MBA Programs Meld Medicine with Management

The coronavirus crisis in healthcare has driven fresh student interest in courses and careers at the intersection of medicine and business

The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the need to strengthen health systems. The disease has spread to more than 200 countries, with severe public health and economic consequences, necessitating urgent action to help countries respond to, reduce and prevent the spread of infection and devastating loss of life.

Health administrators and policymakers have had their work cut out. They have had to show a great deal of flexibility and resourcefulness to respond to coronavirus.

“Early on, the challenge was securing adequate supplies of PPE [personal protective equipment] and ventilators. As the pandemic went on, testing became more important. Now, the challenge is vaccine distribution,” says Bradley Staats, faculty director of the Center for the Business of Health at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Building leadership and business skills is critical to the ongoing improvement and innovation that health administrators need to achieve. Business schools have an important role to play in offering the right courses to support the business of healthcare.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the amazing things that our health systems can do, but also some critical weaknesses, like coordinating across and within organizations, logistics, operational execution and information systems. These are all things that business schools excel in,” says Tom Buchmueller, professor of business economics and public policy at Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

A growing number of Healthcare MBA programs

The Ross Healthcare Management Concentration is one of a growing number of courses for MBA students looking to combine interests in business and healthcare, delivered by jointly with University of Michigan’s Medical School and School of Public Health. “Because healthcare organizations are highly regulated and strongly affected by public policy, some of our classes investigate the economics and politics of health policy,” says Buchmueller.

Other courses at Ross apply concepts from strategy and operations to healthcare problems, while others focus on innovation and the commercialization of health technologies.

Elsewhere, the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University in North Carolina offers a Health Sector Management Certificate as part of the MBA program. The certificate leverages Duke University’s leadership in clinical care to develop leaders who develop creative approaches to improving patient outcomes, access to care and cost management strategies.

Also, the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University runs the MBA for Physician Leaders. The course equips physicians with the business and management skills to become healthcare executives. They learn to innovate and improve clinical outcomes, reduce costs, raise staff morale and patient satisfaction.

More recently, in 2019 Harvard Business School and Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences launched a joint master’s degree at the interface of life sciences and business. The MS/MBA Biotechnology: Life Sciences Program confers both an MBA and a Master of Science.

The curriculum emphasizes an understanding of effective, sustainable structures for discovery and development of new treatments, the ethical implications of new therapeutics, and equitable access to the fruits of therapeutic discovery.

“There is no systematic educational approach to train leaders in this field, but students yearn for an opportunity to become conversant in biomedical science and business together,” says Emma Dench, dean of GSAS. Nearly half of Harvard stem cell and regenerative biology graduates are now entering careers in pharmaceutical, biomedical consulting and finance.

Business schools note fresh interest from MBA candidates from all backgrounds following the coronavirus outbreak that has brought the care industry to the fore. “Quality healthcare and innovative health technologies can mean the difference between life and death: healthcare is an attractive area for students who want to make a positive difference in the world,” Buchmueller at Ross says.

Many challenging business issues

At the same time, healthcare is complicated and there are many challenging business issues. Even before the pandemic, administrators were under pressure to lower costs, work more collaboratively, and accelerate the adoption of digital technology in healthcare. They faced tighter budgets, aging populations and, in the US, sweeping healthcare reforms.

As a result of these trends, there is a strong demand for MBAs with a background in healthcare. Employment is bolstered by the rising share of income spent on healthcare, which in the US has been outpacing the rest of the economy for several years.

“The industry needs the talents of MBAs, and improving people’s health and their quality of life is one of the most important things that any of us can do,” says Staats, at UNC. “Increasingly, our students are focused on using their strengths to fulfill a wider purpose. Healthcare is the perfect place to do that.”

There are opportunities in all facets of healthcare – from payers and providers to biopharma, medical devices, medtech companies and more. “Healthcare is large and growing,” Staats says. “Even before COVID-19, there was a recognition that we need to continue to innovate in healthcare, but also focus more on value and use our resources even more effectively. MBAs are well-suited to help in this effort.”

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