At this point in your career, you’ve likely worked with someone who has obtained an MBA during or after completing their medical education.
As previously detailed in an issue of The Atlantic, the MD/MBA is one of the fastest-growing degree programs with the number of joint programs growing from 6 to 65 in the past 20 years. Current estimates indicate nearly 500 students participating in joint programs each year with an even higher number of practicing physicians going back to school to obtain this degree.
Moreover, I suspect that this trend will only increase as physicians become more aware of a need to possess strong leadership skills and to broaden their abilities beyond clinical medicine.
So what are the benefits of obtaining an MBA? For many, the first perceived benefit is that of a higher salary. Indeed, it has been shown that hospital administrators and physicians with administrative responsibilities can earn more than their strictly clinical peers. Still, while this is true, my experience has taught me that there are many more benefits to obtaining this degree—and that it’s well worth the added financial investment.
Improved Leadership Skills
As physicians, we are often called upon to be the leaders of multidisciplinary clinical teams, community health initiatives, and hospital committees. However, we receive very little training in the matter. Most of us tend to model our own leadership strategies on the leaders that we have been exposed to throughout medical school and residency without giving much (if any) consideration to motivational theory. Participation in an MBA program is a great opportunity to enhance these skills.
One of the first courses of my MBA program was “Leading Individuals & Teams.” As the name suggests, the basis of the course was learning to become a successful leader and the various strategies one could employ to do so. For me, this course taught me to become more empathetic and to place myself in the position of the other members on my team: what motivates them, what are their goals in any particular situation, how might my actions be affecting them? By learning to evaluate an issue from the perspective of others, I have become a better leader and have seen significant improvements when assuming this role in both a clinical and corporate setting.
This is not an anecdotal belief but rather, one that is supported by research. One study showed that students enrolled in a joint MD/MBA program had a higher tolerance of ambiguity compared to their non-MBA peers. Tolerance of ambiguity is a crucial leadership skill especially in the field of clinical care. Not only are MBA programs making physicians better leaders, they are creating better clinicians as well.
Medicine is a team sport, yet so much of our training is an individual endeavor. As physicians we learn to trust our own instinct, to take full ownership of each patient, and to function independently. What does every resident crave? Autonomy.
Thus, it was no surprise that I initially struggled with the large volume of collaborative assignments in my MBA program. However, working through these struggles has been an invaluable experience for my professional development.
I have learned that you can take responsibility and ownership of an idea while still involving others to become more efficient and productive. Additionally, I have learned to appreciate the opinions of those around me and to utilize them to challenge my own beliefs; even my best ideas can be made better by constructive analysis from those with different viewpoints than my own. Other skills that I have learned include conflict resolution, communication, and the ability to trust those around me. I believe that these skills will only help me become a better physician and executive.
One very popular topic on physician blogs is that of physician burnout, which is a very real thing. More than ever, physicians are opting to leave clinical practice for opportunities outside of patient care. Furthermore, many medical students are finishing their fourth year unsure if a clinical career is the right decision for them. As such, many medical students and practicing physicians choose to pursue an MBA as a form of insurance plan or as a way of diversifying their career.
When I first decided to obtain my MBA, I felt that it would largely open doors to hospital leadership positions, medical insurance companies, or the pharmaceutical industry. However, I quickly learned that there are seemingly endless amounts of opportunities for physicians outside of clinical practice, especially for those with an MBA on their resume. Whether working for a hedge fund, venture capital group, or health tech startup, the sky is the limit.
Personally, I have already capitalized on several opportunities related to my MBA. I have gained experience working as a senior physician consultant for HealthGrades, provided freelance medical chart review for several medical malpractice cases, served as a market analyst for a medical device firm, and am currently the co-director of tutor training and medical education for Med School Tutors. An MBA can open an endless amount of doors. It’s up to you to capitalize on them.
Personally, I have always admired my more creative peers. For me, becoming a physician was an activity in left brain development. Medical training teaches us to become analytic, to strive for the same outcome with each patient, and to embrace evidence-based treatment plans. Go into a hospital and you’ll find a countless amount of treatment algorithms guiding clinical decision making from a patient’s presentation to their ultimate discharge. Walk into an operating room and you will see a highly trained surgeon attempting to perform the same operation, utilizing the same steps, maximizing the efficiency of their motions, and leading to the optimal clinical outcome. Medicine is a very rigid field. Training in an MBA program can help you become a more fluid and creative individual.
Business school taught me to embrace creativity and to, when appropriate, look for new solutions to old problems. One of the first books that I read for class was Creativity, Inc., a book detailing the rise of Pixar and how it encourages creativity and professional growth amongst its employees. For me, this text helped me to embrace the creative process and caused me to push myself harder in pursuit of novel solutions and ideas. Beyond being exposed to new ideas and case studies of truly original people (I highly recommend the book, Originals), just being around so many creative minds each day has helped my own growth immensely.
Now, when I encounter a clinical problem, I find myself asking, “How many different ways could I solve this?” or, “Is this the best way to solve this?”. These questions force me to challenge my own knowledge and beliefs and help me to constantly push myself to become a more innovative person. For me, solving problems has become more about recognizing a problem and leading change in that direction.
In closing, an MD/MBA is a highly valuable combination and one that will likely see its value rise in the coming decade. In addition to the increased opportunities it may provide you, I believe that it will make you a better clinician for your patients—and a better leader for those around you.