Become a Business-Savvy Doctor With a Joint M.D.-MBA Program

Delece Smith-Barrow

When Loni Rogers Belyea applied to medical school, she wanted to learn more than just how to save lives and manage a patient's care. She wanted to learn how to be a business-savvy doctor.

"I specifically sought out combined M.D.-MBA programs," says Rogers Belyea, who's in her fourth and last year of medical and business studies. She attends the School of Medicine at Tufts University, which offers a joint M.D.-MBA program with Brandeis University.

"I knew without a doubt medicine was going to change," she says, referring to recent federal policies such as Obamacare and its effects on the U.S. health care system.

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She hopes her MBA will make her better equipped when she becomes a doctor.

Maria Chandler, president and founder of the Association of MD MBA Programs, has met many students similar to Rogers Belyea.

Chandler, the co-founder and director of the combined M.D.-MBA program at University of California--Irvine, has seen a significant increase in the number of students pursuing these degrees. UC--Irvine, for example, will have its largest group of dual degree M.D.-MBA candidates when 20 students pursue the degrees in fall of 2014.

Students are motivated by the need to make a difference, she says. "I do think it's sort of that altruistic vision that they do want to help health care," says Chandler.

Obamacare is changing the way health care is delivered, but there are also changes in biotechnology, the medical device field and medical informatics, she says. Issues such as data analysis and population management are also coming into play.

All of these changes are opening more career opportunities for physicians, says Chandler, who received her M.D. from UC--Irvine and her MBA from Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management.

Chandler estimates there are about 65 medical schools in the U.S. that offer M.D.-MBA programs. Students with these degrees often have a range of job options. Some may go into pharmaceuticals and help market drugs; others may go into hospital administration or the administration of large group medical practices, manage wellness centers or lead medical organizations.

Before committing to an M.D.-MBA program, experts encourage students to weigh how the following factors could affect their decision.

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1. Time: Medical education is a four-year endeavor, but a dual M.D.-MBA program typically takes five years, experts say.

Accelerated programs, however, can allow students to graduate faster.

Rogers Belyea is in one of the few four-year programs, but she contends with a hectic schedule. Finding time to do all of her course work has sometimes been challenging, particularly because of business school.

"It was definitely hard. There are a lot of group projects," she says. She often used Skype and Google chat to communicate with classmates.

Rogers Belyea spent the summer before graduate school taking four or five business school classes. Throughout her first and second years of school she took medical classes in the morning and business classes at night.

"Those were the rough days when I'd be up until midnight, 1 a.m.," she says. During her third year of school she only focused on medical school. In her fourth year she returns to simultaneously pursuing both degrees, though with a lighter business school load.

2. Money: Because most programs are five years, med students will have to add on an extra year of tuition, fees and other expenses to get their MBA.

"It adds substantially to their debt," says Stuart Slavin, an associate dean at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine. Usually only one or two of a class of 175 medical students at the school simultaneously pursue an MBA, he says.

These students will also start residency later than many of their peers, which means one more year without a salary.

3. Business experience: Rogers Belyea squeezed in a business-related internship, which involved developing a new payment model for physicians in Massachusetts, during the summer before she started medical school.

Many dual-degree students, though, may not have the opportunity to do more than classroom work to learn about business, experts say. "Some programs do not have an opportunity for a full internship," Chandler says.

"In our program, in the fourth and fifth years, there's a little bit of flexibility there," says James Ebert, who launched the dual-degree program at Wright State University. Wright State M.D.-MBA students have honed their business skills at the State Department of Health or abroad, examining the health care systems of other countries, he says.

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Students can maximize classroom work to get a better feel for real-world business situations that apply to health care. "Most of our students choose health care projects," says Chandler. Students can also look into clubs that may serve their interests. UC--Irvine, for example, recently started a chapter of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs.

Often students won't have the chance to really flex their business skills for years. Residency, required training for M.D. graduates to practice medicine, can take three years or more. Almost all M.D.-MBA students do residency immediately after completing school. Then, they can reap the benefits of business school.

"They will have a leg up on other physicians when it comes time for those early and mid-career moves," says Ebert.

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