Doctors go back to school to learn the business of medicine

When Ed Hellman, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon in Indianapolis, was learning to be a doctor he wasn’t focused on the business of medicine.

When he was in medical school, it was about medicine, he says. When he was doing his residency, it was about orthopedics.

But times have changed and Hellman is now a physician leader at OrthoIndy, a very large orthopedic practice. The organization includes a physician-owned and operated hospital, OrthoIndy Hospital, which specializes in orthopedics, as well as numerous clinics, physical therapy locations and an urgent care center.

“It’s a very complex group,” says Hellman, who is a member of the Board of Directors and a physician owner in the hospital.

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Like many doctors, when Hellman graduated from medical school in 1985, he says there was absolutely no focus on the business side of medicine. But for doctors today who want to be part of an organization’s leadership, there’s a need to know more beyond just clinical practice, he says.

So, Hellman went back to school to get an MBA or master in business administration degree. And he’s not alone.

Stephanie Page, M.D., a hospitalist at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, also got her MBA. Like Hellman, she got her degree from Indiana University's Kelley School of Business which has a Physician MBA program set up specifically for doctors. It’s a program designed for mid-career doctors who want to make changes in the healthcare field.

Page says she got “absolutely zero” training on the business side of medicine when she was in medical school. She didn’t want to do a program that was completely online, so Page traveled once a month from Boston to Indianapolis where she spent a two-day weekend in classes.

As a physician who works in a hospital, Page says she isn’t involved in running a physician practice but she wanted a greater understanding of the financial workings of the healthcare system. Being able to talk the same language as hospital administrators, she can bring the clinician’s voice into discussions.

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“I see myself as a clinician first,” she says. “But to represent my fellow clinicians I felt I had to learn more of the lingo.”

She liked the fact she was in a physician-focused program where projects immediately related back to healthcare.

It’s important that doctors understand finances and recognize the cost of care, she says. Doctors need to choose wisely when they order tests for patients and business training can help provide better care at lower costs.

Most doctors would rather not have to worry about the business of running a healthcare organization and would prefer to focus on taking care of patients, says Aaron Hattaway, M.D., a Florida radiologist, who is a current student in the physician MBA program and expects to graduate in May. But in today’s world, ”you better learn it,” he advises. “It’s what runs the world.”

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Hattaway now has a leadership role in Brevard Physician Associates, a physician-owned and operated Florida group practice where he is the chief financial officer. The practice specializes in anesthesiology, emergency medicine and radiology and has more than 100 doctors, 125 mid-level practitioners and 75 support staff.

If physicians want to be part of leadership in a healthcare organization, they need to have an understanding beyond what they learned in medical school, says Hellman.

In his organization, “it’s not just running a practice. We’re also running a hospital. We’re dealing with insurance companies,” he says about the complexity of medicine.

While medical schools once provided little if any training on business, that has started to change.

The American Medical Association last year adopted a new policy that calls on medical schools to incorporate additional training on health economics into their curricula. 

The goal is to ensure physicians are taught crucial health systems science topics such as cost-effective use of services, practice management24 and risk management in a way that fits into their overall medical education.