In a shifting landscape, an MBA offers doctors a competitive edge

A physician with an MBA? It might seem counterintuitive. Doctors heal patients; they don’t balance budgets. But an increasing number of medical doctors are obtaining business degrees due to a combination of curiosity and necessity. Surgeon general Vivek Murthy is the highest-profile example, but industry experts say that an increasing number of physicians are turning to school to develop skills that simply aren’t taught in medical school.

“A lot of physicians are realizing that, fortunately or unfortunately, it takes more than just knowing medicine these days to be a good doctor,” says Dr. Maria Chandler, president of the Association of MD/MBA Programs.

It takes more than just knowing medicine these days to be a good doctor.

As changes to health care policy and reimbursements continue to shift, doctors want to position themselves competitively. Gone are the days of a small-town doctor seeing one patient at a time. Health care is complex, and it often requires nuanced understanding that transcends clinical acumen.

“[In medical school], what you learn is clinical, but you don’t learn anything about health care and industry functions. How many payers are out there? What does it mean to accept Medicaid? How does Medicare work? What kind of quality measures do you have to meet to serve those patients in different categories? There are a lot of nuances that they don’t teach you that affect your bottom line,” Chandler says.

These degrees benefit hospitals and health care organizations, too, as doctors rise in the ranks to become administrators. A 2011 study, by the IZA Institute for the Study of Labor, linked physicians in hospital chief executive roles with higher US News & World report rankings.

“Well-educated physicians who have received formal exposure in leadership and management skills … are also critical if an organization is going to fully leverage the potential from physician leadership,” says Dr. Peter Angood, CEO of the American Association for Physician Leadership. “With the ongoing complexity in health care, believing that if these changes to improve health care are actually going to occur, more physicians are recognizing the need (even a demand) for additional leadership skills and expertise.”

Today, nearly 27 percent of MBA students at the Isenberg School of  Management at UMass Amherst are physicians, and approximately 75 physicians receive MBAs there each year, notes Chris Pilsner, Isenberg’s assistant dean and chief marketing officer — and an MBA student herself.

“These are wickedly smart people, and [an MBA degree] is like opening up a door for them and showing them a light. It’s a different perspective,” she says.

Dr. Maggi Cary, one of the country’s pioneering executive coaches for physicians, agrees. She obtained her MBA after working as a physician in private practice; today, she teaches a course in narrative medicine at Georgetown University, helping physicians to hone soft skills like empathy. Her work revolves around the emerging field of training physicians for leadership positions, and an MBA is more relevant than ever.

“Both patient care and effective leadership are improved with learning the ‘soft skills,’ which are really the hard skills,” Cary says. “Learning how to read a balance sheet, a profit and loss statement, and spreadsheets is crucial for the business side.”

Dr. Andrew Norden
Dr. Andrew Norden

That’s how Andrew Norden MBA ’16 feels. The former Dana-Farber Cancer Institute neuro-oncologist and associate chief medical officer is now deputy chief health officer at IBM Watson Health, delivering knowledge solutions to physicians, specializing in genomics and oncology. Although he attended a top-ranked medical school — Yale University — he understands that traditional training doesn’t necessarily prepare doctors for this new landscape.

“Medical school is a four-year undertaking, and the acquisition of clinical skills requires didactic and hands-on testing. Not that long ago, being a doctor meant that one could work as an individual and take care of one patient at a time. As the world changes, as doctors are responsible for populations and for teams, where the relationships between providers and policy-makers are more important than ever, the skills a physician needs have evolved, too,” he says.

Learn more about the Isenberg School of Management’s partnership with the American Association for Physician Leadership.