When Should MDs Get MBAs?

Elyas Bakhtiari, for HealthLeaders Media, July 31, 2008

There's a lot to be said for the U.S. medical education system. In a few short years it transforms the best and brightest young adults into highly-trained physicians with the knowledge and character to make life or death decisions.

But practicing medicine today requires more than strong clinical skills. There are also financial and operational decisions to make, and that is where most medical schools fall short. New physicians often leave training unprepared to negotiate contracts, cut practice costs, or deal with other business aspects of medicine.

This shortcoming is becoming clearer as reimbursement declines and margins tighten, making it more difficult than ever to run a practice.

Some, particularly younger physicians, are aware of the weakness and choose to avoid financial decisions altogether by working as salaried employees. Most physicians got into the field to practice medicine, so letting an employer handle the business aspects seems naturally appealing.

Others, however, are trying to plug the holes in their knowledge of healthcare and become more business savvy. The number of physicians returning to classrooms to get MBAs has spiked in the last couple of years, AMNews reports. According to the American College of Physician Executives, at least 2,000 physicians are enrolled in its affiliated master's degree-level business programs at any one time.

So how do you decide if getting an MBA is right for you?

First, understand that it isn't going to change your life, says Mark DeFrancesco, MD, MBA, FACOG, chief medical officer with Women's Health Connecticut, Inc.

"It's not like the Wizard of Oz where you get this and all the sudden you're brilliant," he says. "You're the same person you were before you had it. It's just a question of having more formal training."

DeFrancesco entered an MBA program after 10 years of practicing as an OB/GYN, and he now splits his time evenly between clinical and administrative duties. The value of the MBA comes from making it a little easier to switch hats between those worlds, he says. "Most of us that pursue this really do it to become the intermediary—to explain medicine to business partners and to explain business to the medical partners."

If that's not the career you had in mind, an MBA might not be worthwhile. An academic study of how MBAs affect physicians' careers found that most physicians spent substantially more time on administrative responsibilities after completing the program. An MBA can open up doors to administrative opportunities, but make sure you're prepared to lose a little clinical time.

Ultimately, a business degree will alter your view of the world, but what you do with it is up to you, according to Terry Loftus, MD, a physician blogger currently in an MBA program."It also provides specific tools you can use to re-evaluate how you approach your work," he writes. "It's similar to what I experienced the first time I used the Internet. I thought ‘That is really cool.' Little did I know at the time how indispensable it would become in my life."

Elyas Bakhtiari is a managing editor with HealthLeaders Media. He can be reached at ebakhtiari@healthleadersmedia.com.
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