Simply by its nature, the role of a physician is one of leadership. But not every doctor has been trained on how to lead: how to manage people, budgets, or negotiations.
Carla Fisher, MD, MBA’20, was the director of breast surgery and associate professor of surgery at Indiana University School of Medicine when she decided to enroll in the Physician MBA Program at the Kelley School of Business. Already a leader and practicing physician, Dr. Fisher knew there was more to learn about the business of healthcare.
“I was a physician essentially running my own business – managing patients, managing staff, and trying to be efficient. I’d learned how to be effective in medicine, but running a business wasn’t something I knew a lot about,” Dr. Fisher said. “I wanted to gain a better understanding about the business of healthcare. As a leader, there’s a lot of finance and marketing that I faced daily, for which I had no formal training.”
Dr. Fisher chose the Kelley School of Business for its national recognition and because it offered an MBA program specifically for physicians. While it was important to her to learn the standard business knowledge offered by executive MBA programs, she saw value in having those lessons couched in the business of medicine.
“Whether it was accounting for medical practices or managing teams of healthcare professionals, I learned a diversity of business topics that are very relatable to healthcare,” Dr. Fisher said. “Professor Nir Menachemi offered great courses on the history of health insurance and computerization in healthcare, and I also traveled to Switzerland, Amsterdam, and Singapore in the Global Healthcare Studies Experience over the two years I was in the program. And just working with other physicians introduced different perspectives to my learning. Those were opportunities unique to the Kelley Physician MBA.”
Dr. Fisher says one of the most interesting takeaways from the MBA program was learning about her specific style of leadership. Having grown gradually into her roles, she says she never stopped to think about what kind of leader she is, what her strengths and weaknesses are, and – importantly – how to negotiate.
“Negotiation is certainly not something you encounter in medical school, but you really need to understand it as a leader. That was a weakness for me, but I gained some concrete ways to improve. In class, we negotiated with our classmates, and it was intimidating but also fun and insightful,” Dr. Fisher said. “We also had great discussions and interactive classes on the topic of managing different types of people. Being able to discuss with fellow physicians how they would handle a situation and being able to disagree with them in open discussions was helpful.”
Halfway into the Physician MBA Program, Dr. Fisher earned a promotion to become chief of surgery for IU Health University Hospital, a role in which she evaluated patient safety, throughput, and experience for inpatient and outpatient services at one of the downtown Indianapolis hospitals. In addition to this new role, she also grew her breast surgery team significantly, adding physicians and a fellowship program.
“There’s no doubt that part of why I earned that role was my enrollment in the MBA program and my clear focus on efficiency, leadership, and working with a large group of people,” Dr. Fisher said.
There’s no doubt that part of why I earned that role was my enrollment in the MBA program and my clear focus on efficiency, leadership, and working with a large group of people.”
Throughout the program, Dr. Fisher applied her new business knowledge to her daily work. As part of a capital committee evaluating financing for her physician group, Dr. Fisher now had a better understanding of the financial terms and reports presented to her. She says one of the biggest areas of interest she found in the Physician MBA Program was the importance and challenge of economics.
“Economics is going to be a lifelong passion for me, following the macro- and microeconomics courses at the Kelley School. It’s a topic that has global, national, and political implications. Healthcare is a trillion-dollar business, and its role in the economics of our country is significant,” Dr. Fisher said. “Inflation and recession are concepts I understand a lot better now, and this is especially important in our current environment. I can better understand the role of the Federal Reserve in managing these things and how this all significantly affects businesses, healthcare, and our patients. Being able to see things a lot more globally is helpful.”
Being able to see things a lot more globally is helpful.”
Sometimes the big takeaway is realizing what you don’t know about an aspect of business. The Physician MBA Program curriculum covers all the core tenants of business, including marketing strategy. Oftentimes, physicians may have a basic working knowledge of the topic, but the program delivers the principles within a healthcare context.
“On the first day of our marketing class, our professor said, ‘You probably think this is going to be about advertising.’ And that’s exactly what I was thinking. Instead, the class really helped me to understand our patients,” said Dr. Fisher, who meets with her marketing team quarterly. “The data they present to me and the concepts they’re pitching aren’t about selling things to patients, it’s understanding how to reach our target market and how to make our marketing dollars reach the patients who need our services. I better understand my role as a marketing recipient, both as a consumer and as a surgeon working with device and medical therapy companies.”
Dr. Fisher says she’s a more confident leader because she has a wider, more global view of the business of healthcare. While she applies some tools from the MBA more often than others in her work, she says the experience better equipped her as a leader with diversified skills.
“I’m a breast surgeon in academic practice. I have a niche, and the Physician MBA really allowed me to branch out beyond that focus. I can take care of patients but also manage other people. I better understand the healthcare system, including my role, my patients’ role, and the hospital’s role in this complicated system. The whole experience really set me up to manage things like COVID,” said Dr. Fisher.
I better understand the healthcare system, including my role, my patients’ role, and the hospital’s role in this complicated system.”
She says these diversified skills equipped her with a greater ability to pivot. At the height of the pandemic, many oncologists weren’t seeing patients, and some cancer screening was delayed, which could lead to more advanced cancers. Dr. Fisher says it offered her team an opportunity to be creative in reaching at-risk patients to encourage them to pursue screening, and they had to think outside the box.
“All of a sudden, what you did in 2019 doesn’t work. That’s where marketing can come into play: understanding your customer, where they go for their healthcare information, and how you can reach them,” Dr. Fisher said. “Having a more global view of healthcare and business allowed me use new skills beyond my surgical skills to find creative ways to manage patients and create momentum.”
Dr. Fisher jokes that she has a “100% success rate” of enrolling people into the Kelley Physician MBA Program. She tells them the experience is worth the time and effort required to earn an MBA while working as a busy physician and researcher. She also says there’s no wrong time to keep diversifying your education and your skill set.
“It’s impossible to learn everything you can learn about business in two years. What you are doing at the Kelley School is creating the foundation, the understanding, and the backbone, and you’ll continue to build on that throughout your career.”