As he neared the end of his nine years of military service as an Air Force neurosurgeon, C.J. Berg, MD, MBA’21, knew he wanted to move into private practice. But after nearly a decade in service, Dr. Berg realized he needed to learn more about the business of traditional healthcare.
“I spent my entire career essentially doing zero work in the business of medicine because it was all government payers. I’d say what needed to be done, and the government approved it. I wasn’t paid for my work, so I never had to factor in any of that,” Dr. Berg said. “I knew I needed a lot more education in that arena before I was ready to tackle private practice.”
Dr. Berg researched his options and enrolled in the Physician MBA Program at the Kelley School of Business. He wanted a truly healthcare-focused MBA with a good reputation, and the Kelley School Indianapolis is just a couple hours from where he was located at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. As he wrapped up his military service, the only hiccup in his MBA plans was that he still had one more tour of duty in Afghanistan, which would make it impossible to attend the in-person monthly residency session weekends in Indianapolis.
“But then COVID happened, and everything in the program went virtual, so I was able to stay on schedule with the MBA because everybody was on Zoom,” Dr. Berg said. “I actually completed most of the second year of the program virtually from Afghanistan.”
Dr. Berg says the program was a complete education in the business of medicine from a physician’s perspective, and it was all new to him. Even just a few months into the program, he says he realized how little he knew about the business behind the job he’d been doing for the better part of a decade.
“The Physician MBA Program provides you with a detailed and intimate knowledge of the way the healthcare system works behind the scenes. As a physician, it’s easy to bury your head in the sand and just see patients, offer treatment plans, submit the bill, and somehow magically get a paycheck. There isn’t real knowledge of how this machine’s working behind the scenes,” Dr. Berg said. “Kelley offers that peek behind the curtain and opened my eyes to why insurance companies behave the way they do. Some of the rules they put in place may be nonsensical to the physician, but when you look at it from a business perspective, it makes sense.”
As he looked toward the future of launching his own private neurosurgery practice, Dr. Berg was confident in his clinical skills, but everything he was learning about the business side of healthcare was eye opening. And it shifted how he provides patient care.
“One of the things the program helped me do was to view my practice beyond simply providing care to patients, but how do I provide good care to patients while maintaining a healthy business,” Dr. Berg said. “For instance, I realized how important marketing is. Sometimes I think physicians feel that if you’re doing good work, that’s marketing your business, but it isn’t enough. Yes, you must do good work, but that’s not enough if you expect patients to find you. Those types of strategies I learned at Kelley helped me to see my practice as a business and not just a vessel for seeing patients.”
In fact, Dr. Berg’s dream of owning his own practice began as a group project in the Physician MBA Program. In the second year of the program, Dr. Berg used his concept of a neurosurgery private practice as a final project in the Venture Strategy course. In a team with three other physicians, Dr. Berg created a business plan for a neurosurgery practice franchise model with expansion concepts, growth projections, targeted patient populations, and options for bringing on additional physicians and ancillary services.
“My team and I essentially created my current practice, including the logo. It was all part of the final project,” Dr. Berg said. “I’ve used 100% of everything we created in that course. One of the first things I needed to do to launch the practice was apply for a Small Business Administration loan, which required a five-year business plan. I literally emailed it over to them that day, and they were surprised I was so prepared.”
Dr. Berg graduated from the MBA program in 2021, finished military service at the beginning of 2022, and launched Axis Spine Clinic in Columbus, Ohio in March 2022. Dr. Berg is the sole proprietor with two employees providing the full spectrum of neurosurgical care.
“Since we launched, we’ve experienced steady growth and turned a profit, even in our first calendar year, which is pretty amazing given all the startup costs we overcame in such a short time,” Dr. Berg said. “I’m currently looking to expand and bring in additional surgeons and ancillary services.”
Within the next five years, Dr. Berg’s goal is to make Axis Spine Clinic a wraparound, full-spectrum wellness clinic for patients with spine issues. He wants to eventually expand to include pain management, physical therapists, chiropractors, acupuncture, massage therapy, and mental health services, all under one roof.He says all of this was made possible by what he learned in the Physician MBA Program.
“Performing surgery is the only thing I do now that doesn’t actively involve what I learned from my MBA. The decisions I make, the way I speak to people, every non-surgical thing I do in my practice came from Kelley,” Dr. Berg said. “My private practice is my return on my investment in the MBA. There’s no chance I could’ve done this without that education. The Kelley Physician MBA Program is driving my entire career.”
Along the way, Dr. Berg has become a strong advocate for physicians earning an MBA. He sees it as a way for physicians to reclaim influence over the direction of healthcare by equipping themselves with the business knowledge to lead.
“The Kelley Physician MBA helps you understand the business side of medicine, and honestly, it helps you be a better advocate for your patients. When somebody without the clinical acumen starts making purely business decisions, this MBA gives you the tools to push back on those types of policies and explain why that decision is bad for patients and bad for business. If you’re only making one side of that argument, it’s often a losing argument,” Dr. Berg said.
“It would be impossible to do what I’m doing without the MBA. Yes, you have to be able to speak the language, but you also have to completely internalize this knowledge. I use it literally every single day—everything I do came from the MBA.”