When they complete the Physician MBA Program at the Kelley School of Business, many physicians find themselves more willing to step outside their comfort zones to take on new roles or solve healthcare challenges with greater confidence. Cheryl Wolfe, MD, MBA’17, has done both.
Since completing the MBA program, Dr. Wolfe has built a women’s health ambulatory program and completed equity work at Rush Medical in Chicago, and she recently took on a completely new kind of role at Corewell Health West (formerly Spectrum Health) in Michigan as vice president and department chief of women’s health.
“From a career standpoint, I had an opportunity to really expand and stretch myself professionally by moving into a different space at Corewell Health. I’d be able to apply both my prior experience and my MBA because I was overseeing women’s health from a system standpoint in seven hospitals,” Dr. Wolfe said. “My MBA was immensely helpful, especially when looking at building strategy, collaborating with my marketing team, and working with strategic and data analytics partners. Of course, I’m not an expert in any of that, but the advantage of having an MBA is you’re able to understand the language and speak some of it, too.”
I’m not a [business] expert, but the advantage of having an MBA is you’re able to understand the language and speak some of it, too.”
Moving from a large healthcare system in the third most populated city in the country to a combination of rural and urban hospitals in western Michigan allows Dr. Wolfe to work in a new space of patient care. She says the skills she gained in the Physician MBA Program have helped her feel more confident approaching administrative challenges and questions as she works to provide care to a wider and more geographically diverse patient population. She says the MBA experience evolved her as a physician.
“I’m 100% a different physician and leader. I was in private practice prior to Rush and looked at cost a lot differently. Even now, I really think about the cost and value of healthcare from patients’ perspectives. What I think is valuable may not be valuable in the patients’ eyes—how do I use the knowledge that I have to make certain that a new value piece is aligned?” Dr. Wolfe said. “I understand the alignment between my service line and our system-wide goals. I’m also able to question proposals or maybe a marketing approach that doesn’t make strategic sense to me. I know what information I need, and I can synthesize that info a lot better because I have those tools from the MBA.”
I know what information I need, and I can synthesize that info a lot better because I have those tools from the MBA.”
The only physician MBA from a top-ranked business school, the program at the Kelley School is 21 months of training in the principles of business through curriculum focused specifically on healthcare. Physicians also do deep-dive explorations of their leadership styles and receive one-on-one executive coaching as part of the degree. With several direct reports, Dr. Wolfe says her evolution as a physician leader has been one of the greatest takeaways from the program.
“All the courses in the Physician MBA Program are invaluable, but the leadership courses really helped me fine-tune my leadership skills, and now I’m helping my direct reports grow and expand,” Dr. Wolfe said. “That course was five years ago, and I continue to build on the feedback I got from a 360 survey of my leadership skills—how to lead, how to guide, how to transform, how to express your vision, and how to interact with not only peers but leadership. I have no trepidation about approaching the CEO or president of the hospital system because I feel like I’ve been refining those skills. And it’s been invaluable.”
I continue to build on the feedback I got—how to lead, how to guide, how to transform, how to express your vision, and how to interact with not only peers but leadership.”
Part of that fine-tuning is understanding the complexities of leadership. During the Physician MBA Program, Dr. Wolfe participated in the Healthcare Policy Experience, a course that includes an immersive trip to Washington, D.C. to study healthcare policy and regulation with lawmakers. Dr. Wolfe says that course has been crucial as she navigates the deeply divisive politics surrounding women’s reproductive care, the reversal of Roe v. Wade, and the various opinions among her care teams.
“When you are a leader of a large group of individuals, you lead the entire group, not only those who agree with you. That was one of the leadership challenges I faced, and I drew upon some of the lessons learned from my MBA and my leadership experience,” Dr. Wolfe said. “You can’t cherry-pick what you support when you lead an entire group. I may have personal opinions that I want to speak out about, but as a leader of a diverse group of providers, I have to be aware of that when I’m making decisions for everyone.”
In navigating the various—and sometimes thorny—challenges in healthcare, Dr. Wolfe says it’s helpful to internalize the new and broad understanding of the business of healthcare she gained in the MBA program.
“It’s always there. It’s in the background of my mind, almost like an app on your phone that’s always running,” Dr. Wolfe said.
With each step in her career—each operations lesson learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, every hurdle to telehealth that is overcome—she continues to build on the foundational education she gained in the Physician MBA Program.
“The lessons learned in those classes and interactions with our professors teach you to pivot and to pivot more quickly because you know that information reflexively,” she said. “I’m always growing and stretching myself, and I really feel that the program at Kelley started clicking the pieces together in a different way for me, which wouldn’t have happened without that experience.
“It’s the best investment I’ve ever made in my career. It’s like the MBA completes your education as a physician.”