Physician MBA Program helps opens door – and creates new role – for Dr. Cheryl Wolfe

Cheryl Wolfe, MD, MBA’17, is an obstetrician-gynecologist in Chicago. While in the midst of earning her MBA in the Business of Medicine Physician MBA Program at Indiana University Kelley School of Business, she was approached by Rush University Medical Center to merge her private practice into the Rush system.

Already the OB-GYN department chair at Chicago’s Mercy Hospital, she didn’t have plans to change roles after completing the physician-only MBA. Her goal was simply to gain a better understanding of healthcare business. But the fact that she was an experienced physician pursuing an MBA made her an even more appealing prospective hire. Rush was prepared to develop a position specifically for Dr. Wolfe – an offer too attractive to ignore.

“It was an amazing experience to join Rush,” she said. “It was interesting how I was introduced; as, ‘Cheryl Wolfe: We have big plans for her, she’s getting an MBA.’ It is as if getting my MBA tells people that I know what I’m talking about when it comes to business, and I won’t get lost in the vocabulary.”

Prior to enrolling in the Kelley Physician MBA program, Dr. Wolfe was an experienced OB-GYN with nearly 20 years in the field. Still, she had started to feel like something was missing. It was as if she and other clinical staff were speaking a different language than hospital executives in the C-suite.

“I didn’t know what questions to ask. I knew something was missing, but I didn’t know how to get to that piece,” she remembered. So Dr. Wolfe began researching MBA programs to complement her 17 years of clinical experience. “Most MBA programs with a healthcare track offered only two to three courses on healthcare. I didn’t see many programs that focused on healthcare in a way I would find useful.”

Serendipitously, she attended a medical society meeting where she met a member of the Kelley School’s staff, who provided her with information on the Business of Medicine Physician MBA Program. After watching an informational webinar on the program, she decided to apply.

“I realized: ‘This is really the type of program I’m looking for. I want to pursue an MBA designed specifically for physicians.”

During the 21-month, physician-only program, in which she attended courses online and in monthly residency sessions in Indianapolis, Dr. Wolfe gained a deeper understanding of the financial, marketing and operations aspects of healthcare. She began viewing the clinical job she knew so well from a completely new perspective.

“One of the best things about this program is the access you have to the faculty, who are thought leaders in fields like operations and accounting,” she said. “In medicine, we tend to be a little myopic. We don’t really see what people are doing outside of the medical community.”

These professors are experts in their fields, and they opened our eyes to a whole new way of looking at medicine and how the business of medicine shapes actual healthcare.

Cheryl Wolfe, MD, MBA'17.

“These professors do a phenomenal job integrating common, everyday business lessons and language into how we practice medicine. This helped facilitate our learning process a thousand fold,” added Dr. Wolfe.

One of those new areas she began to explore was marketing – an area many physicians either write off or find mystifying. “Now I understand that opening a new clinic is more than simply hanging a shingle – it requires market research, deciding how to market a new physician and understanding how patients perceive our brand. I understand how it all blends.”

After accepting the new role at Rush, Dr. Wolfe was able to immediately put into practice her newfound business knowledge as she transitioned her private practice over to the top-ranked hospital. Since the position was created specially for her, Dr. Wolfe says there was a flurry of activity during the transition, but not a specific process for how it should unfold.

“I stopped and said, 'OK, what should the process be? How will we move my practice? What’s the timetable and who’s the project manager?' It was incredibly helpful to wear both my administrative and clinical hats to consider my workflow – and which supplies and equipment I would need. By leveraging the operations lessons I gained through the Kelley Physician MBA, the transition was much smoother.”

Once aboard the Rush team, Dr. Wolfe scored some early wins by reviewing the department’s strategic plan, which was created a few years prior, but had never been truly implemented. She was able to accomplish a few items right off the bat, demonstrating that the department was gaining forward momentum.

“Having this degree is more of an enhancement. It’s not that I’m some superhero, coming in wearing a cape and magically making everything perfect,” she said. “There are challenges when you're new and adjusting, but I also think the leadership and negotiations training I gained in my coursework at Kelley really made a difference as I found my way in a new environment.”

In August, Dr. Wolfe will graduate with her Kelley Physician MBA, armed with a sharper understanding of the language of healthcare business, as well as a new way to approach administrative issues.

“Now when I’m asked about a venture, I want to know what the finances look like. What’s the operational process? What tools do the team need to make the whole patient experience successful?” she said.

“I find that I ask more questions now and demand more answers. I don’t want to be presented with a solution and be told that it must be done. What’s the reasoning for this decision? With these new tools, I’m definitely able to look at a broader picture.”

The stark contrast between the U.S. and Cuban healthcare systems opened students’ eyes to different ways of doing business – and approaching patient care. Dr. Wolfe found Cuba’s focus on preventative primary care, for example, and the role Cuban physicians play in managing hospitals to be enlightening. She says this course exemplifies how the Kelley Physician MBA program inspired her to stretch herself as a physician. Dr. Wolfe encourages other doctors to step outside their comfort zones to consider learning more about the business behind the medicine.

“I traveled to Cuba to examine the healthcare system, and I was able to approach it not only as a physician, but as someone examining the operations and marketing aspects of Cuban healthcare. This program has truly made me a more complete physician.”