Episode 07: The Value Of A Physician MBA For Healthcare Leadership with Dr. Kate Atchley

Feb 8, 2019


This Episode

Interview w/ Dr. Kate Atchley

You Will Learn

  • How to determine if an MBA is right for you
  • Tips for how to balance an MBA program with a busy family life and clinical workload
  • The benefits of having an MBA for a role in organizational leadership
  • How an MBA can strengthen interdisciplinary problem-solving skills in healthcare

Resources & Links

Show Notes

In this episode I talk to Dr. Kate Atchley about the Physician Executive MBA Program she oversees at University of Tennessee. We discuss the benefit of an MBA for a physician leader, the format of the curriculum to accommodate busy doctors, how distance vs. local learning works, and how they have striven to built a program with direct real-world application for doctors in (or aspiring to) organizational leadership.

Show Transcript

Justin: [01:04]Hello and welcome to the Anesthesia Success Podcast. I’m your host, Justin Harvey. Our guest this week is Dr Kate Atchley, Kate is a distinguished lecturer at the University of Tennessee as well as the executive director for the physician Executive MBA program at the Haslam College of Business at University of Tennessee at Knoxville. In addition, Kate oversees the strategy and implementation for three other executive MBA programs at UT for aerospace and defense supply chain management and leadership. I’m really excited to have Kate here today to help us understand how an MBA may enhance a physician’s career and what it takes to complete an MBA while also being a busy physician. Kate, thanks a lot for joining us today.

Dr. Atchley: [01:41]Thank you for having me.

Justin: [01:42]So, to kick off, I’d love to hear just a little bit about your background and how you came to your current role at Haslam.

Dr. Atchley: [01:48]Interesting. This is not where I thought I would be doing when I grew up and we have that conversation with our physicians as well about what do you want to be when you grow up? I, my background is industrial and organizational psychology and when I was finishing my phd I had an opportunity to work with a brand new program here at the college and it was our physician executive MBA program fell. I fell in love with the program and working with that group of students and I ended up staying here.

Justin: [02:15]Excellent. What was it that drew you to the program?

Dr. Atchley: [02:17]I come from a family of physicians. I’m the only non physician in my family. And so I, grew up in my formative years learning about that experience of going through medical school, starting to practice what the struggles were in my industrial and organizational role. I had been working around leadership development and career planning and those types of topics. The role that I had in our physician program was helping work with the physicians. Where are you, where do you want to be, how do you develop those skills, how can we make you more successful wherever you want to land it. I just naturally gravitated towards it. So physicians are such a fun group to teach. They’re learning, they’re used to learning quickly. They’re used to asking lots of great questions and so it makes for a very rich learning environment and that’s something that I enjoy as a faculty member.

Justin: [03:07]Excellent. I was reading a quote from you that said something to this effect and I’d like to hear your reaction to this. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that an educator is highest calling is to help students find their highest calling at the position, the MBA program. I believe we make a difference in healthcare by empowering physicians to do just that and so that they can empower others and so it goes. Can you elaborate a little bit on how your idea of an educator’s highest calling in this context and equipping physicians manifests itself in the way that you’ve built the program?

Dr. Atchley: [03:37]I believe that the role of an educator is to help individuals understand the question and possible solutions to what they want to achieve and how can they get there. How do we help them get there? We don’t have all the answers. That’s not the role of an educator. It’s helping people get the resources and skills that they need for them to solve the answer. For our physicians, we’ve always built the physician curriculum around what does every physician leader need to know and that looks different for different physicians. Some physicians have fallen out with the love of clinical practice because of the stress and they want to find their passion again. How do they make that situation less stressful? How do they have more control over their life? Other physicians come to us because they have this great idea for a, a business plan, but they don’t know where to go from there. They can see it in their head, but they don’t know how to put it on paper and we can help them do that. Others want to give back to the community and how do they make that a sustainable venture for themselves and their community. People have many different paths and whatever path our physicians want to take, we want to help them.

Justin: [04:47]That sounds great and I’m interested. You mentioned that obviously there’s a, it’s a hot topic now in medicine. The idea of burnout, I’m interested to know is the MBA something that clinicians will often use to try to maybe attain greater work life balance by having developing some administrative or leadership acumen that will potentially lessen their clinical load? Is that something that people come in with that idea and does that end up working for them? I could see a situation where maybe someone will say, oh, I need to do the MBA to do the leadership stuff, so I kind of get out of the more of the clinical focused work, but then potentially the administrative and leadership roles can take up a lot more time than they might anticipate.

Dr. Atchley: [05:27]They do come to us with the idea of what else is out there? What else can I be doing? I’m not achieving the satisfaction or the work life balance that I want. I don’t know if anyone. Some people do come to us with the idea of I want to be a CEO or a COO or Chief Quality Officer. They have those goals. The MBA is really about giving more options to an individual to help control and build what they want and there’s other ways to get that control and to build what you want as well. You don’t have to have an MBA to do, but it gives you this language and a set of resources that you can draw upon to create the type of career that you want to have.

Justin: [06:04]I’m interested, you know, what does your program look like as far as the curriculum? How are you specifically equipping Physicians for augmenting their skillset and preparing them for different opportunities?

Dr. Atchley: [06:14]Our program was built with the help of physicians over 20 years ago. We used focus groups to to decide what we needed to do the approach we needed to take a very hands on approach. We don’t have tests. We have projects because that’s what real life is about. It’s not a test. It’s how do you. How do you accomplish things in your workplace? So it’s very project based. We teach our content at a strategic level. We know that you’re going, that people are going to have a finance person, a that they can call upon or they have marketing expertise within the organization or confined that expertise. We’re not trying to make you a CFO. We’re not trying to make you a marketer. We’re not trying to make you an hr person. We want to give you enough information so that you can look at what’s coming in, what information is coming in, what kind of questions you need to ask to make good decisions to move your plan, your organization forward. So it’s, it’s, we will keep it highly relevant, very active and it’s a 12 month program. It’s pretty intense. But it also, you know, if you think about the time value of money is this, do you want to work on an MBA for three, four, or five years, which you can do and there’s opportunities out there to do that. Or do you want to hunker down for a year and get it done and be on your way?

Justin: [07:32]Maybe you could give an example of a specific class or an offering that you’re particularly excited about that illustrates this idea of giving the strategic level Intel needed to be able to, you know, functionally a pursue leadership without having necessarily all of the details that you get buried in a asking someone to be a chief marketing officer or something because they’re not going to do that. They just need to know high level, you know, how do we function in administration, leadership in the healthcare setting.

Dr. Atchley: [07:59]So we don’t have standalone three hour classes. We have a 12 hour of course credit every semester and we teach in an integrated fashion. So for example, let’s say that we’re going to talk about your P and l statements. So first we’re going to, there’s going to be a faculty member that comes in and goes through what does the P and L, what is the profit and loss statement look like? What does that mean in terms of your organization? What are the different lines mean? How are those things calculated? And then we’re going to also talk about the, any regulatory issues that come out of that or what the write offs mean. How do you do that? What’s the legal process? What’s the regulatory issues that come up around that? Then we’re going to talk about, the people issues that fall in that there may be align around labor.

Dr. Atchley: [08:49]Okay. So what falls into the Labor category and what sort of things do you need to be thinking of? What are the issues? What are the costs? Is there a and acquisition is that we start, we start putting all the pieces together. There’s not a leader in this country whether they’re in healthcare or not, that can wake up one day and say, today I’m only going to deal with marketing and tomorrow I’m only going to deal with strategy. It all works together. All the levers work together. And so we teach information that way. So we’ll take an issue, we’ll start somewhere, but we start filling in all the different variables that have to play in to that ultimate decision that you’re going to make. It’s not like clinical medicine. There’s very few right or wrong answers, it’s business and so it’s deciding on a path and how do you support that path, what are the risks associated with that path and how do you mitigate those risks.

Justin: [09:33]Makes sense. So you know, there’s obviously doctors coming in of all specialties and all backgrounds and all types of employer and institutional backgrounds. I’m curious how much flexibility is there within the curriculum to pursue a certain sort of sub niche or sub interest in the way that you guys have your curriculum structure.

Dr. Atchley: [09:51]The curriculum is 36 hours of of these, of this integrated block at the core content. There’s nine hours that’s associated with a year long project. It’s called an organizational action project and that is where you can specialize and you’re working on a project all year with the help of a faculty member around a topic of your interest and we want that topic to be of strategic importance to where you are and what you’re trying to do. So an example of one individual from last year, he was an anesthesiologist and he has project was a service expansion at a growing rural hospital. So in order to do that he had to talk about CRMS He had to talk about staffing, he had to talk about salaries, he had to talk about logistics, where are we going to cover? He had to talk about marketing. What would you do if I, if I add these people, how are you going to get the patients in? He had to do a competitor analysis, you had to do financial plans, he had to do operational strategies to put all that pieces, those pieces together to come up with.

Justin: [10:49]Is this something where these students can then sort of take that plan and literally go implement it in their real life practices?

Dr. Atchley: [10:56]Yes. And some already start implementing it before they even graduate.

Justin: [10:59]That’s great. With regards to the faculty, are their MD’s on staff and how does that work? Who’s teaching these classes and what kind of experience do they bring to the table?

Dr. Atchley: [11:07]We have PhD’s in their specialty areas and all of them are doing some sort of consulting in the real world outside of the ivory tower, so they keep up with current issues in what’s going on the field of healthcare, but we also have some MD’s on staff. We have an MD pediatrician by training very much into the quality world and he does process improvement and quality for us. We have another physician who’s past president of the American Medical Association. He’s coming in and talking about healthcare policy and advocacy. We’re bringing on another physician who is dealing with statistics and it and how do those things integrate in an organization setting and what do you need to know around data analytics. And so, we, we definitely, we also have advisors that work on the APS as a, as, as project advisors. So you’re doing this year long project. If we don’t have a specialty on staff, we bring in physicians that are specialists and they can help you with the project.

Justin: [12:03]To what extent are alum involved in this?

Dr. Atchley: [12:05]We did have some alumni that come back and do project advising for us or teach a specific lectures that we think would be useful. Every spring we have a physician leadership symposium where we invite our alumni to come talk about what they’re doing. We have current students, prospective students, their guests to try to get a group of 150, 200 like minded physician leaders on, on our campus to talk about issues that are important to them.

Justin: [12:33]You mentioned the executive MBA is not for everyone and I love it when people come out and say, listen, this might not be for. You, can kind of clear the air and I’d love to hear for whom is this a good fit and for whom maybe it’s not a good fit to pursue this type of degree.

Dr. Atchley: [12:51]An MBA is not going to solve anyone’s career issues or anyone’s dissatisfaction. It is a way to get information, knowledge, build a network that can help you figure out a path forward. and there’s other ways to figure out that path forward. Whichever sort of MBA you choose or any sort of degree that you choose, it is a investment of time and money and so you have to make sure it’s the right fit for you. If somebody wants to just get the degree, get the letters after their name. There’s other ways to do that. I don’t think you have to know exactly what you want to do with the MBA, in order to get an MBA, but it is helpful to, whether you want to start a company, whether you want to learn how to personally invest better, whether you have plans to be a leader, and, and want to get the right skills. It’s helpful. I think if you don’t have any insight on why you’re doing this, it’s a big time commitment and money commitment to do it. Just for kicks.

Justin: [13:50]I think you’d probably say that about any type of higher education. I had that conversation frequently. Even with undergrads don’t pay $150,000 or something. You don’t know why you’re getting it.

Dr. Atchley: [13:59]Exactly, exactly. It doesn’t mean that those reasons that might not change. You may come in thinking you want to be a CMO, but then you have by the time you graduate, you realize that what I really want to do is be the chief informatics officer, not the chief medical officer. I mean, so you might switch what you want to do, but you’re talking about spending 20 to 25 hours work a week on top of what you’re already doing and so you want to be clear about at least have some direction that you want to take.

Justin: [14:26]you mentioned the idea of network. I think that’s really important to explore in the context of the MBA because I think whether it’s healthcare or any other type of MBA, that the network is a really key consideration for the value of that degree. Can you talk a little bit about how that functions in your program? The idea of the value of the network.

Dr. Atchley: [14:42]Every new class is a group of between 40 and 50 physicians from all over the US and all over the world that come together. Most of would never have the opportunity to meet otherwise and they’re also likeminded. They’re there for similar reasons because they are, they will want to make an impact and they need new need, new information to make that impact and so you’re immediately sort of with your people, right? You can have the same conversations with them, so you’re building a network. We actually have our physicians work in group settings throughout the year. We find that that’s something that helps physicians grow in their leadership ability because as you move into leadership positions, you’re working with groups and you need to know how to function within that setting in a way that may be different than clinical and then after graduation we have an alumni network. We have. We send out emails, we have our physician leadership symposium have newsletters. We’re always trying to. We try to keep the alums in touch with each other. Some classes keep in touch with each other as well. Outside of what we do. I get physicians from 10 years ago that are now ceos of the hospital system. They send me job postings to send out to our alums because they know what kind of education they’ve received and what kind of people they are and so we have this really rich job posting process as well.

Justin: [16:00]Great. You mentioned this is a very demanding track obviously, and if it’s 20 to 25 hours a week for a year, you take that and you put it in trying to shoehorn it in the life of a busy clinician who’s potentially also married with kids and trying to make a lot of things happen. Can you talk about how you help your students sort of navigate this, this time period which can be very demanding and how they make that work?

Dr. Atchley: [16:22]Interestingly, it’s different for different specialties. You know anesthesiology. If you’re doing shift work and you have some days off during the week or a day after call you can. You can shoe-horn your work into those days off and so for. Sometimes for anesthesiology it works pretty well for other specialties where it’s more of a nine to five or more clinical work during the week and office work during the week. It might be a little tougher to figure that out. There’s a couple of things that we do where we’re very upfront about the workload before we even admit somebody. We help them understand what to expect. We do make the projects. All our work is applied. It’s not just a random paper that you’re writing. It does tie back to your organization. So we try to, you know, kill two birds with one stone and help maximize your time. We’re also really flexible.

Dr. Atchley: [17:06]I had somebody call me early in the summer, Hey, I know I have this assignment, this marketing assignment coming up, but guess what? I had my president leave. I’ve had to step in to take over some of her work and I can’t get it done. And I said, no worries. You, Oh, here’s two more weeks. Can you get it done in two more weeks? Yes. Great. Let’s, let’s, you know, make that happen and go forward. So we also understand that while the MBA and school is important, it is probably on your list of top 15 priorities and it’s not the number one priority when you’re a medical school. It was a little different, right? and it’s, it’s changed now you’re in a different place, a different part of your career. And we were very pragmatic and we treat accordingly.

Justin: [17:49]And in the context of some of this group work you mentioned in the applied projects, is it common to have groups comprised similar specialty or do you try to do like a multi-specialty approach or does it depend on the project? How does it usually work?

Dr. Atchley: [18:02]It’s usually multi-specialty because as physician leaders move up in organizations, they have to work with different specialties and so this is a very safe, rich learning environment to have those interactions and to understand where other specialties might be coming from in a different way. Not in a, not necessarily in a clinical decision way, but in, in other, in other ways. So it’s usually multi-specialty. We do have some specialties that come together to do their organizational action project. You might do a joint year long project. We had a joint project around a new pack. You model of care for high risk ENT, surgical patients last year, and that was two individuals from the same organization that work together to make that happen. Right.

Justin: [18:45]So maybe you could give me one or two specific examples of people who have gone through your program and and it opened up an opportunity for a certain type of role or a certain responsibility set that they were uniquely equipped for that they couldn’t have attained without the MBA.

Dr. Atchley: [19:01]We have someone who is a graduate from several years ago, I think maybe five years ago. I hope I’m not dating her too far in the past. She is an anesthesiologist and had interests that had been doing some management around being a regional director for an organization in the anesthesiology unit. Her MBA work both gave her the skills and the confidence that she needed to expand her leadership role and also got her the attention of people higher up in the organization because of the projects that she was working on. And right now she’s the chief clinical officer for the anesthesiology division of team health and that was not an immediate result of her MBA, but it again put her on that path. So in addition to the skills, that confidence that she could speak that business language and make good solid business decisions that would help her organization was important.

Dr. Atchley: [19:53]We also have people that because of their organizational action project, ended up being a chief quality officer for a hospital that’s not uncommon or Chief Medical Officer, the hospital, they, again this because these projects usually you have to go out and meet new people, get data from people you don’t normally work with the hospital, start understanding what you’re trying to do. And if you and you have this great plan that you’re starting to implement and you see very tangible changes and a process or an output or flow in the hospital system. Then when there’s an opportunity in the system, they’re going to come the, the people making those decisions. The other leaders are going to come to you and say, Hey, I see what you’re doing. Are you interested in taking this role? Are you interested in pursuing this project next?

Justin: [20:42]Great. With regards to having students, I imagine all over the place, how does that work as far as. Do people take these classes remote at all or is there coordination remotely or is it mostly onsite? As far as the teaching and the work goes

Dr. Atchley: [20:57]onsite classes are one week a quarter, so January, May, August and December, so you come to ut Knoxville for one week and in between those onsite residencies we have Saturday morning classes from nine to 12 eastern, 9:00 AM to 12:00 PM eastern that are recorded because we understand that physicians may be on call or in surgery suites, etc. And so we do record those for you, for you to listen to later. Beyond those scheduled times you Are working on projects at your own schedule.

Justin: [21:32]Makes sense. Is it customary for employers to often pick up the tab for this or are doctors coming out of their own pocket to pay for it?

Dr. Atchley: [21:38]Yes, depending on the size of the organization, help can look like full tuition payment, partial tuition payments. It could be time off, it doesn’t go against your vacation days. It could be a standard educational stipend that you take. Most of our physicians, same as two thirds of our physicians get something from their organization. It may be small, it may be larger, but a significant portion still pay out of pocket.

Justin: [22:05]Makes sense. Can you give an example of maybe a couple of these organizational action projects students have completed that they’ve gone back to their employer and it’s really been transformative, are very impactful when they kind of bring that, bring their mba coursework back to the home base,

Dr. Atchley: [22:20]so individual last year did a project on pediatric anesthesia cases in a tertiary care free standing hospital and it was increasing first case on time starts. That impacted the flow of the surgery suite and it increased satisfaction for the surgeons and the anesthesiology and the patient’s. Importantly, it also had an impact on the revenue that the hospital saw. If you’re starting on time, things aren’t going late. You don’t have to cancel. Surgery trickles all the way down so that that he implemented that Before we even graduated last year. We have another one here about implementing a medical assisted treatment facility, to become medically and financially stable and it was, around illicit drug usage. how do you deal with opioid use, how do you provide in depth services and treatments to help the community, but also to help the organization appropriately factor in the resources needed to serve these patients and reduce the use of opioids in the future. So less tangible results, but a critical situation that needed to be addressed in this individual’s place of work and his home.

Justin: [23:38]Okay, great. so to wrap up here in a moment, and in doing so, I’m interested, you know, if I put myself in the shoes of an early career attending either in pain or anesthesia, who is considering an mba, considering leadership, looking at the ut program, what kinds of things I know about the way that you guys, you know, the way that your program is built or the way that the network functions or any other relevant factors. What should I know as far as being able to accurately evaluate am I a good fit for the mba at ut

Dr. Atchley: [24:07]mba program? You look at is going to cover certain contents, marketing, statistics, strategy, econ, finance, accounting. You’re going to get content wherever you go. That is a similar. It’s how the contents delivered. It’s how you learn. It’s how applied versus a textbook it is that that’s one of the big difference and then how does it fit into your life? Is it something that’s immediately useful and you’re doing projects that will help you gain a foothold into whatever it is you want to do or is it more esoteric and theoretical and say you’re not quite sure how to use it and apply it. So I think that the quickest way it’s sort of the see one, do one teach one model the quickest way you can see it, do what it’s going. You’re going to retain that inforMation and immediately start impacting your career growth, your career trajectory a very quickly.

Dr. Atchley: [24:59]I think that’s something to think about. You have to also factor in the coSt of the program. There are programs that cost $30,000 in their programs that costs $200,000 and so what is the right program for you based on how much the time can commitment is how long it is and then your, your learning style and where you want to go, what, what would make sense for you? So our program is $76,000 for a year program. That Is mid range for a program. but remember too, it’s also one year program. So you get done, you start January and our students graduate in December so it’s very quick.

Justin: [25:33]so I, I really appreciate the passion and the vision that you bring. It’s, it’s clear that you really care about what you’re doing and the fact that you come from a family of physicians, I’m sure further informs how much of yourself you put into this program. So I’d love to hear just in your own words as we close, just a little bit about kind of why do you do what you do and what’s your favorite part about being a program director for an executive mba program?

Dr. Atchley: [25:55]Oh my gosh, why do I do what I do? I am passionate about helping these very bright, skilled individuals like their jobs and have habit impact and feel good about what they’re doing. We take our brightest people in the, in the u s and put them through medical school and I think that the industry has left some people behind in that and I love that physicians are starting to regain a place at the table as medical decisions and hospital decisions are being made. It’s swinging back and I love that. I can be a part of that. Anything I can do to make people regained their passion and be impactful, I’m all for my faculty feel the same way. One of my favorite things about being at this field is keeping up with our alumni and hearing about what they’re doing after they graduate. It’s phenomenal to see what they’re getting into. It could be state politics, the federal politics. I had an individual that, within six months of graduating and he started working at a medical device company in global medical affairs. He got a couple of his clinical practice and knowledge with his business interests and his desire to impact his field at a very broad strategic level and that makes my heart sing.

Justin: [27:09]Great. Well, that’s an awesome answer. I really appreciate your insights and thanks for joining us.

Show produced By: Dan Gummel & Justin Harvey

Show Music: Great Scott:  Don’t Hold Back