More physicians adding MBA to leadership formula

Keith Gray, MD, has practiced surgical oncology at University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville for 15 years, during which time he has held roles including executive vice president and chief medical officer, chief of the division of surgical oncology, chief of staff and medical director of multiple service lines. Most recently, on July 1 he became president of UTMC, and will become president and CEO, effective April 1. 

He told Becker's these roles have shaped his journey to the top post.

"I was the second member of my division, and I was doing complex cases and found the opportunity throughout my early career to solve problems that existed, whether that was nursing education or building service lines that made our services more accessible to the community," Dr. Gray said. "And in that problem-solving journey, it led to more leadership responsibility."

His first enterprisewide leadership role came in 2012, when he was elected chief of staff. He said he realized he was selected based on his clinical acumen and relationship with the medical staff rather than on administrative preparation. 

"I realized quickly that I was ill prepared to understand the business of medicine," Dr. Gray said. "And I understood pretty quickly that I didn't want any leaders that came after me in similar roles to feel the way that I felt." 

This led him to complete an MBA in 2014. He also co-founded and is a graduate of UTMC's Physician Leadership Academy, which emphasizes blending medical and business acumen.

Dr. Gray is one example of a growing trend of physicians with MBAs running hospital systems. Overall, about one-third of physician executives have an MBA or equivalent, according to executive search firm Korn Ferry. Fifteen percent of CEOs at the 40 largest U.S.-based health systems were practicing physicians before their appointment to administrative roles.

Charlie Falcone, MD, is the global leader of the academic sector overseeing the academic medicine, academic health and higher education practices across Korn Ferry business lines. He also served as director of the Korn Ferry Physician Leadership Institute. 

Dr. Falcone, who has an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., reported a "profound" evolution of the physician leader over the last two decades. 

"I got my MBA in 2000, and there were two other physicians in my class at the time," Dr. Falcone said. "Fast-forward to 2023 and if you go into any MBA class, you're going to see far more in the way of representation of physicians getting their MBA."

Additionally, physicians are pursuing a master of health administration or a mof public health.

All these educational endeavors may help physicians compete with their non-physician counterparts for top C-suite roles, Dr. Falcone told Becker's.

"You've got physicians over the course of the last 10-plus years taking more control over the healthcare environment and their destiny," he said. "Thinking back to when I trained in the early 1990s, physicians were comfortable coming out and practicing and doing that for the rest of their lives. As you move forward and as healthcare became more complex and as finances became more finite, physicians understood that to be able to be more in charge of their destiny as practitioners and leaders, they needed to get more involved in the day-to-day operations and the management of the healthcare facilities."

He also said the evolution of healthcare in recent years contributed to "a perfect storm with regard to physicians understanding they need to garner even more skill sets."

At UTMC's Physician Leadership Academy, Dr. Gray strives to be intentional about training for the business of healthcare. He said he wanted to create a program that was accessible and affordable and relevant to the issues UTMC is experiencing.

"What has made the program successful and what has made us successful from an organizational standpoint and promoting physicians into leadership positions is relationship[s]," Dr. Gray said. "Building a relationship among physician leaders and then having physician leaders build relationships with administrative leaders."

He said the Physician Leadership Academy also "quickly separated the wheat from the chaff, meaning those physicians who were really interested in healthcare administration and those who decided that this was not for them."

About 10 percent of academy graduates have gone on to seek an MBA.

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