Why an MD/MBA Makes Sense (Especially for an Anesthesiologist)
Editor’s Note: Dr. Sunny Vig is an anesthesiologist who blogs at youbethree.com. She has a lot of great insights into best practices for business. While her specific clinical experience is primarily in anesthesiology, her insights on business are broadly applicable to the medical profession more generally. This analysis of the value of an MD/MBA degree is the best I’ve seen anywhere. I appreciate her contribution to The Scope of Practice!
I made the decision to pursue an MD/MBA when I was still in high school. It gave me an “aha’’ moment as I always wanted to do something that was different and would set me apart. As far as I knew, no one else I knew was doing it.
While my initial reasons for pursuing this career path were pretty superficial, it didn’t take me long to realize how valuable a second degree would be.
Reasons to Obtain an MD/MBA
I like to say that doctors are the dumbest group of smart people out there. We have given up control of our careers to people who know nothing about what we do: administrators. This decision was made many years ago by physicians so that they could focus on their craft.
Now, we are paying the price.
Instead of being our own boss, we dance to the tune that managers play for us, not quite understanding why certain things are done or why certain policies exist. On more than one occasion, I have heard or even myself have asked, “Why do I have to fill out this form?” or, “There has to be a better way,” or, “I know a better way!”
Hospitals are business entities. Yet, we are never taught about even the most basic business components, let alone how to run one. We have no exposure to accounting and financial topics. We passively gain teamwork and team-building experience during residency. However, there are business concepts, communication strategies and lessons in leadership that we do not learn.
With healthcare structures and reimbursements constantly changing, hospital and physician reimbursement models will also change.
There is clearly a gap between physicians and managers, not just in communication, but in understanding as well. Bridging this gap requires physician leadership. We need to engage in administrative discussions, assist in formulating business decisions and be a voice for clinicians.
Why an MD/MBA vs Other Options?
Much of the pushback I got as a student was, sadly, from other students. They regarded me as a sell-out for wanting another degree. For some reason, they apparently concluded this meant I wasn’t serious about medicine. In addition to that accusation, they would question me about not getting an MPH (Masters in Public Health) or MHA (Masters in Healthcare Administration). They thought those degrees were more in line with a medical career.
My response: I wanted a broad understanding of business and finance. While those degrees are certainly helpful, they would not help me achieve my goal.
I wanted to understand all facets of business, not just the business of healthcare. I wanted all related business topics on my plate, not just public health issues. In particular, I wanted to understand consumers as a whole, not just hospital and clinic patient populations.
For me, an MD/MBA means I can work in any hospital, clinic, or government or private sector healthcare organization. I wanted those options.
Benefits of an MD/MBA
A 2011 study by Dr. Amanda Goodall examined the top 100 hospitals, as determined by US News and World Report, and compared their CEOs. Those with physician-based leadership scored 25% higher in hospital quality measurements. While there’s no direct causal relationship identified here, there is support for the idea that leadership without clinical expertise can lead to inferior management in the hospital setting.
Plus, a physician leader has instant credibility with both clinicians and managers. This makes it easier to bridge that gap between the two groups. Managers are more likely to trust someone with some business acumen. On the other hand, physicians are more likely to trust someone who understands the daily clinical issues they face. Having a physician be a part of administrative discussions also helps protect other physicians and related clinical interests.
On a more personal note, an MD/MBA can serve as a point of leverage to advance career goals. With an MD/MBA, you can move up the management ladder much faster than would otherwise be possible. If moving up the chain isn’t part of your goal, then just having the knowledge, an MD/MBA is still valuable. It can help you develop a better understanding of why certain decisions are made from a business perspective. At the very least, it can help you converse intelligently with administrators in a way that is effective and productive.
In today’s climate, hospitals see that hiring mid-level providers may be more cost-effective and physicians are too expensive. But, obtaining a dual degree and giving yourself another skill set will make you irreplaceable and even desirable.
How to Obtain an MD/MBA
A dual degree program means that you apply for both at the same time. Depending on how it’s set up, you may take a break from the school of medicine to enter business school. Alternatively, you may complete business course work side by side or go to business school during the summer months.
The way I did it was to defer my last year of medical school. So, I went through the first three years of medical school with my classmates, then took a break to join the business program. I was told that the admissions folks prefer that medical students come to business school after 3rd-year medical rotations.
Because that entire year of patient care is work experience. You can then bring those experiences with you to the business program, and you’ll get a lot more out of it.
Once a year of business school is completed, you come back to medical school to finish out your fourth year. My school had a 1-year business degree program, so this was seamless. However, before they became a one year program, they had students do a full year, then finish out business coursework or projects in the second half of their fourth year of medical school. As it stands, not all business classes are required for medical students.
Yet another option is to complete medical school in its entirety and then get your MBA later. Some university medical centers will pay for a second degree, expecting that you take on a leadership position when it’s done. There are also executive MBA programs available around the country.
- Take the GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test)
- Complete your applications
- Personal statements
- Submit your grades and GPA for undergraduate and medical school
- Go through an interview process.
- Then of course, you have your work experience during your 3rd year of medical school to help you out.
Unfortunately, this is another year of graduate school and so there will be a cost (unless your job is able to pay for you).
There is tuition and financial aid help available, and you can apply for some scholarships. Your MBA program may also have aid in place to help students avoid having to pay full tuition. So, don’t let the additional cost discourage you from pursuing this avenue.
There is a standard business curriculum that everyone has to take, and then there are electives you take on top of that.
You may choose a specialization within your MBA program. For instance, you can have a concentration in management, or finance…whatever interests you. I recommend that you pay attention early on to what you like so that you can sign up for the appropriate courses.
Why an MD/MBA in Anesthesiology, Specifically?
While I think that having some kind of business knowledge is important for every field of medicine, I think that having this kind of background is especially helpful in anesthesiology.
As I mentioned earlier, hospitals are a business. Operating rooms are the backbone of that business. As anesthesiologists, we are in a uniquely valuable position. We work with many surgeons, run multiple ORs simultaneously, are aware of recovery room issues and delays, preoperative preparation hurdles and hospital bottlenecks. We are intimately involved in all of the problems, and are often asked to come up with solutions.
In almost every hospital, the anesthesiology dept. is either in charge, or works closely with, the team running the OR board. In other words, we see and hear everything that goes on. Knowing the “why” behind certain problems and decisions, being able to converse with heads of departments and surgeons about systemic issues and working behind the scenes on protocols and solutions can all be enhanced by having a business background.
Your role as a clinician already includes business and leadership concepts. If you have career aspirations to move up, or just want to better understand, then an MD/MBA can be super helpful.
Opportunities In the Future
In order to be an effective clinical leader, you should complete residency and then assess your options once you’re done. I recommend this to anyone, no matter their career focus. If you end up doing a business degree, you’ll know to learn about and look for networking opportunities. You can use those contacts to find unique positions for yourself. You can also look into post-graduate training.
There are more and more fellowships in anesthesiology emerging across the country that provide exposure and further training in business concepts. This is true regardless of whether or not you have a dual degree. They are all one year programs. Some of them are linked to MBA programs as well, so then you’d spend an extra year obtaining your extra degree.
The extra training gives you exposure to everything that goes on outside of the operating room, at the department or hospital level. Some are geared toward public policy. Overall, there are post graduate options out there to help you pursue whichever part of the business of anesthesia you’re interested in.
While a dual degree, or a career in leadership, is not for everyone, I believe that physicians owe it to themselves to take back control of their careers. Even without a degree, you can be proactive about paying attention to the business aspects of your jobs, asking questions, obtaining information and empowering yourself with business knowledge so that you don’t get left behind.
Meet the author
Sanjana Vig is an anesthesiologist living and practicing in Southern California. She has a lifestyle blog at youbethree.com where she aims to empower others. Her blog reflects this mission through stories on life (finances, dating, relationships, and dealing with adversity), career (job advice, navigating the workforce), and travel (budgeting, solo experiences, tips, and tricks to being safe and having fun!). She can be contacted at email@example.com.
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