To change healthcare, knowing the business side is important — 4 physicians share why they pursued MBAs

More physicians are pursuing MBA degrees due to the uncertainty of Medicare for All, shift to EHRs and rising levels of health system employment.

Many physicians who are looking to diversify their backgrounds take the knowledge they gain in business school and bring it back to their hospital or practice.

Below, four physicians share their stories on why they obtained their MBAs and how they are using what they learned. The physicians are:

  • Thomas Schleeter, MD, chair of cardiovascular medicine at St. Vincent Medical Group in Indianapolis
  • Autumn Orser, MD, vice president of medical services at Peak Vista Community Centers in Colorado Springs, Colo.
  • Christopher McDowell, MD, endowed chair of emergency medicine at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield
  • Thomas Gardner, MD, professor of urology at Indiana University in Indianapolis and CEO of Strategic Healthcare Design

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Question: What inspired you to pursue an MBA degree? 

Dr. Thomas Schleeter: As a physician for 20 years, I have seen modern healthcare and its innovative treatments dramatically improve patients’ lives. However, I have also seen how difficult it can be for our patients to access and receive healthcare. My family’s eldest daughter was born with Rett Syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes severe disability. After she died at 17, we realized that she would never have lived as long if she would have been born into a family that did not have the resources to overcome obstacles of being chronically ill. To honor my daughter’s struggles, I have dedicated my career to assisting teams in advancing healthcare delivery for all. Although my medical training was extensive, I received no formal education regarding the business aspect to healthcare. Therefore, for me to be an effective leader in healthcare, I needed to learn a much different skill set. The skill set I’m learning in the Indiana University Kelley School of Business Physician MBA Program is preparing me to work with others to help mold a better future for healthcare.

Dr. Autumn Orser: I was participating in Colorado’s State Innovation Model, which is a CMS initiative to promote practice transformation and payment reform. I quickly realized that if I was going to be a change agent in healthcare and really participate in its transformation, I needed a better understanding of the business of medicine.     

Dr. Christopher McDowell: I recognized the MBA as a differentiator in preparation for my next career challenge. I knew it would provide better financial skills, enhance my ability to manage change, and improve my leadership competency.

Dr. Thomas Gardner: As a practicing urologist for the past 20 years, I have had the opportunity to deliver healthcare at VA medical centers, university academic health centers and county hospital settings. Particularly, in the last 10 years, it has become clear that decisions about healthcare delivery are being made by administrators and insurance companies -- both of which lack the knowledge or the correct incentives to provide patient-centric healthcare. It was this realization that led me to seek the business knowledge to effectively communicate with these decision makers. The ultimate goal is to have more physician MBAs in leadership roles to move healthcare delivery toward providing efficient, high quality, and patient-centric healthcare that practitioners can be proud of. 

Q: What skills/insight did you learn from your MBA degree that you have applied to your current role?  

TS:  The skills I have learned have been important and diverse. They include:

  • Understanding the true time value of money.
  • Understanding accounting/finance concepts.
  • Understanding how to read a balance sheet.
  • Developing true leadership skills.
  • Understanding influential behavior and how to correctly use it.
  • Developing operational/executional skills to take initiatives from conception to full operational excellence.

AO: Leadership isn't just good management. Leaders enable others to put out fires, so they can focus on the weightier matters.  

I've used Lean Six Sigma principles to eliminate waste and improve processes. During the Kelley School Physician MBA program, we used Lean Six Sigma principles to revamp our immunization documentation process, which has led to fewer errors, increased team-member satisfaction, and a potential cost-savings of over $100,000. I'm now working on a Lean Six Sigma project to improve our ability to address patient satisfaction, which has the potential to save $9 million in lost revenue.  

Using knowledge and skills learned in finance, I've completed my own return on investments in order to get senior leadership buy-in to pursue important projects.

Successful business hinges on relationships — notably our ability to nurture and leverage those relationships. I now approach every encounter from that vantage point and the results have been astonishing.   

CM: In my new role as department chair, the MBA has greatly improved my financial acumen with budgets. I incorporated my change management skills to facilitate a new departmental mission and vision.  Finally, I am using my Lean Six Sigma skills to champion a project aimed at reducing length of stay in the emergency department.

TG: The IU Kelley School of Business Physician MBA Program provided me with many skills including finance, leadership, marketing, and process improvement. While completing the Lean Six Sigma yellow and green belt certifications, I was able to apply these techniques to improve several processes at the VA medical center in Indianapolis. These process improvement projects have transformed healthcare delivery in the urology clinic at our VAMC, leading to decreased clinic procedural times, improved access, increased volumes, and improved practitioner and patient satisfaction. 

Q: How do clinicians with MBA degrees set themselves apart?  

TS: I believe that having an MBA allows clinicians to gain insights into the broader issues that healthcare is facing. By partnering with administrative/financial leaders, clinicians can help lead the evolution that is necessary for healthcare. Our patients, fellow clinicians and our healthcare culture demand a better system.

AO: Combining a knowledge of medicine, including the realities of working in the current healthcare system, with a knowledge of business is the most effective way to make a difference in healthcare. Being able to speak both languages is critical to bridging the disconnect between administration, physicians, and healthcare consumers. An MBA enables physicians to tackle the bigger issues like vision, strategic growth and partnerships, team-building and corporate culture.  

CM: The pursuit of the degree signals the physician’s interest in being part of the healthcare system on a broader level. Once earned, the MBA enhances the physician’s ability to speak the language of healthcare finance. It allows the clinician to be at the table during strategic decision making.

TG: By demonstrating the ability to transform healthcare delivery, you will set yourself apart and find yourself in a leadership position transforming healthcare on a larger scale. 

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