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US Doctors Forced to Learn Business Fundamentals - 2002-07-29

U.S. Health care has become so complicated, many physicians feel they need business training in order to navigate the system. To meet this need universities are designing graduate business programs geared to medical professionals.

In the old days, says David Hough, of the Johns Hopkins University business school, when a physician wanted his hospital to buy new medical equipment, he just went to hospital administrators and asked for it.

"Now what happens is that hospitals are much more constrained in terms of capital," he said. "They need real financial as well as clinical reasons why they should buy new equipment. So a sophisticated physician needs to have the business savvy and the business vocabulary to convince hospital boards that their proposals are valid."

And so eight years ago David Hough created a graduate business program at Johns Hopkins University to give medical professionals that business savvy. Benita Ashar is one of the physicians enrolled in the program today.

"When I completed my general surgery residency training, I felt I had the skills to manage virtually any type of catastrophic clinical situation," she said. "But I began to realize that I really needed to communicate with hospital administrators on their terms in order to treat my patients well."

When she wanted to open a wound clinic at her hospital, for example, Benita Ashar found she needed to give authorities financial as well as medical justification. She found she had to negotiate with health insurance plans as well, to convince them insurance should cover the procedures she thought necessary for her patients.

David Hough says courses in everything from accounting and finance to negotiation and strategic planning give doctors the tools they need to accomplish such tasks. In the final course, he says, physicians are encouraged to develop their own business plans.

"What we do in these courses is take the theory and apply it to practice as quickly as we possibly can," David Hough said.

Some leave the course to start their own businesses, others to tend to the sick more effectively. Benita Ashar says the course left her with a larger, more abstract goal.

"I'm hoping to couple my medical knowledge with the training in business to try to make some change in the way medicine is practiced overall and the way that patient care is administered," she said.

In the last three years the number of U.S. physicians with masters degrees in business has risen 23 percent.