HealthApril 16, 2020

Is the MBA for doctors the answer to modern physician career challenges?

By: Megan D. Williams

"Healing is an art, medicine is a profession, but healthcare is a business" goes the familiar adage. So is an MBA for doctors the key to facing the complex challenges that define the fast-changing healthcare industry?

Why physicians pursue business education

Sam Hanna, MBA, CISA, CBCP, CRISC and associate dean and executive in residence of healthcare management, technology and innovation at American University, explains where a business education can be a valuable part of the career development of the modern physician.

"Some clinicians, burdened by the weight of healthcare processes and technology, are abandoning practice and going back to business schools in order to work in healthcare administration roles," Hanna said. "Others, realizing that they did not learn essential business skills during medical, nursing or allied health schools, are obtaining their graduate business degrees to take advantage of opportunities they see in the healthcare system delivery on a daily basis."

Among plastic surgeons with MBAs surveyed for a study published in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, all were satisfied with their choice to pursue business education beyond their medical degree. "Overall, all the plastic surgeons felt that their MBA experience met their expectations and would recommend the degree to fellow physicians," the study's authors concluded. "Prime motivations included adding a new dynamic to their existing career, satisfying entrepreneurial drive, and gaining credibility in business, with monetary gains being low on the list."

The most important skills these surgeons felt they improved through their business training included leadership, management and administration — skills that matter more today than ever before. Consider Medical Economics' list of the top challenges physicians will face in 2020. These challenges include:

  • Hiring quality clinical staff

  • Negotiating better payer contracts

  • Cybersecurity

  • Avoiding lawsuits

  • Electronic health record (EHR) usability and interoperability

  • Increased competition

  • Administrative challenges

The majority of these challenges point back to management, leadership and administration skills that are deliberately developed and fine-tuned over the course of the MBA for doctors.

What about burnout, an ongoing issue for physicians and one that ranks high on the Medical Economics list? Especially in a profession plagued by burnout, building satisfaction and sustainability into a medical career is crucial. In an increasingly complex and administration-heavy healthcare environment, fighting burnout will require arming physicians with the skills to shape their careers to meet their own needs and respond to emerging industry challenges.

The importance of physician flexibility

Navigating technology

From the frustrations of EHRs to the constant threat of automation, today's doctor needs to be able to survive the rise of technology and work with trends instead of fighting against them.

Take artificial intelligence. Will it make doctors obsolete? No — but it may shape the position into something different from what many planned for when they started their medical education. Physicians working in the world of AI will need to use creativity and problem-solving to deal with complicated challenges. Both skills are core components of a business education.

Reimagining life as a doctor

Politics, hospital administration, venture capital software development — physicians today have an amazing array of options to choose from as they build a career. Yet most of these fields interact with business in some way, potentially making an MBA an invaluable asset for many doctors.

The pros and cons of business education for physicians

The decision to pursue business training isn't without its challenges.

Admission to most business programs will require additional coursework along with a standardized entrance exam. The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) covers basic math, multisource data analysis and grammar, so if you feel a bit rusty on any of those topics, you may need to study. In addition, the American Association of Medical Colleges reports that median debt from medical school hovers around $200,000. If you already have debt, you might want to think carefully about tacking on more money to continue your education; CNBC reports that average MBA student loan balances for 2016-2017 totaled more than $66,000.

But ultimately, most graduates find that the time, money and effort are worth it. A survey of three decades of physician graduates of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton business school found positive attitudes and an appreciation for the professional flexibility, career acceleration and credibility in multidisciplinary domains that their business degree gave them, according to Academic Medicine.

As you consider a business education, think carefully about your career aspirations and talk to physicians who are further along in their careers and may be able to offer some insight.

Megan D. Williams
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