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Residents & Fellows Corner | Sept/Oct '22

The MD-MBA: A Synergistic Relationship

The benefits of entering ophthalmology with a dual degree.

I am often asked if I am happy with my decision to take an extra year during medical school to obtain an MBA from the New York University Stern School of Business. My answer? Going to business school was one of the best decisions of my life—right behind applying for ophthalmology residency! There is no question that my career has already benefitted tremendously from the experience, and I have only just begun my intern year. Regardless of your professional aspirations, equipping yourself with a strong foundation in finance, marketing, and managerial skills will put you in a position to succeed. This article details a few reasons why I believe a dual MD-MBA can take your career to the next level.

INNOVATION AND INDUSTRY

As I was beginning my first semester at Stern, a medical school classmate of mine founded an ophthalmic imaging device company and recruited me to lead its early business development efforts. I have since conducted market research, drafted a 90-page business plan, designed our go-to-market strategy, and modeled pro forma financial statements for investors. The ability to apply the lessons from my MBA coursework directly to an ophthalmic venture has provided validation that my business knowledge will be valuable throughout my career.

A central component of any MBA program is the summer internship. Many students recruit to intern with consulting firms, investment banks, hedge funds, or large tech firms. I pursued an experience more relevant to my desired career as an ophthalmologist and spent the summer as a venture associate with Flying L Partners, an ophthalmology venture capital firm. Working directly with their private and publicly traded portfolio companies, I investigated market expansion opportunities, developed fundraising materials, and sat in on partners’ meetings where I witnessed the Flying L team’s extensive contributions to ophthalmic innovation.

These two experiences demonstrated not only that my MBA would directly advance my career as an innovator but also that it is essential for clinicians to work with their industry partners and guide the innovation process to prioritize patients’ needs. Understanding balance sheets, marketing, operations, and supply chain, in addition to physician preferences and the realities of clinical practice, positions young ophthalmologists to maximize their impact on the field and ensure the best possible technologies are made available to their patients.

PRIVATE PRACTICE

Ophthalmology is one of the few remaining medical specialties in which private practices can still flourish, but this does not mean that it is easy or for the faint of heart. While outstanding clinical and surgical skills are undoubtedly prerequisites, running a successful practice demands substantial business acumen, marketing ability, financial wherewithal, risk analysis expertise, and management skills—all of which are not included in medical school or residency curricula. Without exception, providing the highest standard of patient care must always be the top priority, and maintaining the financial wellness of a practice will ensure the ability to continue doing so.

Knowing how to analyze the economics of your practice will enable you to identify your strengths and weaknesses and to focus your energy where it counts. Through my finance, managerial accounting, and operations management courses, I learned the principles necessary to perform such analyses, which I will undoubtedly employ down the road. I have always dreamed of owning my physical clinic space and ambulatory surgery center, but these investments are not without substantial risk. To my surprise, one of my real estate courses specifically covered strategies for successfully investing in ambulatory surgery centers and medical offices.. Knowing how to find the perfect property, properly finance the project, negotiate a favorable contract, and build out a space without spending a fortune can mean the difference between an attractive return and a big mess.

Although most private ophthalmologists learn these skills on the job or through mentors, I believe that the knowledge I gained in business school will help me proactively avoid many pitfalls once I begin building a practice. An MBA may have been an expensive investment, but poor practice management would likely cost substantially more down the road.

ACADEMIC LEADERSHIP

While raw business savvy may appear to be more essential for success in private practice, a business background will equally benefit ophthalmologists in academia. Since the 1990s, the number of health care administrators in the United States has exploded. In fact, for every one physician, there are now 10 administrators who have never cared for a single patient. There is a massive disconnect between the priorities of administrators and physicians. We desperately need more doctors armed with economic prowess to bridge this gap and fight for sensible institutional policies that prioritize patient care while taking financial realities into consideration.

If you plan to hold leadership roles within your department, a strong foundation in finance, accounting, and operations will set you apart from the crowd when dealing with your hospital’s C-suite. Whether or not you aspire to serve as chair of a department, you will be someone’s boss one day. Administrative staff, technicians, residents, and even medical students will look to you for guidance and support. As a natural people person, I naively used to believe that my innate communication abilities excused me from needing to cultivate my managerial skills. Business school taught me the importance of soft skills, a well-planned meeting (or, more importantly, when an email will suffice), active listening, compelling presentations, proper hiring and firing principles, and business law—all of which are essential tools for effective leadership in any practice setting.

GLOBAL OPHTHALMOLOGY

I chose to pursue an MBA, in part, because of my passion for global ophthalmology. Global programs that take economic and systematic sustainability into account position themselves to affect lasting, pervasive change. Self-sufficient systems are able to grow organically, ultimately allowing them to help a remarkable number of patients decades into the future. Designing and implementing training programs, affordable technology, and patient-centric infrastructure empowers local populations to continue to provide high-level care, even in the absence of external input. My courses in strategy, design-thinking, and health systems innovation have given me a framework to approach global ophthalmology challenges with sustainability in mind.

The story of Aravind Eye Hospital in India was one of the greatest inspirations for my decision to pursue an MBA, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that several of my business school professors incorporated case studies of Aravind as an example of purpose-driven innovation. The greatest initial barrier Aravind faced was the high cost of IOLs, which ran about $200 to $300 per lens at the time. Aravind’s founder, Govindappa Venkataswamy, MD (“Dr. V”), understood that they could not rely on private donations or cyclical government funding to secure the stable supply of IOLs needed to continue their mission. The solution was to create an independent, for-profit manufacturing entity, Aurolab, and use its profits to subsidize Aravind’s IOLs down to a cost of about $10 per lens. This is just one example of how economic and strategic creativity can maximize the impact of global ophthalmology programs.

CONCLUSION

Whether you are interested in pursuing entrepreneurship, building a private practice, practicing at an academic institution, or getting involved with global ophthalmology, an MBA will provide the skillset you will need to succeed. Although a dual degree was the right decision for me, there are certainly countless examples of ophthalmologists who have excelled in business without pursuing a formal degree. There are countless resources available online to educate yourself and tackle any challenges you may face. Regardless of your professional aspirations, a general understanding of business principles will serve both your career and your personal financial health.

author
Max Colbert, MD, MBA
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