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Doctor, Our Healthcare Industry Needs An MBA Injection

Healthcare companies cannot find enough MBAs to fill positions in an industry that is worth $3 trillion in the U.S alone. Schools like Rotman have developed healthcare-tracks to fill MBA job demand.

By  Seb Murray

Wed Mar 5 2014

When the financial crisis struck and traditional MBA jobs started to dry up, business school graduates started to look elsewhere. The healthcare sector was not always an obvious choice, but the track is now a hot one.

Healthcare management and hospital administration may not be as popular as hedge funds or business development – yet. But job opportunities in the sector now stretch far and wide. MBAs are finding lucrative roles in e-health ventures, pharmaceutical giants and even the booming biomedical industry.

Believe it not, healthcare companies cannot find enough MBAs to fill positions in an industry that is worth $3 trillion in the United States alone.  

Pharmaceutical and healthcare companies continue to be major employers of MBAs and in 2012 snapped up 18 per cent more graduates world-wide, according to QS Top MBA. A further 18 per cent growth was projected for 2013.

And in the Asia Pacific region, demand for MBAs in those sectors hit a staggering 43 per cent, according to the same study.

In the U.S, prospects are even brighter. The Affordable Care Act will lead to nearly 35 million more people in the healthcare system, meaning more managers will be required to steer organisations through rapid growth.

Business schools across the globe are gearing their students up for careers in the sector. Many have launched specialist tracks in healthcare management. And some have even established their own dedicated healthcare centres.

Rotman School of Management in Canada, for example, set-up a Centre for Health Sector Strategy. Other top-ranking schools, such as Wharton, offer MBA programs in Healthcare Management.

There are significant management challenges that have not yet been addressed in healthcare, however.

And that presents a huge opportunity for MBAs to land jobs in the sector, says Professor Brian Golden, who heads the centre at Rotman. “Historically the best and the brightest managers go into consulting firms and Wall Street, not healthcare,” he says.

The sector is under pressure as populations continue to age, says Leslie Wong, a graduate of the Rotman MBA Major in Health Sector Management who now works for Johnson & Johnson. “Absolutely; there are problems with cost containment. As the patient population continues to age, it places greater strain on the system,” she says.

But the trend is changing, and more MBAs are now taking healthcare management jobs, says Brian. “Over the last few years we are getting better and stronger people coming into the sector,” he says.

Part of the problem was the lower salaries offered to MBA graduates, Brian says. “Salaries were very low in healthcare and that gap has shrunk, as growth in other sectors hasn’t increased at the same rate. And also billion dollar organizations recognize they have to pay MBAs competitive salaries,” he says.

The loss of patents on blockbuster drugs may affect the ability of some big pharmaceutical companies to maintain a high level of MBA hiring. Yet, many smaller pharmaceutical and healthcare companies are aggressively pursuing MBA hiring to help them meet their growth potential.

But MBAs need to be in it for the long-haul, and not just pursue healthcare consulting projects, says Neil Currie, a recruiter at Johnson & Johnson says. “I recruit international MBAs, and candidates are often reluctant to share vital information about their career objectives,” he says.

“We waste their time and ours going through several interviews on campus and on site [and] make offers only to discover that they want to work in consulting after all.”

MBAs should be attracted by the opportunity to improve lives and do meaningful work, says Swati Trivedi, a Rotman MBA student involved with the schools’ healthcare center, and who previously worked at various hospitals. “The opportunity to be able to help people and contribute to something that everybody has experienced on a personal level is what attracted me,” she says.

Brian agrees. “It takes a special kind of MBA student, because they have to be willing to commit to developing industry-specific knowledge. Most people make the decision early in their careers, or make the switch because it is something important to them,” he says.

A third of Rotman’s healthcare MBAs go into healthcare delivery organizations such as hospitals or government policy making, a third go into consulting with private firms and a third go into pharmaceuticals or medical devices, says Brian.

Business schools have done a better job at showing MBAs that healthcare represents big commerce. And it is the flexibility of being able to work in both the private and public sectors that is part of the lure.

“There are constantly challenges in healthcare, and for those people who are passionate there are endless opportunities to be involved. And MBAs are now more prepared than ever,” says Leslie.

Part of that preparation at Rotman comes when MBA students specialize in the second year. After the bread-and-butter MBA courses in the first year, students tackle unique healthcare challenges, such as policy, measurement issues and performance improvement, says Brian.

MBAs are also exposed to healthcare organizations through guest speaker talks, conferences and panel discussions. “We work hard through our network of relationships to place students in jobs in the sector; it’s not just enough to give them skills and perspective,” Brian says.

The Healthcare Management Association, a club at Rotman, gives MBAs the chance to take on mini consulting projects, says Swati. She worked in a team of five for a hospital in Toronto for about five months after moving to the school from abroad.

“It was a fantastic learning experience. And the club is critical to help you understand the industry – especially those moving to Canada from different countries,” she says.

The schools’ close proximity to dozens of healthcare organizations was what drew her to the Rotman MBA program.

Toronto is one of the three North American healthcare hubs, along with Boston and New York, says Brian. “We take advantage of our geography. Toronto was a community that was ripe for developing this Major,” he says.

“We are within walking distance of world-class employers and all our major pharmaceutical firms, such as GlaxoSmithKline, are all down the road.”

Leslie landed her current job at Janssen, a pharmaceutical firm under the Johnson and Johnson arm, through Rotman, she says. “We get the bigger brands recruiting directly from the school. It was a huge consideration to choose rotman; I knew I was more likely to be exposed to bigger brands,” she says.

It is not just the healthcare-specific curriculum that prepared her for the sector, although she still regularly flicks back through her MBA class notes. In Toronto top MBA employers are, literally, on your doorstep.

University Ave, a street in the city, is home to four out of ten of the biggest hospitals, she says. “For us, Toronto is seen as the premier city for healthcare,” Leslie adds.

But studying a healthcare-track MBA, or choosing your business school location based on employers, while being beneficial, will not guarantee you a job in the sector, says Brian.

Healthcare companies are snapping up more talented managers, but even in Toronto, it is competitive. “It’s never an easy ride because they all pick the best students from around the world,” he says.

“It’s a competitive market for MBAs and that’s why it’s so critical to pick an MBA designed to get them to that next position.

“We do have a real challenge. And we’re up to it.”