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Do MDs benefit from having an MBA as well?

By Elizabeth Kwo, MD MBA – Senior CoverMD Contributing Editor


Dual MD/MBA degree programs are on the rise and many doctors are opting to do them to get work in the increasingly diverse business of healthcare. CoverMD’s senior contributing editor, Dr. Liz Kwo, decided to study for a medical degree and a business degree and in this article discusses the benefits of a dual degree.

Healthcare and Business Go Hand In Hand

All physicians can benefit from business training. Some type of management training could help them run their medical teams and co-ordinate their patient care. Some financial training could help them understand the economic consequences of healthcare. When physicians are sufficiently involved on the operations side of medicine, they can significantly improve the care they provide to their patients.

The number of students opting for dual MD/MBA programs is growing
The number of medical doctors opting for dual MD/MBA programs is growing.

The requirement for management skills in physicians has increased, as has the number of MD/MBA programs in the past decade. In the 1990s, the U.S. had about five or six joint MD/MBA degree programs but in 2012 there are more than 65 dual-degree programs offered in the United States.

“The MBA has definitely made me a better doctor,” said Dr. Peter Rocky Samuel, an Emergency Medicine resident at Northwestern University. “It is impossible to provide the best care to your patients without knowing basic management skills. In addition, medicine is increasingly becoming interdisciplinary, and learning how to lead diverse groups towards a common goal is incredibly valuable. I would definitely recommend the MBA to anyone interested in practicing medicine,” he said.

But, physicians do not have to earn an MBA to run a business. Michael McCullough is a trained emergency room physician who works as a venture capitalist in Palo Alto, CA. Steve Oesterle is a trained interventional cardiologist who is Chief Medical Officer at Medtronic, a multi-national medical device company. There are many ways to innovate in healthcare without having an MBA. In the business of healthcare, physicians can help develop ways to adapt technology to health care by using new medical devices, electronic medical records, and more. The MBA gives physicians a level of credibility to pursue more management roles or non-clinical roles. However, people do not need an MBA to succeed in the non-clinical world, nor will an MBA guarantee a job in the healthcare industry.

An MBA can help a physician develop better communication and listening skills

“I definitely think the MBA teaches you things the MD does not but it is much more about strengthening your communication and listening skills than learning about finance or marketing,” said Dr.Sophia Virani, an MD-MBA who is completing her preliminary internship year at Massachusetts General Hospital and will be starting radiology residency at the University of California at San Francisco in July. “I liked that we were exposed to a variety of different business strategies and worked through nebulous problems,” she said.

One difference she sees is that in medical school students often need loads of data before making decisions, whereas business school enables students to get comfortable with uncertainty and risk. “It’s a good counterbalance to the skills we learned in med school,” she said. “I think there are ways to go to actually integrate the two fields, but overall I'm still happy I did the MBA,” Dr. Virani added.

When physicians do attend formal education in business such as through a business school or by attending business seminars, they become exposed to a different world. Business schools have a mission to develop physician leaders, skilled in both medicine and management. Many programs are five years long, and focus on teaching basic finance, marketing, and strategy. The industries that are commonly discussed in healthcare within business schools are pharmaceutical, medical device, biotechnology, hospital, consumer inter-facing companies, and other health-related issues. Physicians bring a unique perspective because they understand patients and their needs. Most physicians desire to improve their overall effectiveness and efficiency and those with an understanding in systems management can help by doing more. Young graduates who are eager for a job in the industry can use an MBA to compensate for a lack of work experience. Older physicians can point to the MBA as evidence that they are serious about a career transition.

“In the business world, experience is critically important, however, for many young doctors as well as business professionals, there is so much to experience in too little time,” said Dr. Alexander Misono, an MD-MBA, who is a consultant with The Boston Consulting Group’s global health care practice. “The MBA allowed me to expand my thinking via "virtual" experiences, absorbing learning from countless businesses and industries...certainly not limited only to health care,” he said. He believes doing the MD/MBA is a different experience for every student. “I hope that the learning -- enhanced further by real life business experience -- will not only influence my approach to clinical practice but also my research interests,” Dr, Misono said. He will soon return to residency training, first as a preliminary medicine intern at Beth Israel Deaconess (Boston) and then as a diagnostic radiology resident at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Finding the right business school is key to meeting the goals of the medical student

Some business schools have a program focused on fundamental management concepts such as the program at the Harvard Business School that focuses on strategy, economics, finance, marketing, and operations. The program is developed more as an integrated curriculum, than simply as a sequence of MBA classes. These MBA programs influence career paths. Finding a school that fits the goals of the student is important because certain business schools, such as Harvard and the Wharton School of Business, have a more general management track whereas other schools may have a stronger focus on entrepreneurial skills. Medical schools train students through standardized examinations, using specific materials that everyone must know and memorize. In business school, the first year is usually a standardized curriculum involving marketing, strategy, finance, and accounting, but the second year can be individualized. Business schools do not require students to take the medical boards or to take exams like the OSCE (Objective Structured Clinical Examination).

A recent study by Joshua T. Goldman, MD-MBA, found that overall 55 MD-MBA graduates were fairly happy with their decision. His study showed that graduates considered the dual degree to be worth the time and the cost.

“The MD-MBA was definitely worth it,” said Dr. Kenneth Bernard, an MD-MBA who is a resident at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Emergency Medicine. “I saw a lot of similarities between the two fields. Business and medicine are about delivering promises to customers and patients. They both deal with interactions in trust and commitment. If either is lacking then things go wrong,” he said. The passion can wane when patients get hurt and customers get dissatisfied. “If you love what you are doing and strive to do it better, good things will follow, regardless of your field. I was happy to learn that business, when done right and conducted with ethics and compassion under strong leadership, can do great things for society and the individual.”

Interestingly, many physicians who want to become immersed in business have also decided to find alternative career paths rather than attend formal business school. Management consulting companies have been actively recruiting from medical schools. Medical students, residents, and people with biomedical PhD degrees are attractive to industry because these talented people are determined, motivated, and are experienced in their respective fields. With no formal business background, people trained in medicine can do very well in the business of healthcare. Consulting can train people to learn skills in communication and organization.

“I would recommend the MD/MBA to anybody with an interest,” Dr. Misono of the Boston Consulting Group said. “The MBA program probably has something for everybody. For those interested in applying the business lens to rigorous academic research, like me, it can be eye opening. For those aspiring to lead health care centers, it can be inspiring. For those seeking to spark innovation in future medical technologies, it can be energizing,” he said.

More MD/MBA programs are emphasizing healthcare and medicine-oriented business training

In future, many students hope that the business curriculum can become better integrated into the medical curriculum. The two types of educational systems are so different that co-ordination between the different types of schools is often difficult. However, there is a trend now where integrated MD/MBA programs emphasize more healthcare and medicine-oriented business training. The growth is fueled by: individuals who want to use their MD degree to do something other than direct patient care; and by those who want to improve patient care through good management of the system. In medical school, students have to work on their own to understand the didactic material and master the course work by taking exams. In business school, students work together on team projects and success in school is often dependent on skills such as communication, leadership, and organization.

About the Author

Elizabeth Kwo MD MBA - Senior Contributing Editor

Dr. Kwo currently works at Cambridge Health Alliance as an Internal Medicine Resident. She holds a MD from Harvard Medical School, an MBA from Harvard Business School, and a BA from Stanford University in Human Biology.

Read Dr. Elizabeth Kwo's full bio


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