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More Doctors Getting MBAs Can Lead To Innovation In Healthcare Industry

Medical student
Sheila Sund/CC

The changing face of the healthcare industry is leading a growing number of physicians to pursue an MBA degree to complement their medical training. Close to 60 medical school programs nationwide now offer joint programs that combine an MD and MBA. An MBA degree can benefit physicians to move up in hospital management, help with managing their own practice, or help them become entrepreneurs, explains Todd Saxton, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, which offersan MBA program tailored for physicians.

In this interview, Saxton explains why more physicians are going to business school today, what they are getting out it, and what the experience is like for them.

Interview highlights:

Physicians with MBAs can help create better solutions to the problems facing the healthcare industry.

I am concerned about physicians being kind of bullied by administrators who are throwing around profitability and cost cutting as though those were the only solutions to the problems in healthcare. I think it has to be a broader conversation and it has to continue to protect the doctor-patient relationship. Physicians think very differently from some other professional service organizations. Reconciling business models and leadership approaches in the context of healthcare requires a lot of nuance and understanding of human behavior. Hopefully this is training that can help them look for productive solutions, enabling them to be better change agents. The objective is to enable these folks to be contributors to the dialogue and to a new approach to healthcare.

There are three different kinds of physicians who pursue MBAs: Leaders, Protectors, and Adventurers.

The leaders are folks who have moved into administrative responsibility and want more tools and training to better lead their organizations, whether that's their practice or a hospital system. The second group are the protectors, those who are dealing with people who are challenging them to cut costs—a recurring refrain—and they feel they don't have the tools to push back, to protect the doctor-patient relationship and some of the pieces of the system that are fundamental to good health care. The third group I call the adventurers. They're looking to get involved in the venture community or are entrepreneurs. This is an opportunity to develop the toolkit and to expand in new directions. A number of life-science ventures would kill for a chance to talk to a real doctor and get their insight regarding problems they face. This is an opportunity to connect with folks like that. 

Physicians who have survived medical school and re-enter the learning environment of an MBA program react differently than what you would expect.

I think we were expecting a little more contention and competition in the classroom for voice. But it’s an extremely collegial group across the two groups I have worked with and they are very interested in learning from each other, without seeing much ego come into it at all. They also really care about grades, which at this stage surprised me. But at least for many of them that’s still a strong driver. What they bring is a tremendous amount of intellectual horsepower and a real interest in learning how to translate concepts, but a lack of familiarity with not only the terms but also more of the conceptual skills—thinking more broadly about market evolution and the place of the organization within an evolving marketplace. And that’s something hopefully the program is offering but I think they are learning a lot from each other as well.