There's no doubt an MBA adds value to a physician executive's marketability, but how much has become the focus of a lively debate in healthcare.
"Somebody who comes with a medical master's degree and is an M.D. is so much more of a valuable tool to a health organization to play a management or a finance role," says Rick O'Hara, director of finance for the American College of Physician Executives.
The ACPE, a professional organization for physician executives, and Cejka & Co., a St. Louis-based healthcare consulting and search firm, recently conducted an in-depth survey of physician executives that supports what O'Hara and several recruiters are saying about postgraduate business degrees. Results showed physicians with no postgraduate business training reported a median income of $190,000 in 1997. Add a master's of medical management degree and the median income rose to $205,000, while those with MBAs had a median income of $200,000.
Susan Stevens, program director for the University of South Florida's MBA for Physicians program, says she has seen a strong push for postgraduate business degrees for physician executives in the healthcare industry since the Tampa,
Fla.-based program was launched in 1991.
She points to a change in the types of physicians enrolling in her program as proof of the MBA's value in healthcare. Some are seeking the degree solely to gain control of the business side of their practice. More frequently, however, they want to obtain a knowledge base that will help pave the way to a career in business.
"There are no guarantees in life, and it would be ludicrous for me to say, 'If they get this degree, they have a golden path.' But it's a door opener. It's something a physician can point to as having the fundamental knowledge," she says.
Recruiters agree that a business degree can make a candidate stand out from others vying for the same job. But they are split on whether an MBA will automatically translate into higher salaries.
"It makes them more marketable on paper because there are so many who have that extra management degree. It may not change their behavior, but it indicates a targeted and focused interest in leadership," says Carson Dye, a Cleveland-based partner with executive recruiting firm LAI Ward Howell. "The leadership skills themselves many times are already fully developed. . . . My clients will look at a candidate without a master's, but the master's degree is indicative of this focused drive to be a physician leader. So I would argue that it makes them more marketable, and because of that they are more highly sought after and the salaries catapult up a little higher."
Says Stephen Schoen, executive director of MDR Associates, a Miami-based healthcare executive and professional search firm: "Some who become M.D.s get MBAs soon after, and that's great. But they really should capitalize by being in the trenches for a number of years if they're going to be valuable."
In other words, a business degree from the top university in the country can't make up for solid clinical, administrative and leadership skills. It can open doors, but it can't replace well-developed skills.
"Right now, experience is still the best. It's the most valuable part of their resume," says Roger Rathert, M.D., director of Cejka Healthcare Executive Search Services.
Elizabeth S. Roop is a Tampa, Fla.-based freelance writer who specializes in healthcare business topics.