Emergency medicine physician shapes department using tools from physician-only MBA program

Christopher McDowell, MD, MBA’19, returned to his medical school alma mater to build a new emergency medicine residency program. As he worked his way up the administrative ladder—from program director and to vice chair—he was positioned to earn the role of emergency department chair. But as his group formed its own department, he realized he lacked certain skills.

“First and foremost, I needed better financial acumen,” said Dr. McDowell. “I knew I’d be involved in budget and financial discussions at a high level, and I felt ill-prepared for that. This was a driver for me.”

As he researched executive coaching and MBA options, Dr. McDowell—who is located in Springfield, Illinois—ultimately decided to enroll in the Business of Medicine Physician MBA Program at the top-ranked Indiana University Kelley School of Business. Attracted by the weekend residency sessions and executive career coaching, Dr. McDowell, who also holds an MEd, felt adding an MBA would be worth an additional two years of graduate education.

“When I looked at all the programs available, Kelley was an easy choice. It has an excellent reputation as a business school, and the Kelley faculty are pioneers of programs focused on solving healthcare challenges. Kelley is very committed to empowering physicians,” he said. “Also, the program includes executive coaching, which can cost as much as an MBA.”

Once you earn your seat at the table, you have to demonstrate your value. I think the Kelley Physician MBA provides that in spades.

Christopher McDowell, MD, MBA'19

While Dr. McDowell felt an MBA would help him to bring new ideas and new approaches to his department at Southern Illinois University (SIU) School of Medicine, he soon realized the Business of Medicine Physician MBA Program provided even deeper insights.

“From the beginning, I recognized I had a skill for evaluating a challenge and identifying ways to solve it,” he said. “This opportunity to take an analytical business approach to problems, opportunities and new collaborations was a critical takeaway because it’s essential to evaluating work as a leader.”

In fact, Dr. McDowell recently put those skills to work as his clinical team at Memorial Health Systems considered a collaboration with another subspecialty clinic in the area.

“As an emergency medicine physician, my work intersects with all service lines that treat patients. I also understand how clinical collaborations can shape the direction of our academic programs and why these collaborations matter more than we think,” he said. “After my presentation on the topic, the dean told me my perspectives were exactly what he needed to move forward with the collaboration.” 

“Without the Kelley Physician MBA Program, I’m not sure I would’ve been able to think through these challenges. Now, I relish those opportunities; I look for them,” he said.

While Dr. McDowell built his business acumen in the 21-month program, he was also sending a signal to those around him. He is committed to leading change in the long term.

“Once you earn your seat at the table, you have to demonstrate your value. I think the Kelley Physician MBA provides that in spades,” he said.

In the program, physicians elevate their problem-solving capabilities by working alongside qualified, like-minded peers. The program’s physician-only cohorts are comprised of experienced clinicians from various specialties, healthcare organizations and locations across the country.

“Here’s a chance to bounce ideas off people outside your organization, who provide a confidential sounding board,” said Dr. McDowell. “As you move through the program, you develop really strong relationships with physicians in your small groups and across courses. You discover your colleague is the CMO at an academic health center, and you can ask this person about service-line challenges we’re facing. How did they solve it?”

"This experience is changing how I approach challenges—knowing when to collaborate or when to stick to a plan. There’s a balance there, and I think I’m more comfortable navigating those challenges than I was two years ago."