Reed Smith knows accounting.
A professor at the Kelley School of Business, Smith has been teaching and researching in accounting for 34 years. He’s a Fullbright Scholar, chairperson of Kelley’s Graduate Accounting Programs, an international accounting expert and the Katz, Sapper, and Miller LLP Faculty Fellow.
In 2012, Smith was looking for the “next big step” in his career. Little did he know, he would learn a whole new way to teach accounting.
That same year, the Kelley School began to build an MBA program specifically for physicians.
“I was looking for that next big challenge and I thought teaching in this program would be formidable and time-consuming,” said Smith. “I discussed it with my wife Sharon, who’s a retired nurse, and she said, ‘You’ve got to do it.’ It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Smith began formulating what an accounting course for physicians should look like: identifying the relevant, critical principles and deciding how to impart technical and non-medical concepts to an experienced physician audience. From the start, he felt this program was deeply critical to the future of healthcare in the United States.
“The fact that physicians aren’t the ones running hospitals is a major problem within our society. As a result, hospitals aren’t operating from a patient-centric perspective because business people don’t get it,” he said. “I understand it more now than I did back then, but I’m an accountant, I’m not a physician. I’m not deeply acquainted with the aspects of medicine that truly matter. My greatest goal going into this was to empower physicians to take over healthcare.”
Smith’s accounting class is the very first course physicians take in the Kelley Physician MBA program. He says he’s learned a few things about teaching experienced physicians that differ from teaching traditional business students.
“First of all, I hate to refer to it as ‘teaching,’ because I’m simply helping to guide these physicians in their own search for information. I see myself more as a coach than a teacher,” he said. “One thing I’ve learned is to never open up a topic for discussion unless I’m willing to take a deep dive, because physicians don’t do anything halfway. They go 100%.”
Similarly, he says physicians don’t simply take his word for it when he explains an accounting concept. Much like their approach to the study of medicine, physician students need to fully understand the mechanics of a topic before they accept and internalize the lesson.
“They don’t want to just memorize lessons,” he said. “Physician students must understand how the heart pumps the blood through the body and how the blood is oxygenated. Similarly, they want to understand how accounting works and why it works the way it does. It’s so much fun to teach.”
In fact, Physician MBA instruction has forced Smith to rethink his approach to the pedagogy of accounting in a whole new way.
“With traditional MBA students, you would never have them work through debits and credits like you do accounting students,” he said. “But all of my physician students say it’s their favorite part – debits, credits, journals, ledgers, spreadsheets, putting it all together. It’s because they think in terms of the overall system – it has to make sense to them.”
Smith also says there’s less of a need to motivate physician students.
“They’re not here to get their passport stamped – they want to learn this stuff so they can use it.”
Instead, he says the lessons are demand-driven rather than standard, supplied content. Despite the fact that many physicians have never taken an accounting class prior to this program, Smith says they come armed with a critically important understanding of cost.
“Physicians have a better concept of costs than any of our accounting students or other business majors because it’s so central to what they do each day,” he said. “Costs have been out of control in healthcare because many in that field struggle to compute costs. Physicians are going to change healthcare by understanding what things cost and leading efficient cost decisions.”
This new experience in teaching accounting to physicians has given Smith a fresh perspective on his teaching career.
“It has been immensely rewarding,” he said. “There aren’t sufficient words that describe how life-changing this experience has been for me, and for my wife, Sharon, who’s engaged in every bit of it, too. We both travel on all the global healthcare course trips abroad and each winter, we host a big party at our home for the physicians. These students are like family.”
Smith’s passion for teaching healthcare accounting has made a memorable impact on many of his students. In particular, the phrase he coined, “No physician left behind,” initially used to jokingly reassure his students they wouldn’t get lost in the business jargon during their MBA, has become a motto of encouragement.
“Reed tells us ‘No physician left behind’ to mean that regardless of how challenging some of the math, financial or accounting lessons are, there was always somebody available to help us,” said Dr. Ann Marie Nelson, MBA’15, a medical advisor at Eli Lilly and Company.
“Reed walked us through the mechanics of accounting and how to review a balance sheet. He became a tremendous cheerleader for our success,” added Dr. Shukri David, MBA’16, chairman of cardiovascular services for the St. John Providence Health System in Southfield, Michigan. “He’s a terrific individual who took the time to work closely with every student to make sure all our questions were answered.”
As he began working with physician students, Smith admits he did change his approach to teaching accounting. But in the end, teaching physician MBAs business accounting from the ground up was no different than addressing what encumbers any business student from grasping the subject.
“My philosophy is: if you remove roadblocks, learning will happen,” he said. “All you have to do is realize that some people take a bit longer to grasp a concept. But these physicians are all smart, motivated people. It’s my job to make sure I support them if they fall behind.”
Smith says he doesn’t do this alone.
“Teaching is a team sport, and I have enormous respect for the work my fellow faculty members do,” he said. “We all have to work together to lift up the whole program, and it happens here like I’ve never seen it happen anywhere else.”
When physicians graduate from the Kelley Physician MBA program, Smith believes the credential they earn is the lesser of their achievements when compared to the rich experience students gain from learning alongside physician peers. He believes program alumni do—and will continue to do—great things in the medical community.
“You’ll be a different physician, leader, and even a different person when you complete this degree,” he said. “Over the next decade, we’ll see major changes in the practice of healthcare in the United States. And our students are going to be at the forefront of that movement.”