At a time when many of healthcare’s greatest problems are business-related, business schools are also rolling out more joint MD/MBA degrees to fast-track candidates into management jobs.
The number of joint MD/MBA programs in the US has grown from six to 65 in 20 years, according to a report by the Carnegie Foundation, the healthcare policy and research centre, while the number surged 25% between 2011 and 2012.
At UC Irvine in California, 20% of medical students are completing the school’s joint MD/MBA degree.
But in study terms, the switch between medical practitioner to medical manager is difficult. “It was not an easy job. As a doctor, you have to put on a different hat than you use as a manager,” says Dr Basel Hammoda, an MBA student at the UK’s Aston Business School who has worked at several hospitals in the Middle East.
But he says the transition to management work itself is not difficult. “Doctors are by nature very good listeners [and] can identify problems quite quickly,” says Basel. Instead, the problem is that most medical students are set to become doctors and nothing else, he argues.
“In one way or the other, medicine becomes our life… Other options are unrealistic. It is more like expecting a dolphin, however skilful it is, to start walking,” he says.
However, he adds that while an MBA degree prepares doctors well for senior management positions, a clinician who wants to shift directly to the other face of the coin may consider first gaining experience at a more junior level.
Most of these switches are career-orientated. Unlike in medicine, where applying for jobs can be a slow process, the business world has many job opportunities for graduates with the right skill-set.
Healthcare companies in the US and Canada will employ 20% more MBA graduates this year, according to an employer survey by QS.
The switch may also be for financial reasons. The base pay for hospital executives and even hospital administrators far outstrips doctors’ salaries. According to analysis from Compdata Surveys commissioned by the New York Times, hospital administrators earn $237,000 in average salary, compared to general doctors who earn $185,000 in salary.
Other doctors are merging both worlds into one. “I continue to work in healthcare, just from the business side,” says Divya Dhar, a graduate of Wharton School’s healthcare management MBA.
She spent several years working as a doctor in New Zealand before moving to the US to study. After graduating she launched a medical communications start-up, Seratis, which works with hospitals in the US.
“I love that I still get to talk to the same people who I believe on the whole care about the patient first, and are passionate about making a diffidence in their lives,” says Divya.
However, another problem doctors face transitioning to management is that they may find it difficult to develop a long-term view, suggests Basel. They usually focus on the case in hand – patients are diagnosed over one or two settings, and then are treated either medically or surgically, he says.
“While as a manager, you have to develop a vision and a strategy for your department, you have to set objectives, and… Take into consideration a wide array of stakeholders,” adds Basel.
Despite several years of study, Divya does not regret her time at medical school. “I'm working on a business that improves clinical workflow. I wouldn't have appreciated the massive frustration in clinical workflow had I not been on the frontlines,” she says.
It is a sentiment echoed by Basel, who intends to launch a management consulting firm after finishing his MBA. He says there is an evident shortage of qualified managers in healthcare institutes.
But a more personal view, he adds, is simply that doctors must pursue what they are passionate about: “Otherwise we won’t be able to bring difference to people’s lives.”