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Become a Business-Savvy Doctor With a Joint M.D.-MBA Program

Students should weigh the cost and time commitment these programs can require, experts say.

Doctors with an MBA may be better equipped to manage the business arm of health care, experts say.
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When Loni Rogers Belyea applied to medical school, she wanted to learn more than just how to save lives and manage a patient's care. She wanted to learn how to be a business-savvy doctor.

"I specifically sought out combined M.D.-MBA programs," says Rogers Belyea, who's in her fourth and last year of medical and business studies. She attends the School of Medicine at Tufts University, which offers a joint M.D.-MBA program with Brandeis University.

"I knew without a doubt medicine was going to change," she says, referring to recent federal policies such as Obamacare and its effects on the U.S. health care system.

[Consider asking these questions when applying for med school.]

She hopes her MBA will make her better equipped when she becomes a doctor.

Maria Chandler, president and founder of the Association of MD MBA Programs, has met many students similar to Rogers Belyea.

Chandler, the co-founder and director of the combined M.D.-MBA program at University of California—Irvine, has seen a significant increase in the number of students pursuing these degrees. UC—Irvine, for example, will have its largest group of dual degree M.D.-MBA candidates when 20 students pursue the degrees in fall of 2014.

Students are motivated by the need to make a difference, she says. "I do think it's sort of that altruistic vision that they do want to help health care," says Chandler.

Obamacare is changing the way health care is delivered, but there are also changes in biotechnology, the medical device field and medical informatics, she says. Issues such as data analysis and population management are also coming into play.

All of these changes are opening more career opportunities for physicians, says Chandler, who received her M.D. from UC—Irvine and her MBA from Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management.

Chandler estimates there are about 65 medical schools in the U.S. that offer M.D.-MBA programs. Students with these degrees often have a range of job options. Some may go into pharmaceuticals and help market drugs; others may go into hospital administration or the administration of large group medical practices, manage wellness centers or lead medical organizations.

Before committing to an M.D.-MBA program, experts encourage students to weigh how the following factors could affect their decision.

[Choose the right undergraduate major for medical school.]

1. Time: Medical education is a four-year endeavor, but a dual M.D.-MBA program typically takes five years, experts say.

Accelerated programs, however, can allow students to graduate faster.

Rogers Belyea is in one of the few four-year programs, but she contends with a hectic schedule. Finding time to do all of her course work has sometimes been challenging, particularly because of business school.

"It was definitely hard. There are a lot of group projects," she says. She often used Skype and Google chat to communicate with classmates.

Rogers Belyea spent the summer before graduate school taking four or five business school classes. Throughout her first and second years of school she took medical classes in the morning and business classes at night.

"Those were the rough days when I'd be up until midnight, 1 a.m.," she says. During her third year of school she only focused on medical school. In her fourth year she returns to simultaneously pursuing both degrees, though with a lighter business school load.

2. Money: Because most programs are five years, med students will have to add on an extra year of tuition, fees and other expenses to get their MBA.

"It adds substantially to their debt," says Stuart Slavin, an associate dean at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine. Usually only one or two of a class of 175 medical students at the school simultaneously pursue an MBA, he says.

These students will also start residency later than many of their peers, which means one more year without a salary.

3. Business experience: Rogers Belyea squeezed in a business-related internship, which involved developing a new payment model for physicians in Massachusetts, during the summer before she started medical school.