The Rise of the Physician Executive

Given the rapidly changing healthcare environment, the need for effective healthcare leaders has never been greater. An increasing number of healthcare leaders (e.g. chief executive officers, chief medical officers, medical directors) are physicians. Indeed, progressively more organizations are recognizing that physicians are a valuable asset as leaders of healthcare organizations; their hands-on involvement in healthcare puts them in a unique position to translate their insights into successful healthcare management. As such, if you are a doctor thinking of a leadership position, it is a great time to pursue a career in administrative medicine. 


Although it's certainly possible to land a physician executive position with an MD, and no additional qualifications, it's generally accepted that a business-related master's degree is the way to go. First, it provides the MD with an overview of healthcare from the business perspective, which is not imparted during medical training. Second, like all qualifications, the business-related master's degree gives the would-be physician executive that additional edge/ credibility over their fellow MDs without a master's degree. There are a range of different masters programs to choose from:

  • Master in Medical Management/Physician Executive MBA

There are degree programs specifically targeted towards physicians such as the Master in Medical Management (MMM) and MBAs tailored to the needs of doctors. Aside from their special relevance to would-be physician executives, these programs tend to be significantly shorter (about 12 months) than other healthcare administration masters degrees (approximately 24 months), which make them particularly attractive to the working physician. More information on this type of degree can be found here.

  • Master in Healthcare Administration (MHA)

The MHA can be completed by all suitably qualified individuals, including physicians interested in executive roles within healthcare organizations.

  • Master in Business Administration (MBA)

The MBA, of course, consists of a much more broadly based business education, which isn't necessarily healthcare specific. However, it is a popular choice among physicians and healthcare professionals alike for opening the doors to an executive career in health management.

  • Joint Medical Degree/Master in Business Administration (MD/MBA)

For would-be doctors who know very early on that they want to pursue an administrative career, there are many joint MD/MBA programs available. For example, The University of Boston School of Medicine offers a five-year combined MD/MBA program, designed specifically for those who plan on pursuing physician executive careers/administrative medicine positions.

Experience and Networking

While gaining your business master's degree is important, it won't be enough to get you a medical director job. Experience and networking are other important factors that come into play in landing that leadership role. Prospective physician executives should aim to get volunteer leadership experience within a healthcare setting. In addition, they should plan on doing a lot of networking (e.g. forging contacts at meetings, finding mentors, presenting on various issues of interest).


Physicians and would-be physicians interested in a future leadership role need to:

  • Earn a business-related master's degree at some point following their MD, or pursue a joint MD/MBA; 
  • Gain relevant leadership experience and network. 

Useful Resources 

Clare Xanthos is a writer, editor and researcher residing in Marietta, GA. She holds a PhD in Social Policy from the London School of Economics, and is the author of numerous articles in the field of public health. She recently served as an editor for a groundbreaking book relating to social determinants of health.

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