MD/MBA Programs: Mixing Healthcare with Business -
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The Doctor Is In ... Business School

The number of schools offering dual degrees in medicine and business is expanding worldwide, according to the Association of MD/MBA Programs. More than half of U.S. medical schools -- more than 65 -- already offer dual degrees in medicine and business, the organization reports, adding that two Canadian medical schools and the Karolinska Institute, a medical school in Stockholm, have dual degree programs in place as well.

"We are on the rise," said Maria Young Chandler, MD, MBA, president of the Association of MD/MBA Programs and MD/MBA Faculty Advisor at the University of California, Irvine. "Health care is a business. If we don't treat it like a business — financially — it will fail."

Ins and outs of MD/MBA programs

MD/MBA programs enable students to complete their MD and MBA degrees simultaneously. The UC Irvine dual-degree program, founded in 1997, is one of the oldest in the U.S. A special admissions committee evaluates MD/MBA Program applicants, who are also required to submit scores from the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT. Students are exempted from taking the Graduate Management Admission Test, or GMAT, according to student Jennifer Way. The GMAT is typically required for admission to MBA programs.

UC Irvine is selective in its choice of students, however, because the program is small. Just 15 out of 100 medical students are allowed to enroll in the MD/MBA Program every year. The dual academic degree is organized so that students complete all of the requirements for their MD and MBA degrees within five years. This means that the program usually encompasses 75 students pursuing their MD/MBA.

In addition to taking core medicine and business courses, UC Irvine MD/MBA students can also take electives such as healthcare entrepreneurship: From Physician to CEO, and U.S. Health Policy. They can also work on financial projects at the medical center.

The idea behind the program is to equip graduates to be able to address pertinent issues, such as healthcare policy, the national healthcare budget, Medicare and Medicaid, and managed care ethics and cost. Students might also learn about business start-ups, cutting-edge biomedical research, team building and effective management, and how information technology comes into play with healthcare.

One of the nation's largest health benefits companies, WellPoint, has a management education program in place just for MD/MBAs, Chandler said. For a year, MD/MBAs work in different company departments and, if they're a good fit, can be selected to become one of the WellPoint medical directors who work nationwide.

MD/MBA graduates can also use their new skills to manage their practices more efficiently and to stay profitable, or even expand their services to include more patients. In Michigan, MD/MBAs were able to make an operation solvent while maintaining the resources — including emergency helicopters — necessary to function adequately.

From MD/MBA programs to political activism

Jennifer Way, a Newport Beach, Calif., native, earned a bachelor's degree in psychobiology at the University of California, Los Angeles. She then worked at the emergency department of Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles and at a physical therapy startup. There, she was introduced to various aspects of business operations, which led her to pursue an MD/MBA degree at UC Irvine.

"Getting an MBA is going to allow me to have some say in the changing of the healthcare system," Way said.

Way has completed three and a half years of medical school and has been taking business classes for the past two months. After completing core course work, she will take elective courses such as U.S. Health Policy next quarter. She is also considering presenting a healthcare project — she's interested in medical devices — in a business school competition.

When she graduates in 2013, Way plans to do her residency in internal medicine. After that, she's interested in becoming involved in hospital administration and nonprofit work. She also said that she would like to try and help people gain better access to medical care.

The future of MD/MBA programs

MD/MBA programs could become more widespread in the future. For example, although the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis does not currently offer a dual degree, it does provide students the option of pursuing a concentration and several electives focused on business and healthcare. The concentration, called The Business of healthcare, features electives such as The Basics of Bio-Entrepreneurship; healthcare Economics, Policy and Operations; and health care Management.

"We're very interested in getting (an MD/MBA program)," said Joseph P. Fox, Olin's associate dean and director of MBA programs. "It's more than likely just a matter of time."

With the combined education offered through MD/MBA programs and the selectivity involved in student admission, Fox's words could one day be true -- at Olin and many other schools.