MBA programs for physicians have become increasingly popular as physicians seek to acquire the knowledge and skills to deal with a changing healthcare industry.
The MBA affords physicians a career option to either pursue full-time physician leadership or a mix of physician leadership with clinical duties.
One reason physicians want to find alternatives is the fact that managed care, in its attempts to control costs, has been associated with decreased utilization of physicians, creating an oversupply. As HMOs are particularly interested in controlling the utilization of specialists, oversupply is worse in this group. Hence, they represent the majority of students in physician MBA programs.
Few physicians are able to leave their practices for two years to study in traditional full-time MBA programs. Thus, there has been growth in physician-oriented MBA programs employing innovative scheduling and technology so that the physician can pursue an MBA while maintaining a practice or a position with an organization.
The Physician Executive MBA (PEMBA) in the College of Business at the University of Tennessee is accredited by AACSB--the International Association for Management Education. All 20 physicians from the Class of 1998 and all 26 physicians in the Class of 1999 completed a survey last year, covering demographic and career topics.
The average age of the physicians in the 1998 class was 45.7, and the average age in the 1999 class was 43.5. Most were in the 41-50 age bracket. The average experience in the healthcare industry for the two groups was 19.2 years and 16.6, respectively. These men and women brought a substantial amount of experience to their decision to pursue an MBA.
For example, Alan Lassiter, M.D., president and CEO of the Cook Children's Physicians Network in Fort Worth, Texas, and a 1999 graduate of the program, has been in medicine for 20 years. And 1998 graduate Marcia Coleman, M.D., assistant vice president of health outcomes and disease management at Philadelphia's Wyeth Ayerst Pharmaceuticals, graduated from medical school in 1974. Lassiter and Coleman's comments were not part of the Tennessee survey; Modern Physician contacted some graduates directly for their comments on the program.
According to the survey, most of the physicians practiced in larger communities, with only 12% practicing in communities with population less than 20,000. The majority (57%) were in group practices, but 13% were solo practitioners.
Along with primary care physicians, 26 different subspecialties were noted. Emergency medicine and orthopedic surgeons accounted for 11% and family medicine 9%. Only one was an administrative physician.
Most of the physicians (64%) paid the $40,000 tuition themselves, while 23% received some subsidy from their groups. Personal enhancement was the most frequently stated reason for pursuing this degree, with seeking a management position second. The physicians continued practicing while committing 27 hours per week to the academic requirements of the yearlong program.
Within one year of graduation, eight of the 20 physicians in the class of 1998 had assumed new leadership titles (see box on page 98).
A valued aspect of this program was that the physicians were able to receive academic assignments and carry out most of their requirements by computer while remaining in their hometowns and continuing to practice. Compulsory classes were held via the Internet once a week, with two-way data and two-way audio facilitating interaction.
Lassiter was extremely pleased with this aspect of the course. He was skeptical in the beginning about interactive learning but is now a firm believer in its benefits.
In addition to computer "boot camp" at the beginning of the course, he had to become adept at spreadsheets, Web page building, PowerPoint and many other computer applications in order to complete course assignments. He also says that electronic learning kept him much more focused on the material than in a traditional classroom. He says that interactive learning "enhanced the learning experience rather than detracting from it."
Many of the participants did not feel the program had changed their goals, but most have changed the way they spend their professional time, the survey showed.
Interestingly, the physicians related still spending an average 51% of professional time in direct patient care. This finding seems to separate these individuals as an emerging area of medicine in which physicians are educated in business yet continue hands-on involvement in patient care. Many related immediately, applying newfound skills and insights.
Coleman says: "I began to use my new knowledge from the very first month. It has made a difference for me in how I see myself in my organization and how some others view me." While she had been in the corporate world for some time, she felt she needed more financial training.
What do graduates think of their career possibilities? The survey comments were varied. "Eye opener" was a common theme, and the recurring thought of "I wish I had done this earlier" seemed notable. A physician who graduated in December 1998 offered the following observation: "It was an excellent program given the diversity of the goals within our group. There seemed to exist a tug of war between those interested in purely management and those more clinically oriented in their goals."
Indeed, two groups emerged from the 46 graduates: One group is striving for full-time physician leadership, and the other prefers a mix of leadership with clinical duties.
Maybe this is the key motivation leading many physicians to MBA programs: An MBA degree combined with an M.D. degree provides physicians options. In an era that has witnessed HMOs restricting the autonomy of physicians, how many other subspecialties offer such career options?
Title questNew titles of PEMBA graduates
- Medical director of three organizations
- Senior vice president, medical affairs
- President of an eight-hospital academic integrated delivery system
- Chairman of the board of IPA/PHO and medical director
- Medical director and manager
- HMO medical director
- Expert counsel, upper extremity orthopedics for a Canadian province
- Chief medical officer, managed care, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of a U.S. state
Michael J. Stahl is program director, physician executive MBA program and distinguished professor of management at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
Robert N. Montgomery, M.D., is associate professor of medicine at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, also in Knoxville.