Degree Dilemma: Is An MBA Essential to Being An MD Today?

September 8, 2011

Running a medical practice has become very much a business venture. But how much of a business background is really necessary?

Running a medical practice has become very much a business venture. As a result, many physicians are seeking out business training. But how much of a business background is necessary? 

Steven Hacker, dermatologist and author of The Medical Entrepreneur, a book which counsels physicians on the business side of medicine, told Physicians Practice that it’s now more important than ever that physicians are business savvy.

“Healthcare reform is another regulatory burden on doctors that ultimately will reduce their income. So, physicians must understand how to run a practice in a highly-regulated environment, highly efficient manner, with attention to pennies and the bottom line,” he said via e-mail. “Doctors must be educated on every aspect of their business so that they can delegate, outsource, and manage critical responsibilities and tasks from the highest level.”

As demand for business educational opportunities increases among physicians, so has the supply of programs offering those services - most heavily in the university realm.

Just a decade ago, only a handful of universities nationwide offered joint MD/MBA programs. Today, medical students can choose from more than 65 of them, pediatrician and President of the Association of MD/MBA programs Maria Y. Chandler recently told the New York Times.

“All physicians need some kind of business training,” Chandler said. “For example, some physicians with large research grants don’t know how to manage the money.”

But is an MBA really necessary to ensure career success in the medical field?

Joint degree programs are costly and time consuming (at Duke, the total cost of tuition for medical school and a year and a half of business studies is $235,244, according to the Times). And, for most physicians already working full-time, it’s often unrealistic to consider returning to school for an MBA.

As Chandler noted, physicians interested in research might find an MBA helpful, as would physicians interested in transitioning into non-clinical business ventures and entrepreneurship.

But even when that’s the case, physician Joseph Kim, founder of NonClinicalJobs.com, a website which advertises physician jobs outside of the practice setting, told the Physician Executive Journal of Medical Management, an MBA is not always necessary.

“There is a misconception out there in the physician community that you need to have an MBA to succeed in the nonclinical world - or that having an MBA will guarantee you a job in industry,” Kim said.

And for physicians who plan to spend their entire careers working in medical practices, pursuing an MBA may be even less worthwhile.

“There are doctors that just want to improve their business education and acumen to run their practice more efficiently and profitably,” Hacker said.

For these physicians, Hacker said, business seminars designed just for physicians can provide key practice management/finances information.

Another great option for physicians who need to expand their knowledge in one business area, say accounting, is to attend evening business course offered at a local college.

Practices can “still be profitable as long as physicians understand how to run their business,” Hacker said.