Knowledge is power: An extra degree often pays off, DOs say
Megan Duffy, DO, got her MBA during residency because she thought it would help her find work.
“It’s very challenging to find a good job in pathology,” says Dr. Duffy, now a medical director for Affiliated Pathologists Medical Group in Phoenix. “People get two or three fellowships in subspecialty areas to be competitive. I thought, ‘That’s fine, I can get additional fellowship training also. But what would really make me stand out?’ “
Shari Glynn, DO, MPH, thought a business degree would help her excel in the position she already had.
“I wasn’t good at creating and marketing programs,” says Dr. Glynn, who is the medical director of Lake County Occupational Health Services at Abbott Laboratories in Abbott Park, Ill. “That’s really what I use my MBA for. It’s really helped me to market the programs I’ve created, such as a travel clinic, wellness programs and a fitness and rehab center.”
And Bruce H. David, DO, JD, began law school after his intern year simply because he found it interesting.
“My father’s an attorney,” he says. “From a young age, I worked around his office. I was always interested in law, and I thought that the law would be a good thing to know if not practice.”
DOs and medical students may pursue additional education for different reasons, but they all must weigh the benefits against the cost—in dollars and time—of obtaining more education. The DO picked the brains of several DOs with MBAs, MPHs and JDs on the ways their extra degrees shaped their careers, the sacrifices they had to make and their advice for others.
Benefits of extra schooling
Several DOs with MBAs say the schooling gave them crucial business insights that help them do their jobs better.
“It sounds daunting, and it’s so much work. But it’s very satisfying and fulfilling in a very different way than a medical degree.”
With an MBA in her pocket, Angela DeRosa, DO, had the confidence to open her own medical practice when she left an executive position at Matrix Medical Network, which provides health assessments. Her newfound skills have helped her better review financial statements, negotiate contracts and develop a business plan to present to banks so she could secure loans, she says.
“I’ve learned how to properly build a practice that is different from the standard medical practice,” she says. “My practice is customer-based and customer-service-based. The traditional thinking is, ‘Oh, we just see patients and that’s all we do.’ But medicine is a business, and business is all about customer service. I don’t care if you’re selling hotdogs and hamburgers or selling medicine. You have to look at and focus it from the customer point of view.”
Dr. DeRosa has expanded her internal medicine practice, which has a specialty focus on hormonal and sexual health, to six locations in the past four years.
An MBA can still be helpful if you’re not in private practice. John D. Hines, DO, says his business background gives him greater insights into leadership decisions at the Iowa Clinic, a multispecialty practice where he is a gastroenterologist.
“It helps me to understand why there’s so much emphasis on cost control,” he says. “I can understand administrators who want us to use generic drugs to cut our costs, and I can understand the thinking behind trying to choose the treatment pathways that are the most cost-effective in order to give high-quality, low-cost care.”
Dr. Hines’ MBA has also opened doors for him at the practice.
“My managers found out I had an MBA and they put me on the finance committee within a month of my start date,” he says. “I got plugged into the business side of the clinic right away. Our clinic does about $100 million in business per year. I really enjoyed learning how money gets allocated and spent at a much bigger operation than I was used to.”
Leonard A. Wilkerson, DO, MPH, believes additional education can make DOs more sought-after by employers. He says he hasn’t needed to look for a job in more than 15 years. He attributes his success in part to the degrees, including an MBA, he obtained 20 years after medical school.
“I got a call from Cigna,” he recalls. “I thought they wanted me to take their insurance. But they said, ‘Would you be our medical director?’ “
Dr. Wilkerson worked for Cigna for several years, then received a call from the CEO of United Healthcare. He’s now the company’s senior vice president of clinical affordability and innovation. Although he took a pay cut at first, Dr. Wilkerson says his salary has significantly surpassed what he once earned as a physician in private practice, though he notes that he has more responsibilities now.
Professionals with two degrees also have a greater pool of opportunities to choose from, notes Dr. David.
“If a hiring manager knows that a physician already has an additional degree, the physician may be paid more.”
“One of the beauties of having dual degrees is that I’m allowed to pursue a variety of interests and never be bored,” he says.
Dr. David has faculty appointments at a law school and two medical schools, and he has served as a medical director for several mental health programs. He says his law degree helped him land a senior position at a forensic psychiatry center two years out of fellowship that shaped his career.
“The law degree has allowed me to get positions. And when in the positions, I’ve been able to perform at a higher level,” he says. “I’m able to understand things and deal with things in a way that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to.”
Although he’s enjoyed the extra opportunities his dual professional degrees provided him, Dr. David says he’s never taken jobs solely for the money. And other DOs note that even if extra schooling doesn’t lead to a meteoric career rise or riches, the added knowledge alone can be its own reward.
After earning his master of public health degree while a senior medical officer with the U.S. Coast Guard, David B. Canton, DO, JD, MPH, was considering getting a law degree to make himself more competitive in the labor market. He spoke to his boss, a Coast Guard engineer who had been to law school, about his potential plans.
“My boss said, ‘Worst-case scenario: You do a year, they put you on academic probation and they kick you out,’ ” Dr. Canton says. ” ‘But you will have learned something in the process.’ That’s good advice.”
Dr. Glynn says earning an MBA was a worthwhile endeavor even though it hasn’t elevated her career.
“My MBA really didn’t give me any kind of career advancement or competitive advantage in my job, but it really helped me develop my business expertise,” she says.
Paul R. Fowler, DO, JD, has built his career in the U.S. Indian Health Service on his two degrees. As the chief risk officer for the IHS, Dr. Fowler defends the federal government against medical malpractice claims. Making use of his law and medicine backgrounds every day is what he enjoys most about his work, he says.
But such positions are exceedingly rare, Dr. Fowler notes.
“I got a call from Cigna. I thought they wanted me to take their insurance. But they said, ‘Would you be our medical director?’ ”
“Law schools are pumping attorneys out in the thousands,” he says. “There are minimal job opportunities for these lawyers.”
Dr. Fowler doesn’t recommend law school to DOs considering going today. Physicians seeking to boost their revenue may do better by pursuing additional residency or fellowship training, he says.
And Dr. Hines, who earned his MBA before medical school, points out that much of a given MBA program’s curriculum may not concern health care delivery.
“People out in the world working will want to direct their education the best way they can,” he says. “If I were going to do it over again, I would want to make sure I had plenty of opportunities to study the health care world because that’s what’s going to affect me the most. The airline industry is not going to affect me. I don’t need to know much about it. There might be a way for people to get the knowledge that they want about the health care industry and not get an MBA.”
Some MBA programs, such as Dr. DeRosa’s at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, offer a concentration in medical management. Potential students may also want to consider pursuing a master’s degree in health administration—or a graduate certificate, which would be significantly less expensive.
Paying for another degree
When added to the cost of medical school, which easily runs six figures, the price of another professional degree can seem prohibitive. To sidestep the expense of tuition, Dr. Duffy pursued her MBA during residency, taking advantage of her employer’s education assistance program. Employed DOs often have access to subsidized or free education—Dr. Glynn’s employer footed the bill for her MBA, and the Coast Guard paid for Dr. Canton’s MPH.
But Dr. Wilkerson and Dr. Canton, who used their own funds, say the investment in their education was worth it. By going into corporate health care, Dr. Wilkerson greatly boosted his salary.
Dr. Canton says his JD paid for itself in job opportunities. He is now the chief medical officer for Shasta Community Health Center in Redding, Calif.
When to go
Medical students may find pursuing another professional degree right after, or in conjunction with, medical school to be financially advantageous because they’ll have more years to reap the benefits of the extra education. Every osteopathic medical school offers at least one dual-degree option, according to AACOM’s 2014 Osteopathic Medical College Information Book. Eleven schools have DO-MBA programs, while 14 schools offer a DO-MPH option and one, the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford, N.J., has a DO-JD track.
Students with multiple advanced degrees can be more attractive to employers, and they often earn more in their first jobs, says James Hess, EdD, the chairman and director of the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences School of Health Care Administration. Dr. Hess also runs the DO-MBA program at the school’s College of Osteopathic Medicine (OSU-COM).
“There’s a range that health systems are going to pay first-time physicians,” he says, noting that first-year earnings can vary as much as $25,000 per year. “If a hiring manager knows that a physician already has an additional degree, the physician may be paid more. Extra degrees also help hiring managers identify people who may have long-term potential for other aspects of their organization.”
Another attraction of dual-degree programs is the possibility of scholarships. OSU-COM’s DO-MBA program has a corporate sponsor that awards roughly $10,000 to most students in the program, Dr. Hess says.
Students may also find it easier to knock all their education out at once, he notes.
“Most folks are in full-time learning mode while they’re in medical school,” Dr. Hess says. “It’s a lot easier to stay in that learning perspective as opposed to finishing medical school, going into residency, going to work, and then trying to go back and get the MBA or another degree.”
Dr. David agrees.
“I was in school for a long, long time,” he says. “I did my internship so I could get my license, and then I went right into law school. If you interrupt your schooling, it’s very hard to get back into it. It’s easier to do schooling the younger you are. Along the lines of having no regrets, if you’re thinking about doing this, my advice would be to do it sooner rather than later.”
However, as Drs. Canton, Glynn and Wilkerson demonstrate, DOs who go back to school after starting their careers can still greatly benefit from doing so. Dr. Canton says he had an advantage over many of his MPH classmates because he already had experience with population health and occupational health.
“We were learning the theories and their practical applications,” he says. “I had to learn the theory, but I already knew the practical applications. And that made the theories more tangible to me.”
DOs who go back to school while working full time will have to learn how to balance their new duties with their current lives.
“I’ve learned how to properly build a practice that is different from the standard medical practice. My practice is customer-based and customer-service-based.”
“Look at your work and personal life,” says Dr. Wilkerson. “You don’t want to shortchange your family. And you shouldn’t try to do what some MBA students do. Some students excessively work all week and then try to study all weekend when they should see their family.”
Dr. Wilkerson shares his schedule: In his program, he attended class in two-week blocks every four months. During the nonclass weeks, he set aside 8:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday for studying, and he studied for three to four hours on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
“Do your course work in increments, so you still can have your professional life and your personal life,” he says. “If you try to do it differently, you might hurt your practice, your family or your kids.”
An online program helped Dr. DeRosa balance school with her unpredictable work schedule.
“Instead of having to go sit in classrooms, if I was working late, I could be online, doing my classwork from midnight to 3 a.m. if I chose to,” she says, noting that a Web-based curriculum will only work well for independent learners with robust time-management skills.
But Jamison S. Nielsen, DO, who earned his MBA during medical school, advises against all-online degrees.
“There’s really not a substitute for the classroom-forum-style discussions,” says Dr. Nielsen, who is now a general surgeon with the U.S. Army in Landstuhl, Germany. “If all you want is knowledge, you can glean that from books. I think greater discernment and, just as important, friendships are gained when your thoughts are sharpened by those of others.”
Patience is a key to success when pursuing later-in-life schooling, Dr. Wilkerson says.
“There were many physicians in my MBA classes,” he says. “Many times, we would look at each other and say, ‘Did you understand that?’ I was with really smart guys: an oncologist and a neurosurgeon. We used to say to him, ‘It’s not brain surgery.’ But we were learning something new. Don’t get frustrated. Continue to hold the course.”
Dr. Duffy says she always tells people not to be afraid of the work involved in getting another degree.
“Just go for it,” she says. “It sounds daunting, and it’s so much work. But it’s very satisfying and fulfilling in a very different way than a medical degree. And I myself haven’t totally excluded law school yet.”
When Dr. Duffy does decide to go to law school, she’ll want to seek out good mentors first, according to Dr. Canton, who says finding good mentors is the best advice he can give.
“I have to give credit to the people who mentored me early in my career—leaders in the occupational medicine college and my boss in the Coast Guard, who recommended going to law school,” he says. “When people are thinking about going back to school or changing their career path, they should seek out people they look up to and respect, who can give them good advice and good mentoring.”