I am often asked, “Why did you do a health care MBA? And, would you recommend it to others?” In short, absolutely. Here’s why.
DOWN MEMORY LANE
Growing up, I loved the show Scrubs. When I was in high school, I loved the slapstick humor and the memorable characters. As a doctor, I love the fact that that show was...well, spot on. Over a decade later, no other medical show has come close to nailing the residency experience quite like Scrubs. We all had a favorite character, and, can you guess mine? Yep, it was Dr. Kelso. The Scrooge-y Dr. Kelso is the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of Sacred Heart, and many episodes are dedicated to making him the main antagonist of the show, juxtaposed neatly against the slightly psychotic protagonist, Dr. Cox. At first glance, all Dr. Kelso cares about is money. Despite his MD, he spends little time concerned with “patient care” and expends most his energy finding ways to squeeze every penny from his inpatients. This leads to several hilarious fights over morality between Dr. Cox and Dr. Kelso, as Cox believes every single patient deserves to be treated, while Kelso seems to take joy in denying care to those who can’t pay. As we find out later in the series, Kelso’s agenda was developed from a lifetime of making tough decisions to keep his hospital from closing—even if that meant denying certain patients care. I reflect on Dr. Kelso because most physicians (like Dr. Cox) have absolutely no idea what it takes to run a hospital or a clinic, and with good reason.
IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES, IT WAS THE WORST OF TIMES
The four years of medical school are jam-packed with raw medical knowledge you have to learn. You begin with anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pathology, pharmacology, immunology (just to name a few), alongside countless exams, presentations, and practicals. Then you’re off to clinical rotations, where you are busy trying to suture, help with gunshot wounds, and convince parents that they should vaccinate their kids. The funny thing is, you are immersed in the world health care delivery every moment of your life, and yet are given little time to consider what makes it sustainable.
For example, you are given extensive training on how to do a patient exam, but not about how you are reimbursed for it. What are the different parts of Medicare again? You become used to patient moans and groans about insurance bills and coverage, but you don’t have time to think about that! The front desk will handle it. You order a CBC, a stat CT, a molecular panel on a new tumor, and a unit of platelets all in one day, but you never consider how much each click costs your patient. You might work at a clinic, but you won’t learn what it takes to start your own practice. What is the difference between revenue and overhead? You may choose to work in a hospital, but you aren’t taught what measures are taken to keep that hospital’s doors open every day. What is an HMO? An ACO? What is surprise billing and what does it have to do with me and my patients?
The hard reality is, there is simply is no time to learn about the practical aspects of health care during medical school. You are completely inundated with information, and painfully short on time. Since medical knowledge has exploded within recent decades, even four years of curriculum doesn’t seem enough to prepare you for practice.
That’s where a health care MBA comes into play. An MBA empowers you with the skills you need to approach medicine from a completely different perspective than medical school. It forces you to look at the functionality of modern medicine and analyze the costs, sustainability, and management of operations. Most importantly, it teaches you how to think critically to solve imminent problems within small and large medical systems.
MBA IN HEALTH CARE LEADERSHIP
While every health care MBA is slightly different, I can shed some light about my own particular path. I completed a four-year dual degree, DO/MBA program at Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City. I completed my Masters in Business Administration with a focus in Health Care Leadership at Rockhurst University in Kansas City. A dual degree in medical school is exceptionally hard, but not impossible. The curriculum spanned approximately four years, and ran concurrently with medical school. Once a week after a day of medical school lectures (which ran from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.), we would go to MBA night lectures. They would typically start at 6:00 pm and would run until 9 or 10 p.m. We had homework, papers, presentations, and group projects. After the first year of medical school, many programs grant students a summer break. During this time, we went to MBA summer school and attended classes from morning till evening to complete our credits. The remaining three years we switched back to night classes, and graduated in May of our 4th year with both degrees, DO and MBA, simultaneously.
SUBJECTS IN HEALTH CARE MBAS
The classes I took within my MBA included the following:
THE EXECUTIVE MBA
If you didn’t get a chance to complete an MBA during medical school or before you entered the work force, don’t worry. The Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA) is a degree program designed for people who are already employed. It’s a great option for physicians that want to take the next step in administration, or those who simply want to learn more about the business of health care. EMBAs teach the same content as a regular MBA, but they are structured so that you can earn the degree while working at a full-time job. Universities that offer EMBAs often target corporate executives and managers, but there are programs that are geared toward physicians as well. Look for a program that offers health care as a focus or one that caters specifically to physicians for the most bang for your buck.
What many people don’t understand, is that an MBA doesn’t mean you will magically be good at business, or that you will suddenly become the CEO of Kaiser Permanente. An MBA is a magnificent toolbox, full of skills that empower you to succeed should you ever use them. These skills are not directly medically related—they won’t help you treat a rare disease or discover a new tumor translocation. But what they will help you do is move from situational awareness to big-systems thinking. They will prepare you to become a leader, to speak well and write well, to understand the economy as it relates to health care, to decipher insurance company agendas, to make sense of billing and reimbursements, and all the other things that help keep hospitals and clinics afloat. Your knowledge and skills will help you evaluate earnings and expenditures and master practical knowledge that will allow you to establish a practice from scratch. They will even help you understand health care on a global scale, so that you could apply what works and improve what doesn’t, in nations across the world.
Many of my attendings were skeptical of my MBA. “Why are you wasting your time doing an MBA when you’re going into pathology?” one surgeon asked me. “Not like you’re gonna open up your own practice!” He giggled contentedly at his joke. Another clinician asked me, “So what’s the point? Pathologists aren’t exactly leadership material. They never sit on the board of anything.” Countless others asked me, “What exactly are you planning on doing with your MBA?” with lingering expectation of an immediate response. As if getting an MBA meant that I would need to create something quantifiable, such as a company, to justify my degree (okay so I did do that, but not to placate them!).
MY TWO CENTS
So here’s the deal. Getting an MBA is like getting a high school diploma or a college degree. It doesn’t ensure you’ll get a job, and it doesn’t ensure that you’ll be an expert. It definitely doesn’t ensure that you’ll own your own practice, or be the CMO of a hospital. What you’ll have instead is perspective and a handful of valuable skills that will allow you to analyze the medical landscape around you, identify and solve problems, and help you evolve into a confident communicator that can assume a leadership position and represent yourself or an institution with clout. Not to mention, it also makes you an extremely competitive candidate for almost any specialty, and gives you a leg up if you’re interested in an administrative medical career.
THE FINAL WORD
In short, an MBA doesn’t give you anything. You get what you take from it, like most things in life. Oh, and...it turned out that Dr. Kelso wasn’t the bad guy after all. He was just the guy that kept the lights on in the hospital.