Healthcare Management

What Is a Physician Executive MBA?

What Is a Physician Executive MBA?
Clinicians can improve their business acumen by earning a Physician Executive Master of Business Administration (PEMBA), which teaches practicing doctors the business concepts needed for healthcare leadership roles. Image from Unsplash
Lucien Formichella profile
Lucien Formichella July 12, 2022

PEMBA programs are a great fit for physicians seeking a management leadership role in healthcare. Focused on the business of healthcare, PEMBAs prepare emerging physician health executives.

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The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) project healthcare spending will reach $6.8 trillion and account for nearly a fifth of US GDP by 2030. Between 2021 and 2030, the CMS anticipates private insurance and hospital spending to increase by an average of 5.7 percent annually.

With so much money at stake, the focus on the business half of ‘healthcare business’ grows ever more acute. And while business and healthcare go hand in hand, providers don’t always master both.

Clinicians can improve their business acumen by earning a Physician Executive Master of Business Administration (PEMBA). These programs teach practicing doctors the business concepts needed for healthcare leadership roles. According to the American Association for Physician Leadership (AAPL), physicians who pursue business education can earn more responsibility, money, and credibility. PEMBA graduates can take on positions like hospital CEO, chief medical officer, and medical director. Or they can continue as business-savvy practicing physicians. A PEMBA opens broad options.

This article explores the question what is a physician Executive MBA? It discusses the requirements and benefits of these programs and covers:

  • What is a physician Executive MBA?
  • Typical physician Executive MBA student and their qualifications
  • Physician Executive MBA program structure
  • What do you learn in a physician Executive MBA program?
  • Admission requirements/prerequisites
  • Is a PEMBA different from a healthcare MBA?

What is a physician Executive MBA?

PEMBAs are Executive MBA programs (EMBA) that cater to physicians (most EMBA progams target business professionals). The University of Tennessee, which offers the longest established PEMBA, empowers students with the business and leadership skills to earn executive positions and improve their organization’s healthcare delivery process.

PEMBA programs are designed for working doctors. They can include substantial amounts of online content, as UTK’s program does. Tennessee students attend in-person events for 25 days only during the 11-month program. At Auburn University, students attend on-campus events and even an international learning experience; they also complete online coursework.

Physicians can complete traditional MBAs, which differ from PEMBAs and EMBAs in format and content (EMBAs focus on more advanced material appropriate to experienced professionals; PEMBAs teach business through a medical practice lens). Traditional MBA programs are more appropriate to young professionals and career changers. Believe it or not, this latter group sometimes includes physicians. A study in the American Journal of Managed Care looked at physician MBA graduates from Harvard University between 1941 and 2014. It found physician MBAs changed careers to investment banking or finance at almost the same rate as they continued in clinical roles (27 percent to 27.7 percent).


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Typical physician Executive MBA student and their qualifications

PEMBA programs are open to practicing physicians only. University of Tennessee requires at least five years of healthcare experience; the average student has between seven and 20. At Auburn, applicants must be an MD or DO. At Indiana University – Bloomington, students need at least three years of experience. These schools only accept applicants who have completed their residencies.

Physician Executive MBA program structure

PEMBA programs are structured to fit the busy schedules of working doctors. Some offer substantial amounts of content online in an asynchronous format, making it accessible 24/7. Others convene limited in-person classes on weekday evenings or weekends. Tennessee students spend between 20 and 25 hours per week on PEMBA coursework, including a weekly online class.

The Auburn program takes less than two years to complete. students earn Continuing Medical Education (CME) credits. The program includes two trips, one of which is international. Students take online courses and complete several on-campus residencies.

The Brandeis University degree takes only 16 months to complete. In addition to coursework, webinars, and case studies, students can shadow a healthcare leader at their current organization. The program includes group projects and four ten-day residencies.

What do you learn in a physician Executive MBA program?

PEMBA programs cover the business of medicine, not clinical practice. They can address how healthcare policy, laws, and ethics impact top administrative positions. At Tennessee, students complete coursework in fundamental business subjects including accounting, economics, finance, strategic planning for healthcare, healthcare management, lean operations, and customer value.

Other programs cover similar topics. At Brandeis, students take healthcare marketing, entrepreneurship, and innovation courses. It also covers conflict resolution. The goal of every program is to help graduates take on executive leadership positions that drive organizational growth and improve patient outcomes.

Traditional MBA programs frequently offer specializations. Common specializations include finance, marketing, economics, and operations. PEMBA students enter with their specialization (medicine).

PEMBA students typically complete projects and use electives to focus their education on a particular subject. Students can work towards different goals, even within the same program. One graduate may want a clinical leadership position, while another asks for a purely administrative role.

Admission requirements/prerequisites

First and foremost, you must be a physician: that’s the P in PEMBA. That can mean spending ten or more years between school and residency. Most PEMBA students also accrue at least a few years of experience as physicians before starting a program. Many programs require it.

Because the admissions process is so clinically focused, applicants usually do not need to take the GMAT exam or any other standardized test. However, they need to send transcripts from previous education (undergraduate and medical school). Students also provide a personal statement, letters of recommendation, and complete an interview, just like in other graduate programs.

Is a PEMBA different from a healthcare MBA?

Healthcare MBA programs are quite common, and lead to many of the same positions as a PEMBA. Students who pursue a healthcare administration MBA learn the business of healthcare. They also complete courses like accounting, economics, healthcare business management, and finance.

Though both degree paths teach how to manage a healthcare facility and improve care, they differ in significant ways. Healthcare administration MBA programs accept non-physicians. Many incoming students are healthcare professionals, but they can be administrators or insurance analysts. If your goal is to earn a top healthcare management position without spending over a decade and hundreds of thousands of dollars on an MD or DO, this is the easier way. However, if you’re set on a role like chief medical officer that requires clinical expertise, then you’ll need to attend medical school.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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