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A New Course of Study, A New Skill Set

11/08/2016

When Interim Chief Scientific Officer and MIRI PI Errol Norwitz, MD, PhD, reflected earlier this year that as Chair of the Department of Obstetrics  and Gynecology at Tufts Medical Center he was “running a $20 million business” without big picture finance skills, he decided to add an MBA degree to his MD, PhD credentials.

 “The ultimate goal was to be a better steward for the department,” Dr. Norwitz said.  “This is all about being a better department Chair.  I realized you have to understand finance, marketing, and operations.  The financial piece was what was weakest and what I needed to develop.”

After carefully looking into other programs, some of which were heavily or exclusively online, Dr. Norwitz chose the Boston University Executive MBA.  The key reasons: it was small, team-based, and designed for mid-career leaders and professionals with at least eight years of experience.  “The BU program is actually the oldest one in the region, and it’s very much team based, only 24 students, and you break up into different teams throughout the 20 months. You work on different projects in each of the modules. ”

Structured for busy executives, the program has two full days of classes every second weekend. “The large portion of the work is actually done between classes,” Dr. Norwitz explained.  “You get cases to review, papers to write, projects to do, and you have to work in your teams for the two weeks leading up to the class.  And that’s the really hard work:  so it’s at least 40-50 hours a week – reports and presentations, and a lot of homework that you have to do in preparation.  The class just ties it all together,” Dr. Norwitz said.

This onerous workload was more than gratuitous pedagogical torture.  “You can’t possibly do it on your own.  Projects that force you to work in teams – that’s part of their strategy, to facilitate your team-learning skills.” The participants, 75% men and 25% women, represented many disciplines and industries.  Only two, including Dr. Norwitz, were physicians.  They all brought individual strengths to completing the modules and the capstone project of the program, which was to go to another country and start a business there.

After voting on the desired country, students learned about doing business there and developed their business plan.  “We went to Singapore and Malaysia – an interesting juxtaposition of two countries,” Dr. Norwitz observed.  “Malaysia is still struggling – it has political and ethnic challenges.  Singapore, on the other hand, is the prototype for a successful third-world country, but it’s small (five million people), and has a very interesting mix of secular and ethnic issues.”

Dr. Norwitz’s team helped in planning and obtaining funding from the Singapore Ministry of Health for a tele-rehabilitation space that allows stroke patients to complete their 12 week rehabilitation program at home rather than having to drive to a clinic 2-3 times per week.  “It uses a sensor placed on the affected limb to provide real-time feedback to the patient using their individualized exercise program.  This allows them to speak with their physical therapist at any time, as well as giving a way for their therapist to review their performance in both graphical form and by watching an actual video,” he explained.

Dr. Norwitz feels his experience working in teams as a physician, “as well as knowing how to have difficult discussions,” gave him unique strengths for the MBA program. Does he recommend an MBA as part of the physician’s toolkit in general?  Although Dr. Norwitz likes having had several years of managerial and leadership experience before getting his Executive MBA, he said, “I admire the people going into medicine who want do to the MD, MBA.  I do think that having a foundation in business and finance is helpful.  At some level, medicine is a business.  We don’t necessarily like to think of it that way, and making money is not the mission of our departments or the institution.  But you have to be profitable in order to achieve its mission.”

Hard work but fun, acquiring his MBA gave Dr. Norwitz the fiduciary strengths for better department management.  “I’m not an accountant as a result; I’m not going to run a Wall Street hedge fund, but it gave me a grounding.  At least now I can ask the right questions.  If I interact now with the hospital’s financial analysts, I can see through the smoke and mirrors and know which questions to ask.  In that respect it’s been valuable.”