Is It Business-Savvy for a Pharmacist to Complete an MBA?

Marco Martino, PharmD MBA BCOP BCPS
Team Lead for Operations
Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University
Chicago, IL

It is humbling and gratifying to serve the patients at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, a National Comprehensive Cancer Network–designated institution. The spectrum of patients seen at Northwestern Medicine ranges from those with early-stage cancers requiring standard-of-care antineoplastic regimens to those with advanced cancers requiring personalized medicine. Running this vast cancer center requires highly qualified employees across a range of interdisciplinary professions, including financial professionals, physicians, nurses, and pharmacists. My role as the team lead for the operations of our three clinic pharmacies requires me to be more on the front line, handling daily operations, than my colleagues in the coordinator and manager roles, who serve primarily on the back end, tackling higher-level projects. My pursuit of a master’s degree in business administration (MBA) with a healthcare focus has opened the door for me to effectively operationalize the work of clinic pharmacies, manage personnel, and become a steward of inventory and resources.

By way of an introduction, after being out of school for 2 years, I started to steer from oncology to emergency medicine, acute and critical care, and outpatient oncology. I knew that to be the oncology pharmacist I aspired to be, I needed to augment my clinical and managerial skills. Rather than completing a PGY-2 oncology or health-system administration residency, I turned my attention to finding an MBA program with a healthcare focus. This program took me on quite a journey—starting with a course on critical thinking, continuing with courses on accounting and finance and then managerial and personnel behavior, and concluding with courses on the healthcare delivery system, healthcare ethics, and healthcare financing.

Whereas hands-on experience and immersion provide very potent and effective learning opportunities, the completion of my MBA degree with a healthcare focus led me to my current position, where I am able to apply the vast majority of my didactic work in my job. For example, the course I took on applied statistics covered a wide array of ways to quantify and apply statistics to real-world situations. This course assisted me in understanding medical journals, particularly the sections on statistics and quantification of results. It also helped me understand how institutions report quantitative results about performance, whether on an individual, departmental, or institutional level. Another course that has had an impact on my career focused on managerial and personnel behavior. All the institutions I have worked in have differed in managerial style and reporting structure, which is not surprising. I received intensive training in this course, but I found that no didactic coursework can truly train and prepare one for handling success and conflict. However, because the course immersed us in many case studies, the real-world examples of success and conflict that I encounter at work are not completely foreign to me. 

Two other courses that have paid major dividends in my current role are those on healthcare ethics and healthcare financing. Both courses offered numerous parallels in health care, especially oncology. We dove into the complex topic of medication pricing, which I then applied to oncology. Although we know the amount of research and development that goes into creating medications, the expense of antineoplastic medications presents an obvious ethical dilemma, particularly when we are working with such a vulnerable patient population. On a more objective note, I have found that knowledge of inventory management is imperative in oncology. Outpatient oncology clinic pharmacies operate with a vast budget—in some cases a budget larger than those of entire pharmacy departments. It is therefore crucial that we evaluate our inventory turnover so that we can establish appropriate par levels for both medications and ancillary supplies. We want to do what is right for our patients by having the proper medications on hand, but we also want to do what is right for our department by ensuring that our inventory is turning over appropriately. 

My completion of an MBA with a healthcare focus has had a significant impact on my career, allowing me to gain the experience and immersion that I needed to apply my education to my work. However, despite the advantages I have gained by completing an MBA, I see that pharmacists with MBAs are still relatively uncommon. For pharmacists who will not be completing a PGY-2 oncology or health-system administration residency but would like to pursue pharmacy management, augment their supervisory skills, or better understand and apply the complex finances that surround oncology pharmacy, I recommend pursuit of an MBA.