Surgeon strengthens leadership skills and medical instruction through MBA

Trauma surgeon Brian Brewer, MD, MBA’19, wanted to gain a greater understanding of business in order to lead in hospital administration. He thought he simply needed some hard skills around finance and accounting, so he enrolled in the Business of Medicine Physician MBA Program at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business.

“That’s why I originally enrolled, but the experience was much different than I expected,” he said.

Dr. Brewer didn’t expect to transform as a leader.

“This program taught me a lot about navigating corporate America as well as the hospital system: how to influence people and be effective in leadership as a whole,” he said. “It was a new idea to me—to consider what it truly means to be a leader and how much self-reflection and understanding occurs before you’re able to lead people. I realized leadership is the ability to influence, not just a title and a right to lead. All of this has impacted my effectiveness as a leader.”

As the medical director of surgical critical care at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital and an assistant professor of clinical surgery at IU School of Medicine, Dr. Brewer assumes both clinical and academic duties. As a result of his medical training, he—like many physicians—typically uses data to drive decisions. During the Kelley Physician MBA Program, he discovered this clinical approach doesn’t always work in leadership.

“In the past, I felt like I could convince more people if I showed up with data. I thought people should adjust their practices based on the evidence, which is common in medicine,” he said. “That’s simply not true in most settings. There are all sorts of reasons people buy into your ideas, and it’s mostly due to how much they trust and like you. The Kelley Physician MBA training has changed the way I approach any kind of transition.”

It was a new idea to me—to consider what it truly means to be a leader and how much self-reflection and understanding occurs before you’re able to lead people.

Brian Brewer, MD, MBA'19

In fact, Dr. Brewer is in the middle of implementing a number of projects that were influenced by the skills he gained at Kelley. He says learning how to gain buy-in from his team and asking for input along the way has replaced his top-down decision-making process. For example, he worked with his team to launch the “Safe Handoff Initiative,” which streamlined previously fragmented communication between medical teams when a patient is handed off from surgery to the ICU.

“There are so many people involved—anesthesiologists, nurses in OR, the surgical team, the ICU team, ICU nurses, respiratory therapists—all who need to understand what’s going on with that patient,” he said. “We used the Agile method to identify a process that works. Then, we reviewed it in short intervals to make changes that maximized the process and ensured we achieved our goals with the fewest number of steps.

“Every time there was an issue, we would pivot. We would ask the teams about their concerns, learn what did and didn’t work and test an alternative method. This new process has been incredibly well-received and universally accepted.”

Dr. Brewer also proposed to his system’s executive leadership that the low-intensity ICU be changed to a high-intensity ICU. He says the change will improve patient safety by ensuring that only ICU physicians are treating patients, thereby reducing variables in care.

“MY CEO, CMO and COO will be considering my model in the next couple weeks,” he said. “Since I’ve finished my Kelley MBA, most of my proposed projects have been very well received.”

As a medical professor, Dr. Brewer has the opportunity to shape how students in their surgical residencies approach physician leadership. He integrated some of the Kelley Business of Medicine Physician MBA Program into a six-week summer bootcamp on leadership. Business of Medicine professors Christopher Porter and Nir Menachemi joined Dr. Brewer in leading the surgical residents in workshops on physician leadership, negotiations, personal finance and the history of the U.S. healthcare system.

“There is so much interest in this topic; residents from all years of study attended the bootcamp,” he said. “It shows how relevant this information is to physicians who want to lead successfully in the medical field.”

Earning an MBA also inspired Dr. Brewer to build a company with several friends and colleagues called Dream Launch LLC, a personal and professional development company focused on mentorship for young professionals from underrepresented groups.