Physician burnout is an issue that continues to grow. Despite a brief respite during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, results from a 10-year, nationwide physician survey show nearly 63 percent of physicians report symptoms of burnout. Alen Voskanian, MD, MBA’15, could relate to that burnout. Prior to enrolling in the Physician MBA Program at the IU Kelley School of Business, he experienced frustrations shared by many physicians.
“I want to be involved in making things better in healthcare, and at that time, there weren’t a lot of physicians in leadership positions. I wanted to be in the room where the decisions were being made,” Dr. Voskanian said. “Part of that was having the skillset, knowledge, and tools to be allowed to be in the room. I wanted to improve healthcare not only for our patients, which is my first priority, but also for physicians, caregivers, and staff.”
I wanted to be in the room where the decisions were being made. Part of that was having the skillset, knowledge, and tools to be allowed to be in the room.”
Common initiatives aimed at alleviating physician burnout in healthcare systems tended to focus on offering wellness incentives or ways to make physicians more resilient to burnout, says Dr. Voskanian. In his new book, Reclaiming the Joy of Medicine: Finding Purpose, Fulfillment, and Happiness in Today’s Medical Industry, he addresses what he sees as misdirected approaches.
“Physicians are extremely resilient by nature of their demanding medical training. I wanted to make sure we all understand that burnout doesn’t happen because doctors aren’t resilient: Burnout happens due to flaws in our healthcare system. And like many complex issues, there isn’t one perfect solutions. Burnout is such a serious issue—for physicians and patients—that I wanted to write about it and contribute to the solution. I write about my own experience overcoming burnout and share what I learned in my journey.”
By participating in the healthcare of his own parents, Dr. Voskanian experienced the difference between care provided by engaged physicians and ones who are burnt out. To address this complex issue, Dr. Voskanian says physicians need to understand the business of healthcare, something he gained in the Physician MBA Program.
“A section of my book talks about the root causes for how our healthcare system is set up, which was inspired by my experience in the Kelley Physician MBA, gaining a better understanding of the business side of healthcare,” Dr. Voskanian said. “While many of us become physicians to have autonomy and agency over our career, we’re often faced with situations in which we must follow health plan guidance for approving certain procedures or jumping through hoops if they get denied. When you look at the root of these problems, it’s economic, and understanding that requires business knowledge.”
Through the physician-only MBA program, Dr. Voskanian says he also gained a greater confidence in managing business aspects of healthcare. Whereas his knowledge of finance, accounting, and operations was limited prior to the MBA, he now knows enough to provide financial projections and understand the priorities of other non-physicians in healthcare.
“A major benefit of the program is gaining the confidence to be involved in meaningful discussion around business, finance, accounting, budgeting, and what pitfalls to be aware of,” said Dr. Voskanian. “After earning the MBA, I have a much better understanding of the non-physician perspective: What are the priorities of the CFO and the CEO, and how can I partner with those working to improve the system so we can be successful?”
After earning the MBA, I have a much better understanding of the non-physician perspective: What are the priorities of the CFO and the CEO, and how can I partner with those working to improve the system so we can be successful?”
Along with lessons on the business basics, students in the 21-month Physician MBA Program also undergo one-on-one executive coaching and leadership training. While extensive medical training instructs physicians on how to lead a healthcare team, Dr. Voskanian says physicians experiencing burnout often feel “stuck” on a prescribed career path.
“Coaching really is helpful to identify where you are and where you want to be and to complete the deep soul-searching required to understand your priorities and preferences,” he said.
Dr. Voskanian has since joined the team of executive coaches at the Kelley School who guide physicians earning their MBA on evolving their leadership capabilities. Now he directly supports physicians to find their path and avoid burnout.
“I love those ‘aha’ moments in coaching, those opportunities to help people feel good about their careers. There’s so much self-criticism as physicians, simply by the nature of our training,” he said. “But there’s also a sense of constantly striving to improve and compete. This competitiveness that once served a purpose in our career can eventually take away our joy and sense of peace. Helping physicians figure this out has been very rewarding to me.”
This competitiveness that once served a purpose in our career can eventually take away our joy and sense of peace. Helping physicians figure this out has been very rewarding to me.”
Located in Los Angeles, Dr. Voskanian commuted one weekend each month for the in-person residency sessions throughout the Physician MBA Program. While it required commitment and a very supportive family, Dr. Voskanian never missed a residency session. He saw it as a small “getaway” to focus on himself and his curious nature that loves to learn and collaborate.
“I know that if I ignore the intellectual side of me that wants to learn, I’m not happy, and I’m not the best version of myself,” he said. “By pursuing this MBA, I take care of myself, and when I return home, I’m refreshed and fully committed to work, fatherhood, and contributing to the family.”
Dr. Voskanian also took advantage of the Global Healthcare Experience course in which he studied and traveled to observe the healthcare system of India.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We got to see it from a perspective of healthcare, which you never get a chance to do when you travel as a tourist,” he said. “One night we visited a hospital in Delhi around 8 p.m. They were running an MRI machine 24/7 with patients paying cash. They used the machine so much that it was more affordable and accessible for people at lower income levels. Plus, everyone there has basic health insurance. That’s just one example of a different way of doing healthcare. No country has the perfect healthcare system, but seeing the ways healthcare is financed in another country was very insightful.”
Though he hadn’t sought an MBA to find a new job, shortly after he graduated from the Physician MBA Program, Dr. Voskanian was recruited to medical director at Cedars-Sinai Medical Group, CSMG (where he was recently promoted to vice president and chief operations officer). He also had two other offers at the time. While having an MBA can accelerate career growth, Dr. Voskanian says success requires more than that.
“An MBA is a check mark by your name that opens doors, but you also need experience, training, and people skills to be a competitive candidate,” he said. “Still, recruiters reach out at a much higher rate now than they did before my MBA.”
These days, Dr. Voskanian feels like a different physician than the one who enrolled in the Physician MBA Program. He’s more collaborative and innovative. He realizes he is both a better leader and a better manager.
“I always focused on leadership and thinking I wanted to be a leader, but not a manager. I’ve realized it’s not a dichotomy – you need both,” he said. “It’s great to be a good leader and have great ideas, but you need to know how to implement them. The program helps gain the skills necessary to do that.”