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Doctors are arming themselves with MBAs to navigate a tricky health care landscape


[audio src="http://play.publicradio.org/pmp/d/podcast/marketplace/segments/2017/02/15/mp_20170215_seg_03_64.mp3"]
It’s a tricky time to be a physician. Not just because of all the talk in Washington about repealing Obamacare — the job has changed. New responsibilities range from managing electronic health records, to familiarizing yourself with the cost of care. Some budding doctors believe arming themselves with an MBA will help them better navigate this evolving profession. Dan Blumenthal is a resident — a doctor in training — at Massachusetts General Hospital. He was getting worried about the daily rounds. "We were taking way too long to see all of the patients we needed to see, and as a consequence our residents were getting tired," he said. Blumenthal is training to become a cardiologist. He also graduated from Harvard Business School, where he sharpened his analytic skills. It was that training, said Blumenthal, that helped him see the problem clearly: The doctor in charge was taking too much time teaching junior staff. He was wearing them out and patients were suffering. So the young doctor gulped and asked to meet with his boss. "And so I sat with him frankly about this problem, specifically to improve the efficiency of our rounds without compromising our educational priorities and mission," he recalled. The hope is that a new crop of dual-degreed physicians like Blumenthal will spot inefficiencies, develop new practices and upturn business as usual, ultimately leading the U.S. toward better care at lower costs. When as much as $1 trillion a year is considered wasted money, the country is desperate for a shake-up, said Dr. Kevin Schulman at Duke University. "We’re not talking about small changes in the marketplace," Schulman said."We’re talking about the importance of a pretty fundamental change in health care over the next five to 10 years." Schulman, who ran the MD/MBA program at Duke University for a dozen years, believes a business background can infuse physicians with a capacity to innovate, much like an entrepreneur. He said too often, too many health care executives have failed to think strategically about how to transform their business, and pointed to hospitals and physicians who whiffed on electronic patient records. "We ended up buying a technology that was very good at billing, but not very flexible to providing data to individuals about their care or helping them to become better shoppers in health care," Schulman said. In 2000, there were fewer than 30 joint-degree programs. Today that number has more than doubled. Harvard Business School professor Rob Huckman said the shift is on. "There is a greater interest in thinking about topics like process improvement and how we increase working in teams together so they can solve problems faster," he said. Huckman said health care looks more and more like manufacturing, which means a growing interest in the systems that deliver reliable, safer and, hopefully, cheaper care. Really, he said, the industry is moving away from the art of medicine toward the business of medicine — perfect for someone with an MD/MBA degree.