded webinars and gave a couple of alternative days to take tests,” she says.

Related: Back to school?!

The MBA experience included working with other students on projects.

“One person would research the literature, one would draft, one would edit…there was a lot of collaborative work in addition to individual work,” says Supe. She has stayed in touch with many of her classmates since graduating in 2012. “Through my network, I’m able to learn how healthcare is being done in different places in the country,” she says.

One of the projects Supe completed during her course of study was writing a comprehensive marketing plan for the sleep center at the University Medical Center of Princeton, where she was serving as medical director at the time. “As a direct result of this project and the application of the strategies, I was able to quadruple the number of referring physicians to the sleep center in my first year of employment,” says Supe.

Currently, president and CEO of the Princeton Sleep Medicine Group, an Intensivist at the Deborah Heart and Lung Center, and Assistant Professor of Medicine at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey, Supe recently accepted a new position as Patient Safety Officer at Virtua health care system. “I’ll be supervising patient safety in four hospitals, implementing protocols, and dealing with compliance, management, and strategic planning. An MBA was a requirement for this position,” she says.

Supe says questions that physicians considering an MBA should ask themselves include: How can I incorporate an MBA program into my professional life? Can I afford the program? Can I maintain my professional and personal responsibilities while taking courses? “Have a clear goal in mind. Know what you are trying to accomplish,” she says. “In my case, I wanted to get involved in hospital administration and help bridge the gap between clinicians and administrators. I speak two languages now.”

How to use an MBA in medicine

A native of Opelika, Ala., a town that neighbors Auburn, emergency medicine physician Beth Phillips, M.D., was accepted into Auburn University’s Physicians Executive MBA (PEMBA) program in 2005. Having attended medical school at University of Alabama School of Medicine in Birmingham, choosing Auburn made Phillips’ family happy. “The University of Alabama and Auburn are big rivals,” she says. “It balanced things out.”

Rivalry aside, Phillips was attracted to the Auburn program because of its flexibility and good reputation. “When I started the program I had no particular objective except expanding my knowledge base. I didn’t understand business and I wanted to know what went on behind the scenes,” says Phillips.
Phillips completed her MBA in 21 months. The program included one long weekend on site during each of the five semesters combined with distance learning. Phillips liked this format because she could study while working around her emergency medicine clinical schedule in both community and teaching hospitals. “All of the courses were challenging, some more than others. Statistics and accounting gave me some gray hairs,” says Phillips, “but it was well worth it.”

Two field trips that were also part of the program turned out to be one of the most interesting aspects of Phillips’ educational endeavor. The class went to Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the Southern Medical Association as part of a semester-long class on health policy and reform. “We met with CMS and policymakers,” says Phillips. Even more intriguing was a week-long trip to London for a comparative health systems course. “We looked at their national health system, and it was eye-opening. When you see how it works there, you can see why it wouldn’t work here,” says Phillips.

Still uncertain about how she might use her business degree, Phillips began working as a flight physician for AirMed International, Inc., a Birmingham-based company with an international presence, while continuing to practice full time as an emergency room physician. AirMed International (airmed.com) offers critical care medical transport all over the world and has relationships with hundreds of hospitals, embassies, the Department of Defense, travel assistance companies and other affiliate air ambulance programs.

When the position of Director of Medical Operations came open at AirMed in 2012, Phillips stepped into that role and left traditional emergency medicine. She manages five departments and makes full use of her MBA to support the company with budgeting, marketing, business development and quality assurance. “These were skills I did not have as an ER doctor,” says Phillips.

Now chief medical officer of AirMed, Phillips also serves on the MBA Advisory Board at Auburn and uses her business acumen in her role as president of the board of Pathways, a nonprofit organization that provides transitional housing and education for homeless women and children in Birmingham. As if a full-time job coupled with volunteer work isn’t enough to keep her busy, Phillips continues to work a couple of emergency department shifts each month to keep her clinical skills sharp. “I plan to remain boarded in emergency medicine. It’s part of who I am,” she says.

Phillips says any physician considering an additional degree should not evaluate programs based only on how long they take to complete. “Consider the strengths of the program, look into the faculty and reputation of the program, and find out about the alumni network,” she says.

Using medical knowledge in the business world

Joseph Kim, M.D., already earned a master’s of public health—and is now studying for his MBA. “I wanted the knowledge base in business fundamentals and knew getting the classroom training would be of benefit.”
Joseph Kim, M.D., already earned a master’s of public health—and is now studying for his MBA. “I wanted the knowledge base in business fundamentals and knew getting the classroom training would be of benefit.”

Joseph Kim, M.D., MPH, recognized early on during training that he would not make a career of providing direct patient care. Instead, he intended to put his medical degree to use in the business world. “My wife is a family physician and loves it, but I’ve always had greater interest in technology, innovation and population health management,” says Kim. He earned a master’s of public health and initially worked in an organization where public health was the focus. He soon found he wanted to be challenged even further on a scientific level. He joined MCM Education (mcmedu.com) in 2006 and became the president of the company two years ago. Based in Newtown, Pa., MCM designs scientifically rigorous CME/CE courses for physicians, pharmacists and nurses.

Kim is currently enrolled in the MBA program at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “I had the intention to get an MBA when I realized I was going to transition out of clinical medicine,” says Kim. “I wanted the knowledge base in business fundamentals and knew getting the classroom training would be of benefit.” Kim says that one of the most valuable aspects of business school is the opportunity to expand his professional network. “In business school, your classmates will want to connect on LinkedIn, and those connections will be very valuable in the future.”

“There are still people out there who have a certain perception of physicians [as not being business minded]. If you have an MBA, they have a different perception of you,” says Kim. “I’ve met a lot of docs with MBAs who have no business sense, and vice versa. But down the road I might run into a hiring manager who has a traditional mindset and would look for the MBA.”

The program at Saint Joseph’s, where Kim is pursuing his degree, has a focus on the pharmaceutical industry and is structured like an executive MBA. “Courses are held on weekends, and you can create a flexible schedule. You can finish in two years or up to six. It’s highly customized,” says Kim. That flexibility is important to him, as he and his wife, Ellen, have three small children and another on the way. “I believe it’s going to take me five years to finish. I’m not in a rush and I’ve been able to balance things by taking only a handful of classes each year,” says Kim.

In addition to his full-time job and part-time student status, Kim writes and lectures about career alternatives for physicians. He’s the founder of NonClinicalJobs.com, an online resource for doctors who are interested in working outside of clinical medicine. Kim says he often hears from physicians asking whether they should leave medicine altogether and from students and residents who are concerned that they’re not well-suited for clinical practice.

Kim says physicians considering an MBA should keep in mind that a degree doesn’t guarantee anything. “It’s theoretical expertise and you will meet some very interesting people. The real application of business concepts happens in the real world,” he says.

Other advanced degrees for physicians

The American College of Physician Executives (ACPE) provides a wide range of leadership and business management-related educational opportunities for physicians. For practitioners who want to pursue advanced business degrees, the organization has partnered with four universities. Two schools offer master of medical management degrees, one a master of Science in health care quality and safety management and one an MBA with a focus in healthcare management. “Each one offers a unique focus. We’ve been very particular making sure that they’re strong programs and add value to participants,” says Peter Angood, M.D., CEO of the American College of Physician Executives.

“Physicians are busy. They’re also intelligent, highly motivated and altruistic,” says Angood. “With the direction health care has been going, many physicians feel they need added education to understand the environment and better articulate how to create change. An advanced degree can help.” Angood says that many doctors who pursue healthcare-related business degrees are on the cusp of entering into a leadership or management role or are new to such a role and realize they need more information, skills and knowledge to be successful. Others use their degrees to pursue careers in the pharmaceutical, device or insurance industries or in government.

“Part of the decision-making for any physician considering an advanced degree involved the finances and time required,” says Angood. The programs that ACPE has partnered with vary in terms of structure. Some require classroom time and others are taught mostly online. The time commitment is estimated at nine to 15 hours per week. Tuition costs range from $25,000 to $35,000, not including ACPE’s prerequisites and tests. The ratio Angood has observed is about 50/50 in terms of physicians paying their own tuition costs versus having it covered by the organization for which they work.

ACPE also offers dozens of educational courses, seminars and certificates for physicians who want to expand their base of knowledge but don’t feel the need for a formal graduate degree. One popular program is Physicians in Management, a five-day learning experience that almost 20,000 doctors have completed over the past 12 years. The ACPE has more than 11,000 members in 45 countries, but membership is not required to participate in their educational programs. Nearly 100,000 physicians have participated in some form of ACPE education offering.

Karen Childress is an award-winning author and frequent contributor to PracticeLink Magazine.

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By Karen Childress

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