Orthopaedic surgeons who want to be as comfortable in the boardroom as they are in the operating room may want to consider pursuing an advanced business degree.
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Published 10/1/2014
Douglas W. Lundy, MD, MBA, FACS

Jack of Orthopaedic Surgery, Master of Business

I know a physician with four degrees who says that the physician with only two degrees is an impaired physician. Although this may not be an accurate assessment, it does raise the question: “How useful are advanced degrees outside of medicine to orthopaedic surgeons in their daily practices?”

In my opinion, having an advanced degree in business is very valuable. When I was tapped to become the next copresident of a large orthopaedic practice, I understood that I had a fiduciary duty to excel for my physician partners, our staff, and the many patients that we care for on a daily basis. Although I was experienced in many administrative areas, I felt I needed a more structured and deeper understanding of how to actually run a business.

Physicians have different motives for pursuing business degrees. Like me, some do so prior to assuming leadership of their practice, whether it is a large physician group or solo practice. Physicians in hospital leadership positions may seek a business degree to more effectively communicate with corporate leaders, while those employed by corporations that service the medical industry may pursue a business degree to advance within the company. In addition, many physicians simply want to be prepared for leadership positions down the road.

Choosing the right program
A Masters of Business Administration (MBA) is one of the more common advanced degree programs that physicians choose to pursue, and many programs are available in schools across the country. A good MBA program can significantly enhance an individual’s understanding of how to run an orthopaedic surgery practice. But even within MBA programs, a variety of advanced degrees are available.

High-powered MBA programs—These programs are offered at Harvard, Kellogg, and Wharton Business Schools. They are geared toward high-reaching individuals who seek to earn degrees that would be accepted on Wall Street and in the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies. These degree programs require a significant investment of time and energy to successfully complete; orthopaedic surgeons who choose to pursue these programs need to understand the massive commitment they require.

Successful completion of a high-powered MBA program is a significant achievement, and individuals with these degrees may have distinguished careers. However, busy surgeons may find that the time, money, and interest they require put them out of practical reach.

Executive MBA—Executive MBA programs are for practicing orthopaedic surgeons who are able to balance the time and effort they require with running a practice and meeting family obligations. These programs are designed for busy people—such as orthopaedic surgeons. The classes are typically held during evenings or weekends, and the students are expected to be self-starters who can accomplish the work without the direct supervision of the faculty.

Many local universities and colleges offer convenient, reasonably priced executive MBA programs that would fit well within the budget and time requirements of practicing orthopaedic surgeons. These programs can also be excellent sources for networking; classmates frequently collaborate on projects and business ventures long after their degree program ends.

Physician Executive MBA—The Physician Executive MBA (PEMBA) is a popular option for practicing doctors. These programs are limited to practicing physicians and assume that the issues relevant to doctors are unique and that the group will be similar in academic ability. However, this homogeneity also has a downside; classes tend not to have the different perspectives provided by students from other professions. Although the business case examples draw from many different sectors, most of the academic work is healthcare-centric and physician-oriented.

I chose a PEMBA program and found that the benefits far outweighed the possible limits. At this stage in my career, I’m hardly likely to shift into banking, transportation, or textile manufacturing. I appreciated the ability to focus on physician-centric issues. I think that the PEMBA is an excellent option for physicians who want a business perspective that applies to the healthcare setting in as concise a format as possible. My class included five other orthopaedic surgeons, and the benefit of the relationships we established with each other cannot be overstated.

Other options
Although the MBA is probably the most recognized advanced business degree, certain universities offer similar degree programs that are attractive to physicians. For example, the American College of Physician Executives promotes the Masters of Medical Management (MMM) programs. MMM programs are similar to PEMBA programs but seem to be more focused on employed physicians who wish to move up the career management ladder into administrative positions.

Another option is the Masters of Science in Healthcare Quality and Safety Management. This curriculum focuses on the delivery of high-value health care in the modern era. These degrees are designed for many different healthcare providers, not only physicians. Orthopaedic surgeons who are especially interested in developing healthcare systems based on the new value paradigm may consider pursuing these programs.

Tips and take-aways
I found that the value of my MBA increased as I put more effort into the program. Likewise, potential MBA candidates will derive more benefits if they already have some experience in the business of orthopaedics and real-world leadership. In fact, many high-powered MBA programs will not accept students who do not have a certain level of real-world experience.

I found that nearly every class was of vital importance to the tasks that I was doing at that time, and the relevance of the learning could not have been more opportune. One of my physician friends who also has an MBA commented that my MBA was “fresher” than his, implying that gaining the education when it can be immediately applied is beneficial. Although advanced degrees in business require significant investments in time, effort, and money, the education gained may be invaluable to those who make the sacrifice. My studies in accounting, finance, and economics have helped me better understand the finances of my practice and the orthopaedic organizations to which I belong.

The marketing and information technology courses taught me how to best leverage these aspects of our practice. A study of comparative health systems increased my understanding of various healthcare systems around the world, while courses on management and communications yielded immediate benefits in my daily interactions. My favorite course was Strategic Analysis and the Competitive Environment; it gave me the necessary learning and enthusiasm to lead our practice into the 21st century.

Going back to school to get business training was one of the best decisions I’ve made. I heartily encourage others to think about taking the same step.

Douglas W. Lundy, MD, MBA, FACS, is a member of the AAOS Now editorial board. He is in private practice with Resurgens Orthopaedics in Atlanta.

Bottom Line

  • Physicians who want to assume leadership roles—whether in a large group practice or a hospital environment—may want to consider pursuing an advanced business degree.
  • A variety of MBA programs are available to physicians; the decision of which to choose should be based on goals, time commitment, and interest.