From a young age, Annie Hsiao dreamed of going to medical school. She shadowed doctors during high school and would ask them for career advice. Inevitably, every doctor she spoke to recommended getting more business experience. “It was remarkable how frequently I heard the same answer from different doctors,” recalled Hsiao. “I always kept that advice in the back of my mind.”
When Hsiao finally applied to Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, she chose to pursue a joint MD-MBA program with the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. “I remember hearing a lot about the program and knew it would be the perfect fit for me.”
A growing number of students are opting for business, management, and finance courses alongside their anatomy and physiology classes. In response, more medical schools are including business course work as part of their general curriculum or in collaboration with business schools. Other schools make business electives available to medical students. In addition, there are more than 70 MD-MBA programs throughout the country for those seeking in-depth education in both disciplines.
Medical school graduates by graduation year and program completed, 2003–2016
Number of graduates
|Graduation Year||MD Program||Other Combined Program||Combined MD-MBA Program||Total MD Graduates|
Source: AAMC Data Warehouse student tables as of Dec. 15, 2016
The business of medicine
Why the emphasis on business? “The health care landscape has rapidly changed with different delivery and payment models,” said Brad Sutton, MD, MBA, assistant dean for health strategy and innovation at the University of Louisville School of Medicine (ULSOM) in Kentucky. “Future doctors need broader instructional exposure to understand and succeed in this environment.”
Medical students trained in business and economic principles have a greater range of career options. too. Some physicians with business exposure remain in full-time clinical practice, but others may choose part-time practice and pick up additional administrative duties at hospitals, large medical group practices, and insurance companies. In addition, physicians with business backgrounds may be better equipped to navigate the momentous medical and financial changes predicted in the health care system.
Students at ULSOM can pursue an MD-MBA degree or take selected courses in business offered at the school. In addition, ULSOM offers a competitive Distinction Track in Business and Leadership. About five first-year students are selected for this program, and then they meet regularly throughout medical school to explore the intersection of business and medicine.
“The health care landscape has rapidly changed with different delivery and payment models.... Future doctors need broader instructional exposure to understand and succeed in this environment.”
Brad Sutton, MD, MBA
University of Louisville School of Medicine
Created in 2012, the program pairs students in this business and leadership track with a mentor. The learning focus is on leadership training, health care reform, systems engineering, and an introduction to health economics. Before the end of the program, students are expected to develop a capstone project that is presented or published.
Fourth-year student Nate Wiedemann completed the program and finished his project on the financial impact of using point-of-care ultrasound in a critical care environment. After residency, Wiedemann hopes to practice family medicine in an outpatient setting for several years and then potentially move into administration at a hospital or outpatient setting.
“I want to bring positive change to health care to make things more efficient on a macro level,” Wiedemann explained. “Leadership skills and knowledge of how the health care system works will be needed to do that.”
Bringing business into the curriculum
In 1981, the University of Pennsylvania established one of the first MD-MBA programs with its top-ranked business college, the Wharton School. The Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania also incorporated into the curriculum a health care systems course, which is required for first-year students. The course covers the organizational principles of health care and government systems. Students learn about social health care and health care disparities as well as how hospitals and insurance companies operate.
“There’s been some debate over the years about when to have the course,” said Stanley Goldfarb, MD, professor of medicine and associate dean for curriculum at the Philadelphia-based school. “Because the course occurs during year one, it makes it difficult to include it after the preclinical curriculum concludes.”
Medical students at Perelman may also take individual classes at Wharton or participate in a certificate program, called PennHealthX, which is focused on entrepreneurship. PennHealthX combines coursework, workshops, and real-world experiences for students whose goal is to become health care system leaders.
At the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, there’s an elective course, Medical Care and the Corporation, typically taken by 20 percent of the first-year class. Offered through Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, the course examines critical issues of health care delivery and how employee-sponsored health care plays an important role in the health care system.
“It’s become a very popular course because it mixes together students from medical school and business school in an environment where they work together and learn from each other,” said Michael Zubkoff, PhD, director of Dartmouth’s MD-MBA program and professor at the Geisel School of Medicine and at the Tuck School. He added that these types of courses, and especially the MD-MBA program, which graduates about six to eight students each year, really open up interesting career opportunities for future doctors.
Now a third-year student, Hsiao is focused on the benefits of her business training and is open to different career paths like hospital administration. “I learned there are many diverse career opportunities for doctors with MBAs,” said Hsiao, who is still considering which career path to follow after she completes her residency. “I feel like my MBA has prepared me for the real world by making me more aware of the complexities of medical and management issues.”