Is There a Doctor in the Senate, erâHouse?

UT's Physician Executive MBA program garners national attention

City Beat

For every 10 people you pass on the street, one has no health insurance to speak of. Though if you ask the other nine, they'd probably say they aren't much better off, considering the egregious disparities in the quality of healthcare delivery: dealing with emergency room waits longer than Disney World ride lines in July, spending hours upon hours sorting out insurance fine print that your physician doesn't even understand, holding your breath for weeks on end to receive lab results or to begin a treatmentâ Exactly what are we paying for?

Michael Moore's documentary film Sicko (to be released in theaters across the country on Friday, June 29) addresses these questions from a decidedly provocative (and arguably partisan) perspective, but he's hardly the first to muddle through the tangle of administrative confusion, or to offer suggestions for improvement. There are programs like UT's Physician Executive Masters of Business Administration (PEMBA) that are not merely think-tanking methods to improve patient care and patient outcomesâ"they're actually doing it.

In May of this year, PEMBA was ranked by Modern Healthcare (formerly Modern Physician ) magazine as the No. 1 MBA program dedicated exclusively to physicians. This for the fourth consecutive year. The program trains individuals to run healthcare facilities more efficiently, for the benefit of patients. Recent graduates have contributed to reducing emergency room admit times and the wait time to receive cancer screening results, for example.

Five qualitative criteria determined the awardâ"length of program, tuition cost, days on campus, number of years since inception and number of graduatesâ"with value placed on programs demonstrating accessibility and staying power.

Since PEMBA's first graduating class in 1998, nearly 250 students have completed the internationally-accredited (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business) degree. Hailing from five countries and 39 states (and including 34 doctors who practice in Tennessee), PEMBA boasts the most geographically diverse student body within the university. Yet according to Program Director Dr. Mike Stahl, it's the narrowly-tailored design of the programâ"for medical doctors onlyâ"in conjunction with the unique student body make-up that makes PEMBA a success: â“Several other programs in the country claim to focus on physicians in healthcare, but they're set up for nurses and nurse practioners, as well as physicians, or even non-professionals: any employees of hospitals, administrators, insurance companiesâ. We have maintained focus on physician-leadership exclusively. As a result, our students benefit from peer learning, which is built into our curriculum. Obviously, with a diverse student bodyâ you're going to learn from the perspectives of different organizational contexts and different geographical contexts. Also, our physicians have different clinical specialtiesâ.â” Stahl then simplifies, jokingly: â“We don't have to teach too much about widget manufacturing. We don't have any widget manufacturers in the bunch. Our program is exclusively for physicians.â”

The program lasts one year beginning each January, and is centered around four one-week residencies (consisting primarily of typical classroom pedagogy) that take place in UT's College of Business classrooms, and which are supplemented by live, interactive, web-based distance learning modules at set times on Saturday mornings. Moreover, students must complete assignments posted online by their professors. One such assignment is the completion of an organizational action project; in other words, students are guided by faculty through the process of applying their academic education to a practical problem in their work environment.

More specifically, the curriculum covers stripped-down principles of general business basicsâ"accounting/finance, statistics, business ethics, marketing and computer trainingâ"as well as advanced business principles, such as quality improvement, project management and entrepreneurship. Additionally, survey courses address the business of healthcare (e.g., healthcare law, international healthcare, managed care policy),   and â“soft skillsâ” courses, like leadership, negotiation/decision-making and communication, round out the comprehensive approach to healthcare management.

So what of the hottest topic in healthcare today: accessibility to insurance coverage? How does a degree program to train â“physician-leadersâ” address the universal-versus-privatized-healthcare debate? It doesn't, actually. Despite the ever-changing nature of healthcare policy, and in the face of controversial pop culture commentary like Sicko , Stahl says PEMBA's philosophy of instruction has remained resolutely focused: â“The program specifically focuses on patient outcomes and quality improvement. It deals with issues of error rates, which certainly includes errors in billing. But you would hope that quality improvement would be apolitical. The movie takes a definite stand on that political issue [universal versus privatized healthcare], the program does not. We're not training politicians, we're training physician-leaders.

â“The impetus for creating this program was a notion of educating physician-leaders to lead change. Healthcare is one of the most rapidly changing industries in our country. And physicians, under the Hippocratic Oath, are in the best position to lead change for patients and patient outcomes. We're equipping them with skills so they can lead change. Our focus started off in empowering physicians to lead in healthcare, and that's still our focus.â” â" Leah E. Willis


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