There was a point when Gary Phillips didn’t think he needed to graduate from Wharton.
A pre-med student at Penn in the 1980s, Phillips dropped the Wharton half of his College and Wharton dual degree in order to graduate in three years in 1987.
A year later, Phillips began studying medicine at the School of Medicine and was later presented another option: the chance to study in Wharton again, this time on an MBA track.
Phillips, still interested in business, saw the opportunity and took it. In 1991, he graduated from Wharton with an MBA. The following year, he received his M.D. from the University’s medical school, graduating from Penn’s M.D./MBA program.
Today, Phillips is not a practicing doctor, although he keeps his license active. Instead, Phillips is the senior vice president and chief strategy officer of Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, where he is responsible for strategy, mergers, acquisitions and other financial matters.
Phillips admits that he doesn’t need his M.D. to work in his current role. But for him, as with many other graduates of Penn’s M.D./MBA program, it was still a worthwhile pursuit.
“I feel like I’m good at what I do in part because of the M.D.”
In a society where health care and business are becoming increasingly intertwined, recent research has demonstrated there are benefits to having both a business and a medical background. In a paper to be published in September 2014, researchers at Wharton and the Perelman School of Medicine have found that Penn’s M.D./MBA program had a positive effect on the careers of its alumni.
Having both an M.D. and an MBA “allows you to wear multiple hats and see unique perspectives, and there’s really a need for people with that kind of training,” explained Mitesh Patel, an author of the paper who also graduated from the dual degree program.
With the health care reform debate emerging into the national spotlight — notably with the changes brought on by the Affordable Care Act — business is playing a larger role in the medical field.
“How health and health care are going to improve in the next decade is going to be just as important in terms of management and the financing of health care as it is in new discoveries and basic science,” Patel said.
Founded in 1971, Penn’s joint program — one of the oldest and largest in the nation — helps students prepare for the changing health care landscape. The program allows a medical student to apply to Wharton’s MBA in Health Care Management Program in their third year or later and complete both degrees in a total of five years.
The article by Patel and his colleagues, which is the first to study M.D./MBA dual degrees on a large scale, found that most of the program’s 247 total graduates between 1981 and 2010 were overwhelmingly satisfied with their education and resulting careers.
Phillips noted that his medical education was extremely helpful in guiding his company to an investment of more than $7 billion in recent transactions.
“In each case, I have to think, ‘If I were a doctor thinking about using this product, would I use it?’” Phillips said. “I’m constantly looking at technology and using my clinical hat to say, ‘Is there a need for this?’”
The study also revealed that “physicians that had gotten their M.D./MBA 20 years ago are now in leadership and management roles, and not necessarily within hospitals,” Patel noted. While 80 percent of alumni entered residency, less than half are still clinically practicing.
“There has been a change in the career paths of people going through this program,” explained Wharton professor Mark Pauly, a co-author of the study. “When it started, it was very unusual for physicians to study business. And in fact, organized medicine was, it’s safe to say, hostile towards doctors thinking of what they do as a business.”
But now, with the monetization of health care, “people are more comfortable with the idea that health care is a business,” Pauly said.
“I think what we’re seeing is that more of our graduates who were M.D.s are actually sticking with health care as a business now and sticking with the clinical part,” Pauly continued. “Now, they’re more looking to get an MBA to see how to make the health care system better.”
David Fajgenbaum, a 2013 Perelman graduate and current MBA student, aims to do just that. After losing his mother to cancer when he was an undergraduate at Georgetown University, he decided that he would dedicate his life to fighting cancer.
At Penn’s medical school, he dove straight into studying oncology. However, his knowledge of public health — he received an MPH in Cancer Epidemiology and Cancer Prevention at Oxford University after graduating from Georgetown — gave him a population-wide perspective, which led to his dissatisfaction with the current medical landscape.
“I was very disappointed with the drugs available in the cancer space,” Fajgenbaum said. He believed that drugs should be both more effective and cheaper than they were at the time. “I realized that I really wanted to be part of advancing therapy in the cancer space.”
Fajgenbaum realized that the best way to realize his goal of “speeding up the pace of discovery” — which would require connecting pharmaceutical companies, advocacy groups, academia and patient care — was to get an MBA in health care management.
“During medical school, I got excellent training on how to treat the patients right in front of me. But what I didn’t get was an education about how patients fit within the larger health care system,” Fajgenbaum explained.
While the majority of alumni were satisfied with their experiences in the dual-degree program, the study by Penn researchers found that some alumni felt pigeon-holed into medical projects while working the business sector.
One student, who wished to remain anonymous due to the upcoming residency application process, found that working towards two degrees was sometimes actually a hindrance during his Wharton MBA internship application process this past year.
”When I went to the interviews and talked to people, they were intrigued by the background, but they didn’t really know what to make of people like us,” he said. Recruiters often asked him about residency, hinting at the possibility of continuing with the business job after graduation. Unable to outright lie, the student felt “trapped.”
Even with the added burden of an extra year on top of 15 years of post-secondary education, a large majority of alumni surveyed considered the dual degree a worthwhile tradeoff, pointing out that its value really depended on the person’s career.
“If someone wants to practice and also wants to be a part of leadership in the hospital, serve on committees, potentially become the medical director or be involved in the administration of the hospital then I think the MBA is incredibly valuable,” Fajgenbaum noted. “You learn really, really valuable things in an MBA that I think would help every doctor.”
Editor’s Note: Katherine Chang was a staff writer for the Summer Pennsylvanian. She is currently the advertising manager for The Daily Pennsylvanian.
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