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What’s the best type of MBA program for a healthcare system leadership job?

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Q I’m 9 years out of residency; internist with mainly hospitalist experience. I find myself being offered more and more responsibility at my hospital – things like heading committees and “physician champion”-type opportunities. I really enjoy it, except that I’m expected to do it on top of my regular patient care. It started with little things like heading a task force and grew from there.

The thing is, I don’t really see myself being able to work my way up to a true leadership position in the organization. There are politics involved that I won’t get into here, and the fact that recruiting good hospitalists is a real challenge in my area. So I’m thinking about leaving for another system at some point – hopefully starting out higher up on the ladder.

It seems like having an MBA would help me, but obviously taking a couple years off work for a full-time MBA program would be a huge blow to my income. I also have a family and a lifestyle we’re used to at this point. Wondering how should I choose between an online MBA, part-time program with evening or weekend classes, or some other type of alternative schedule? Are these programs regarded as highly to hospital system executives when hiring?

A First off, it’s great that you’ve found enjoyment in the leadership work you’ve done at your hospital. I think this is a good indicator that you’ll also enjoy a director or other leadership role with administrative tasks at its center rather than direct patient care activities. The fact that you have a solid clinical background will be valuable, and will also gain you respect with the physicians you work with.

Based on your background, you’ll be excellent candidate for many MBA programs. But my first piece of advice, before I answer your actual question, is to fully consider the reasons you want to get an MBA. Most physician leaders don’t have an MBA. Many do, but even more have simply worked their way up into leadership positions (either within one company or by changing jobs) and learned the business aspect along the way. Don’t get an MBA just because you feel like you need one. Be sure you have a legitimate desire for a more formal business education. If you do, read on!

I agree with a full-time program is not the best route for you. In addition to the loss of income, it would likely involve a geographic move and potentially incurring student loan debt.

Both part-time and online MBA programs will offer the flexibility you’re looking for. Take a look at your local schools to see if their part-time schedules would fit with your own schedule. It’s possible that on-call requirements or long shifts could get in the way. If that’s the case, online may be the way to go. The decision also depends on your own learning preferences. Some people prefer classroom learning because they feel more engaged or procrastinate less. Others like online courses because they offer so much flexibility as to when and where to watch lectures.

The risk with part-time and online programs is that they don’t have very good reputations compared to full-time programs, generally speaking. So to answer your question directly, no – they are not as highly regarded. That said, though, as a physician who already has years of work experience and proficiencies in healthcare leadership, this may not matter. Your candidacy for an employment position will not be completely dependent on your MBA training. Your MBA will be more of an added bonus to employers and, to you, an extra set of skills and knowledge that you can use on the job.

If choosing among MBA programs with alternative schedules or formats, look for well-known universities with a substantial physical presence. Two programs that do have good reputations are Duke and UNC. Auburn also has a Physicians Executive MBA program for physicians which I’ve only heard positive things about.

One thing to note about online and part-time programs is that these are often the types obtained by employees whose employers are paying for the MBA. This is usually in exchange for a commitment to continue working for them, or as a benefit if they’ve already been with the company for a couple of years. You should definitely consider this option, since it would take the financial burden off of you. It’s possible that you could take a position with a new organization before getting the degree and negotiate tuition reimbursement for an MBA that you’ll obtain while you’re working for them. If the new employer is financially committed, they’ll probably offer you some flexibility in your work schedule to meet MBA requirements, as well.

To summarize, pick a program that looks like a good fit for you and your schedule. Reputation should play a role, but not be the deciding factor. Consider changing jobs, and then getting an MBA, if your employer would sponsor you.

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