Interview with Mike Stahl of PEMBA

This interview with Michael Stahl, PhD, program director of the University of Tennessee ‘s Physician Executive MBA (PEMBA) program is the first in a series of interviews dealing with physician leadership.  Physicians who are contemplating leadership roles will benefit from the experience of  physician leaders and mentors of physician leaders.  Medicine’s many challenges can be conquered with the participation of clinicians who have a firm understanding of patient care and have been schooled in modern business practices.  This series of interviews is for our developing physician leaders, we need you.

Good morning my name is Mike Stahl, Program Director of the Physician Executive MBA at the University of Tennessee.  I’m also a Chaired Professor of Business.  I teach strategy and business planning in both the Physician Executive MBA and the full time MBA at the UT and I attempt to lead the faculty and lead the Physician Executive MBA Program.


What qualities do you see coming through in clinicians in their leadership roles that are unique and different from other MBA students?  Pete this is a real easy question for me because you are really asking what was the driving force and the driving theme behind this Physician Executive MBA and its 11 year history.  When we designed this program in 96 and 97 (we taught the first class in 98 ) our guiding mantra was always the issue of physician leadership.  Our guiding mantra was always to empower physicians who wanted to lead.  Because we on the faculty had an underlining theme that physicians, because of Hippocratic Oath, because of Physician’s Oath, because of their understanding of the patient and patient outcomes first and foremost, because of the guiding light of do no harm,  physicians are in a far better place to lead healthcare organizations than non professional employees.  When we train full time MBA students who are not physicians, who are not clinicians, when we train them in a full time MBA program whether at the University of Tennessee or any other accredited MBA in the United States, you can train a 30 something person with all of the tools and techniques of business and they can analyze any healthcare operation, they can come up with lean ways of doing business, they can improve the efficiency but since they are not physicians, they not imbued with that notion of do no harm.  How does this change operation or how does this new outpatient whatever or how does expanding the capacity of the hospital or how does adding another hospital or building another facility, they don’t think first and foremost what does it do for the patient.  They think almost as any other business enterprise; what does it do for the enterprise. The issue of the patient first and foremost is the biggest difference that we see between physicians leaders and non physician leaders in healthcare.


Are there particular skills that physicians/leaders have to concentrate on developing more than the average MBA student?  Yes, in the sense  most physicians that we see do not have degrees in finance, do not have degrees in economics; do not have degrees in Accounting in the undergraduate level.  In fact, I should substitute the word almost all for the term most because they have not had that undergraduate background when we designed the curriculum for this Physician Executive MBA.  We’ll start those core areas in business (finance, accounting, and economics).   We’ll start at a level that I’m going to call basics and then try to bring everyone along to the same level.  By the time they graduate they’ll be capable of designing pro-form financial statements for a business plan for a new healthcare enterprise but at the beginning most do not have skills in finance, economics and accounting unlike many other full-time MBA programs where half the class might have degrees in business and the other half might have multiple courses in undergraduate business so you see the different starting point.


What advice would you give to Clinicians that are just beginning to get into leadership roles and beginning to think about what they should do to be providing themselves with additional expertise and training?  I guess I would give two pieces of advice.  My first would be know thyself.  Know where he or she wants to go in a leadership role.  If he or she is interesting in influencing the course of health care delivery in a larger context than just his or her own immediate patients, if you know that to be your future then I say develop those leadership skills.  If alternatively you see primarily almost exclusively in a clinical role than ones future in a leadership role is obviously limited.  Now, if the answer to the first question is yes, that the physician wants a broader leadership role my first piece of advice is to go to non degree short courses, whoever offers them.  Some short courses in leadership and healthcare, some short courses on dealing with issues where physicians need to become involved in changing those organization policies concerning the problem.  If those courses feel good, if you take a course in strategy or take a course in leading other professional employees or you take a short course in finance or short course in other issues concerning broader context of healthcare beyond your own immediate patients, if those short courses feel good then you might think longer term in terms of a degree not unlike a Physician Executive MBA (PEMBA).  If those short courses don’t feel good then again maybe your role in the future is not so much in a physician leadership role but maybe more in a classical clinical role.

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