With an active medical practice and other professional obligations, Dr. John Howe was "out of his mind" according to friends and colleagues to take on the added burden of the demanding MBA program at The University of Texas-Pan American.
But Howe is among a growing group of physicians who realize that it takes more than being a good doctor to run a successful practice. Howe, an ophthalmologist with offices in Harlingen and McAllen, is among 21 Valley doctors in the first graduating class of the Masters in Business Administration for physicians program.
The commencement ceremony will be held Saturday at 6 p.m. in the UTPA Fieldhouse.
Howe and others said the accounting and other business skills learned in the program have helped strengthen their practices.
"I put everything I learned in the program into my practice" said Dr. Asraf Hilmy, a surgeon with a practice in Weslaco.
Dr. Luis Bay, an internal medicine specialist from McAllen, saw getting an MBA degree as a key element in dealing with health care issues in an increasingly complicated managed-care system.
"I didn't do it to be able to make more money," Bay explained. "Physicians need to take back control of medicine. Health care is going corporate, but it is still a profession for us. Non-physicians are telling us how to practice medicine, and patient care suffers. Our first obligation is to the patient. Because of our training in the MBA program, we can now sit down with HMOs (health maintenance organizations) and better negotiate for our patients."
Hilmy said the program is invaluable because it teaches skills there was no time to learn in medical school.
"It has made a tremendous difference. My office is a better place to work for me, the staff and for my patients. We have a more productive office. My employees are happy and motivated, more efficient," Hilmy said. "The whole environment my patients are exposed to has improved."
According to Dr. Jane LeMaster, director of MBA programs for the College of Business Administration, physicians are excellent candidates for an MBA because they come into the program with a strong desire to improve their business and the services they provide their patients.
"This is a very competitive group," LeMaster said. "It's a healthy competition. They are driven to do well."
LeMaster started developing the program approximately four years ago after hearing about a program at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. A survey was sent out to doctors in Hidalgo and Cameron counties. The College of Business Administration received an incredible 25 percent response to the mail survey. More than 85 percent of the doctors gave a resounding "yes" to the idea.
The program started in the fall of 1998 with 27 students. At the time, there were less than a dozen MBA-physician programs in the country. Most were created by business schools in conjunction with medical schools. UTPA's program was one of the few outside of a medical school setting and directed at practicing doctors.
"The curriculum is not significantly different from the regular MBA program," LeMaster said. "The difference is that the context is set in the health care industry. For example, case studies and models that might normally be drawn from a manufacturing setting would be in a health care field."
While UTPA College of Business Administration faculty teach most of the courses, some outside experts, primarily in the health care field, are brought in for certain areas of study. Dealing with the unique demands of physicians, the program includes some special accommodations.
It is not unusual for classes to be interrupted by the sound of pagers and cell phones, followed by students leaving to attend a patient. All class sessions are videotaped so students can complete the class session.
Students come from across the Valley, some driving in from as far south as Brownsville. They also represent a wide range of medical specialties, including general practice, family practice, obstetrics/gynecology, urology, ophthalmology, cardiology, oncology, vascular surgery, and internal medicine.
LeMaster foresees expansion of the program to include other professionals in the allied health services industries. The program was cited during a recent accreditation report as innovative and responsive to the market and student needs and "a positive characteristic" of the College of Business Administration.
"I am very happy with the education I received," Hilmy said. "I would absolutely recommend it to other physicians. An abbreviated form of this should be mandatory for all physicians before they go into private practice."