Article Date: 9/1/2001

Business Degree
Considering an M.B.A.?
Business skills can boost your professional potential. These O.D./M.B.A.s. explain how.
BY DIANE ANGELUCCI, Contributing editor

If you're considering returning to the classroom to boost your business acumen, then you'll benefit from what your colleagues have to say of their experiences obtaining their Masters of Business Administration (M.B.A.) degree. In this article, you'll hear about when they decided it was the right time to pursue this path, how it benefited them and their practices and much more.

When the time was right

So when is the right time to pursue an M.B.A.? Unfortunately, there's no clear-cut answer. In fact, the answer is a bit different for everyone, as you'll see by the accounts of these O.D./M.B.A.s.

No harm waiting. These two O.D.s decided to take the time to gain some experience before pursuing a business degree.

Jerome A. Legerton, O.D., M.B.A., M.S., was the managing partner of a successful, five-partner, seven-doctor practice with a large staff when he returned to school to earn his M.B.A.

"I felt a tremendous responsibility for the well being, lives and financial futures of my partners and employees," he says. "I'd learned a fair bit being in practice about 20 years, but I wanted to guide our ship the best way that I could."

ILLUSTRATION BY RICHARD WALDREP

 

This appears to be a growing sentiment among healthcare providers, given the increasingly complex business environment in which they find themselves.

Also after 20 years in practice, a strong interest in practice management motivated Neil Gailmard, O.D., M.B.A., F.A.A.O., of Munster, Ind., to enter business school. "I wanted the formal training to take my self-acquired skills to the next level and the credentials to further my consulting career," says Dr. Gailmard, who also taught practice management lecture courses at the Illinois College of Optometry.

Not wasting time. David W. Nelson, O.D., M.B.A., a private practitioner in Madison, Wis., and president of the American Optometric Association, kept going while he was still in the school spirit. He entered business school a few years after graduating from optometry school.

"I thought the changing practice of health care required more business knowledge than it had in the past," he says. "After graduation, I felt that business was a good area for me to learn about, not only for my own personal benefit, but also for the practice." See "When to Do It" (below) for more insight into determining the right time to pursue this goal.

Benefits to personal growth

There's more to a business education than the M.B.A. you add to the end of your name. You also acquire a new mindset.

An open mind. While gaining business savvy, M.B.A. students acquire a new way of thinking. "It makes you think outside the box," remarks Stuart A. Gindoff, O.D., M.B.A., assistant clinical professor of ophthalmology, University of South Florida College of Medicine, and associate clinical professor, Nova Southeastern College of Optometry. He explains that the business program helps you be less afraid of trying something differently and failing.

"It lets you say, 'If this didn't work, let's go try something different,' whereas a great number of my colleagues are conservative when it comes to trying something new," he explains.

New approaches. M.B.A. group projects also offer different ways to approach tasks. O.D.s make decisions as individuals, but "In an M.B.A. program, you learn to cooperate for the betterment of the group you're in," says Dr. Gindoff. "You're constantly talking to other people, seeking advice from different sources and then synthesizing these sources."

Although James F. Socks, O.D., M.S., M.B.A., president and CEO of Rainbow EyeCare Centers, Nanjing, China, has never been in private practice, he says his M.B.A. was invaluable. "At each step in my career, I've applied the knowledge gained from the M.B.A. program," he says. "It provided me with a broad background and insight to management practices and it improved my analytical skills and deductive reasoning processes."

Boosting your practice potential. Strategic planning, human resources, finance, market- ing and other components of M.B.A. programs offer valuable tools. "The human resources side gave us a model for recruiting, selecting, training and offering incentives to our staff," Dr. Legerton says. He also learned how to build net profit. "I knew how to go out and get patients. My practice had quite a focus on gross, but we weren't good at netting. The first thing the M.B.A. training did was help us work on net."

Dr. Legerton learned how to develop objectives to improve services as well. These were achieved in part by offering incentives to employees. "We found out what the consumer wants. It became our objective to fulfill these wants, and our staff received incentives for accomplishing that goal. Our operations management focused on efficiency and productivity."

Dr. Gindoff shares what he gleaned from his education. "As an M.B.A., I learned ways of taking income and practice expenses and making them more presentable for my accountant to do some other gyrations and save a fair amount of money. I also learned that you can negotiate on things you may never have dreamt about, such as telephone and long distance."

Dr. Gailmard experienced even more practice growth after completing his M.B.A. and implementing what he learned.

"My practice has been on a fast growth track since I graduated from the M.B.A. program 3 years ago," he says. "Our gross and net revenues are up more than 30% in that period and still growing rapidly -- and we had a high-grossing practice before."

During this time, the office added staff, developed a LASIK practice and upgraded equipment. "We've become a hi-tech office with a 28-computer network, powerful work stations in all six exam rooms and we perform corneal topography and retinal imaging on every patient," he says. "We've invested well over $200,000 in equipment and remodeling since I finished the program and it's showing an excellent return."

An M.B.A. program can benefit your practice even before you graduate. Dr. Nelson explains, "Financing a piece of equipment was one of my research projects, as was coming up with a full business plan for our office."

Opening doors. Jeff Smith, O.D., M.B.A., vice president of Pearle Vision, earned his M.B.A. immediately after optometry school. "It opened up a lot of different career paths and opportunities for that wouldn't have existed if I just had an education as an O.D.," he says.

Making the decision

While an M.B.A. can bring benefits to your career, consider the following factors before making any concrete decisions:

Time. Business school requires significant time reading, writing papers and completing projects and assignments. This translates into more time away from your practice and your family. Marc M. Berson, O.D., M.B.A., in partnership practice in Allentown, Pa., and an adjunct professor of business classes at Pennsylvania College of Optometry, advises that you discuss your decision with your practice partner and your spouse.

Hone your time management skills before entering business school. If feasible, you may want to trim your work schedule. "I had to reduce my patient contact time during that period," Dr. Gailmard says. "I'm fortunate that my wife is an optometrist and my partner in the practice, so she could pick up some of the patient load."

However, you may prefer to take one course at a time in a program that offers weekend, evening or online courses.

Finances. Earning an M.B.A. degree involves a significant financial investment, but tuition can vary widely, depending on whether you choose a state or private school. This is especially important to consider if you're carrying significant debt from optometry school.

Is it necessary? "In the early 1990s, when managed care first entered our industry, I recognized that it was going to change the way we earned revenue and conducted business," explains Gary L. Moss, O.D., M.B.A. "I realized that the only way to insulate my practice from uncertain change and adapt as best I could was to learn more about the intricacies of the business end of health care. That's why I entered the M.B.A. program."

Although a business education can prove beneficial, assess your circumstances. It's not imperative for an O.D. to go to business school to improve his practice, says Dr. Legerton, who's now a consultant to the ophthalmic industry. Instead, he says, you may opt for a several-week executive program or workshop. "You can get many of the same tools without the degree," he says.

Also evaluate your expectations. "Don't do it because you think that you're going to have the best practice in the United States or you're going to make millions of dollars," Dr. Legerton warns. "You're still limited by what optometry is, and it's small business for most of us."

"If you're making $60,000 this year, and you think you're going to get the M.B.A. and make $100,000, it's not going to happen," Dr. Berson says.

"If you're not a progressive person, if you're not interested in making yourself function at the highest level that you can function, you shouldn't do this program because it's very demand- ing," Dr. Gindoff says.

Other M.B.A. applications

An M.B.A. degree won't just help you with your private optometric practice; it can help you in other ways as well. Some O.D.s use their M.B.A.s in managed care, group practice and other business ventures. Here are a few examples.

Dr. Socks was a commander in the U.S. Navy and executive officer of a Navy medical research laboratory when he earned his M.B.A. "I felt that I needed more knowledge about management practices to run the lab better," he admits. "I had personnel, budget and operating responsibilities, but I lacked formal management training."

Dr. Moss, who practices part time at the Fenway Practice at the New England Eye Institute, has had a number of secondary businesses while practicing optometry.

"I've always had an interest in strategic business development," says Dr. Moss, who sold his practice in 1998 to devote more time to his consulting firm, Practice Appraisal and Mediation, co-author his textbook Eyecare Business: Marketing and Strategy, and teach at the New England College of Optometry.

Dr. Berson opened a bagel shop. "I built it up and sold it," he says. "I've learned to be diversified, even though I am successful and love optometry."

Dr. Gindoff has applied his skills to teaching and became a consultant. "I have a better depth and grasp of some of these issues that we really didn't understand before," he says.

M.B.A. skills also can help you manage your personal finances. "It was helpful for me to understand interest rates and financing and housing costs, how to best use your income for the future and how to save," Dr. Nelson says.

When to Do It

Although some optometrists enter business school immediately after optometry school, others return to school later in their career.

If you have small children, you may prefer to wait until they're older. However, Dr. Gindoff earned his M.B.A. while his children were in middle and elementary schools and his wife was earning her Master's degree. "At night the TV wasn't on," he recalls, "we were all doing homework around the dinner table or at the computer."

Those who wait until they have practiced for several years also may have an edge on their greener counterparts.

"Most M.B.A. program people would tell you it's not wise to come right out of college and go into an M.B.A. program," says Dr. Gindoff. "It becomes difficult. The students in our class who had the greatest problems where those who were young and who were never out in practice or business."

Choosing a program

When choosing an M.B.A. program, consider convenience, costs and whether the program meets your objectives.

Dr. Smith had a double major in finance and healthcare management. "Explore everything in your region. All M.B.A. programs aren't the same. Some colleges specialize in certain fields."

Keep your goal in mind as you investigate programs. "Do you want to improve your practice? You might want to take courses within the program that focus on managing people or on marketing," says Dr. Moss. "If you want to change careers within our ophthalmic industry, such as consulting, you might want to take courses that lend themselves to those areas."

"Also," Dr. Gailmard suggests, "look for an accredited program that has faculty who are involved in the real business world, not just academia.

"I needed a program that offered classes on weeknights and Saturdays. Look for schools with a strong program for providing some classes via the Internet -- they're not easier, but the flexibility of class at different hours makes them valuable."

"My emphasis was on marketing," says Janice M. Jurkus, O.D., M.B.A., F.A.A.O., professor of optometry, Illinois College of Optometry. "At the time, marketing was a dirty word in optometry. I was in the develop- ment stage of marketing, and now I can look at the changes in our profession and how our profession markets itself and understand some of the market forces. I can then relate my insights to my students."

Although some people select a focus of study, others prefer a general approach. Dr. Gindoff earned his M.B.A. from the University of Sarasota. "I wanted to get the flavor of a total M.B.A., so I didn't major in one aspect. I took different classes."

Hitting the books

If optometry school is a dim memory, you may find it difficult to re-immerse yourself in the academic system. However, your professional experience may pave the way.

"I'd been out of optometry school for 20 years when I decided to go to graduate business school," Dr. Gailmard explains. "While it was hard to study and take written exams again, I'd learned a lot about business from running my practice and working with my CPAs, attorneys and bankers. This gave the formal training a real-world connection, which was essential."

Don't be afraid to take the plunge, says Dr. Jurkus. "Take some business courses," she says. "Don't be afraid to take it slow. I got my M.B.A. in night school so I could still work full time."

Only you can decide if getting an M.B.A. degree is right for you. Remember the points that these O.D.s cited and take your time -- the value will always be there.


Optometric Management, Issue: September 2001