Having Business Know-How Opens Up New Career Opportunities for Physicians

From a young age, Annie Hsiao dreamed of going to medical school. She shadowed doctors during high school and would ask them for career advice. Inevitably, every doctor she spoke to recommended getting more business experience. “It was remarkable how frequently I heard the same answer from different doctors,” recalled Hsiao. “I always kept that advice in the back of my mind.”

When Hsiao finally applied to Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, she chose to pursue a joint MD-MBA program with the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. “I remember hearing a lot about the program and knew it would be the perfect fit for me.”

A growing number of students are opting for business, management, and finance courses alongside their anatomy and physiology classes. In response, more medical schools are including business course work as part of their general curriculum or in collaboration with business schools. Other schools make business electives available to medical students. In addition, there are more than 70 MD-MBA programs throughout the country for those seeking in-depth education in both disciplines.

Medical school graduates by graduation year and program completed, 2003–2016
Number of Graduates
Graduation Year MD Program    Other Combined Program     Combined MD-MBA Program     Total MD Graduates
2003 14,554     915  61  15,530
2004 14,805    943 78     15,826
2005 14,811    874  79     15,764
2006 14,816     1,047     64 15,927
2007 14,898     1,163 79  16,140
2008 14,872     1,212 84 16,168
2009 15,119     1,251 96     16,466
2010 15,468     1,232 135     16,835
2011 15,939 1,285 138 17,362
2012 15,827  1,392 125 17,344
2013 16,459 1,574  122 18,155
2014 16,413 1,558 101 18,072
2015 16,827 1,743 135     18,705
2016 17,071   1,720 148 18,939
Total 217,879  17,909 1,445 237,233
Source: AAMC Data Warehouse student tables as of Dec. 15, 2016.

The business of medicine

Why the emphasis on business? “The health care landscape has rapidly changed with different delivery and payment models,” said Brad Sutton, MD, MBA, assistant dean for health strategy and innovation at the University of Louisville School of Medicine (ULSOM) in Kentucky. “Future doctors need broader instructional exposure to understand and succeed in this environment.”

Medical students trained in business and economic principles have a greater range of career options. too. Some physicians with business exposure remain in full-time clinical practice, but others may choose part-time practice and pick up additional administrative duties at hospitals, large medical group practices, and insurance companies. In addition, physicians with business backgrounds may be better equipped to navigate the momentous medical and financial changes predicted in the health care system. 

Students at ULSOM can pursue an MD-MBA degree or take selected courses in business offered at the school. In addition, ULSOM offers a competitive Distinction Track in Business and Leadership. About five first-year students are selected for this program, and then they meet regularly throughout medical school to explore the intersection of business and medicine. 

“The health care landscape has rapidly changed with different delivery and payment models.... Future doctors need broader instructional exposure to understand and succeed in this environment.”

Brad Sutton, MD, MBA 
University of Louisville School of Medicine

Created in 2012, the program pairs students in this business and leadership track with a mentor. The learning focus is on leadership training, health care reform, systems engineering, and an introduction to health economics. Before the end of the program, students are expected to develop a capstone project that is presented or published.

Fourth-year student Nate Wiedemann completed the program and finished his project on the financial impact of using point-of-care ultrasound in a critical care environment. After residency, Wiedemann hopes to practice family medicine in an outpatient setting for several years and then potentially move into administration at a hospital or outpatient setting.

“I want to bring positive change to health care to make things more efficient on a macro level,” Wiedemann explained. “Leadership skills and knowledge of how the health care system works will be needed to do that.”

Bringing business into the curriculum

In 1981, the University of Pennsylvania established one of the first MD-MBA programs with its top-ranked business college, the Wharton School.  The Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania also incorporated into the curriculum a health care systems course, which is required for first-year students. The course covers the organizational principles of health care and government systems. Students learn about social health care and health care disparities as well as how hospitals and insurance companies operate.

Monday, February 06, 2017

The MD-MBA path

During 2016, nearly 150 students enrolled in these joint MD-MBA programs, according to AAMC data. While this is a small percentage of MD graduates overall, the number of students in these programs increased by about 143 percent between 2003 and 2016, according to Michael Dill, MPAP, director of workforce studies at the AAMC. 

Students who select an MD-MBA program often pursue careers in medicine with both clinical and administrative responsibilities. The specialized coursework prepares students to run clinics and medical centers more effectively, oversee health care organizations, manage research projects, or advocate for their patients and work to improve the health care system.

Typically, students enter a 12- or 18-month MBA program after the second or third year of medical school, usually finishing in five years. This means they also start residency later than other students. One downside: the cost of dual degrees adds to the overall costs of a student’s education, and the year’s delay in starting a residency means an additional year without a salary.

“There’s been some debate over the years about when to have the course,” said Stanley Goldfarb, MD, professor of medicine and associate dean for curriculum at the Philadelphia-based school. “Because the course occurs during year one, it makes it difficult to include it after the preclinical curriculum concludes.”

Medical students at Perelman may also take individual classes at Wharton or participate in a certificate program, called PennHealthX, which is focused on entrepreneurship. PennHealthX combines coursework, workshops, and real-world experiences for students whose goal is to become health care system leaders.

At the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, there’s an elective course, Medical Care and the Corporation, typically taken by 20 percent of the first-year class. Offered through Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, the course examines critical issues of health care delivery and how employee-sponsored health care plays an important role in the health care system.

“It’s become a very popular course because it mixes together students from medical school and business school in an environment where they work together and learn from each other,” said Michael Zubkoff, PhD, director of Dartmouth’s MD-MBA program and professor at the Geisel School of Medicine and at the Tuck School. He added that these types of courses, and especially the MD-MBA program, which graduates about six to eight students each year, really open up interesting career opportunities for future doctors.
Now a third-year student, Hsiao is focused on the benefits of her business training and is open to different career paths like hospital administration. “I learned there are many diverse career opportunities for doctors with MBAs,” said Hsiao, who is still considering which career path to follow after she completes her residency. “I feel like my MBA has prepared me for the real world by making me more aware of the complexities of medical and management issues.”