In Pursuit of Intellectual Capital: Is the MD, MBA Worth It?

Less than a year ago I entered the Executive MBA program at Arizona State University to scratch an intellectual itch that I’ve had for the last decade.  Throughout my career as a physician it became increasingly obvious to me that the business of health-care plays a dominant role in what we as physicians can do for our patients.  It permeates everything we do in medicine.  It determines what tests can get ordered, what medicines can be prescribed and what treatments can be provided.  Instead of fighting the beast I decided it was better to learn from it.  It begins with learning the language of business and immersing oneself in the culture.  It is like the Grateful Dead once sang, “What a long strange trip it’s been.”

Since I have another year to go before I complete the program and actually receive an MBA degree it is a bit premature for me to make any grand conclusions to the question I proposed.  What I can do is offer a few observations I’ve made so far.  In future posts I plan to add to the list.

1) Physicians, particularly older docs (myself included) tend to prefer to either work alone or work within a pyramidal type of team structure.  I know that may sound harsh but it’s true for many of us.  In our program we are assigned to groups and much of the work done for class is the result of teamwork.  When I first met with my team I explained to them that they need to understand that as a Trauma Surgeon my idea of teamwork is when they do what I tell them to do.  It was meant as a joke but the one or two nervous laughs it got proved it wasn’t all that funny.  It is easy to forget that there are different types of teams with different approaches to problem solving.  A pyramidal form may work well with a severely injured patient in the trauma room but can be a disaster when leadership must be a shared activity.  I learned a great deal from my team members and classmates this past year and so far that has made it worth it.

2) Physicians tend to be suspicious of physicians who study business.  I was warned about this prior to starting the program but considered it paranoid thinking on the part of the person who said it.  It’s amazing but if a physician develops their human capital through lessons on golf, skiing, painting, gardening, woodworking, wine-tasting, a new language, statistical methods or any other form to improve their mental or physical capacity they are rewarded by their colleagues with smiles and approval.  Mention an MBA degree and all you will see is raised eyebrows.  Since beginning the program I’ve been told that I have “gone over to the dark side”, “taken up with the enemy” and begun to “practice in the dark arts.”  It has been a disappointment to see so many who value education so highly to so easily dismiss the value of a business education.  It reminds me of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.  Once you leave the cave there may be no turning back.

3) An MBA is to the business world as an MD is to the medical world.  It’s a starting point.  It lays the groundwork for understanding how that world functions.  It is not meant to replace the real world knowledge and experience gained through years of training under the guidance of senior management or attending physicians.  The degree is a way to get your ticket punched and it is the punched ticket which allows you to access the next level where the practical education occurs. 

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