Conceived and funded in 1997 as a private program to teach a healthcare firm’s physicians the business side of healthcare delivery, the Physician Executive MBA (PEMBA) at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business, launched in 1998 as an MBA program open to all physician leaders. Celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2022, PEMBA has achieved several distinctions:
- First MBA program designed exclusively for physicians
- First accredited distance education program in the U.S. to use synchronous internet learning
- Graduates from all 50 states and multiple countries representing six global regions
- Largest alumni base among similar programs around the country
Keys to Success
PEMBA’s enduring appeal can be attributed to several factors, including its responsive, engaged administration; a flexible structure designed with physician input; opportunities to bond with peers in a genial, collegial atmosphere; and high-quality, relevant training.
Professor Emeritus Mike Stahl led the founding of PEMBA and served as its director for more than 20 years, setting the tone for its administration. Tom Brown has been a stalwart with PEMBA as well. Now PEMBA’s admissions and alumni relations manager, Brown was PEMBA’s first program manager, serving in that role until 2018.
Brown and Kate Atchley, director of PEMBA and executive director of Haslam’s healthcare division programs, say early physician input on the program format contributes to its staying power. Physician focus groups around the country helped identify an educational approach that would fit doctors’ needs. The result was a one-year, physician-only distance-learning program (with four one-week, on-site residency periods), centered on year-long projects physicians complete to deliver significant value for their organizations.
“That is important for how physicians live their lives, schedule their time and get things done,” Atchley said. “And the concepts they are learning are highly applicable. They are taking them back to their organizations, and they can see the impact right away.”
The curriculum evolves through the faculty constantly researching new areas and methods and by regularly asking the physicians what they need and about current best practices. This provides students with up-to-the-minute, practical education that results in better healthcare for their patients and institutions and, by extension, for their communities.
“We try to stay cutting edge to serve the students so that they have the tools they need, not just for next year, but for the next 10 years,” Brown said.
Although the content evolves, the format has gone largely unchanged. The internet learning portion allows the physicians to continue their careers while earning their MBAs, with the four residency periods offering opportunities to build camaraderie and converse about many approaches to healthcare with physicians in various specialties from different states and countries.
To make PEMBA as convenient as earning an MBA can be, the faculty, staff and administration take a concierge service approach to assisting program participants. “We know physicians struggle to manage the demands on their time,” Atchley says. “We try to be flexible and accommodating and make sure the program works with them and for them.”
While early class numbers averaged in the upper teens and 20s, they have climbed over the years and more recently have hovered close to 50 even through the pandemic, a trend Atchley attributes to the same qualities that have made PEMBA popular for a quarter century.
In its 25 years, almost 900 physicians have graduated from the PEMBA program, many of whom have gone on to assume influential roles with their organizations. A few examples are Harsh Trivedi (PEMBA, ’12), president and CEO of Sheppard-Pratt, the largest private, non-profit provider of mental health and social services in the country, Keith Gray (PEMBA, ’14), who moved from frontline doctor to CMO at UT Medical Center, and Monique Butler (PEMBA, ’16), who is now division chief of HCA Healthcare’s North Florida Division.
Deb Vinton’s (PEMBA, ’18) academic experience illustrates the program’s formula for success. Vinton, who is now systems medical director at TeamHealth in Charlottesville, Virginia, started PEMBA as an emergency department assistant medical director with a different organization. She wanted an MBA program that would provide her the operational and planning skills to guide development of a new facility her institution was opening.
“It was clear that the curriculum was immediately applicable to my healthcare field, and the projects and problems we would work on in class would translate into my everyday work,” she said.
Vinton also needed a program that would allow her to care for her two-month-old-daughter and older children. PEMBA accommodated Vinton, such that she brought her infant daughter, Raya, to all the program’s residency periods. Raya even received her own special degree with her mother at the commencement ceremony.
Class of 2022
While the program is constantly looking for fresh ways to attract new students, referrals are an important avenue for recruitment. Knowing from personal experience how well PEMBA prepares physicians to take on leadership responsibilities in their organizations, alumni refer up to 70 percent of new enrollees. One such referral is current student Ed Caldwell, a vascular surgeon with Kentucky’s St. Elizabeth Healthcare. He researched MBA programs for several years before discovering PEMBA through a colleague.
“Leonardo Geraci (PEMBA, ’21) spoke highly of the program while he was attending,” Caldwell said. “I was looking for a program that focused on healthcare and the problems I face daily as a physician. All of the courses are relevant to my practice, and I can implement what I learn immediately.”
Another student in the 2022 cohort, Ami Attali, division chief in High-Risk Obstetrical Anesthesiology at Henry Ford Health System in Michigan, found the program through his own research. He is pleased he did.
“I am appreciative of Kate Atchley and her team, who have been a godsend for allowing me the opportunity to accomplish my dream of completing my MBA in a top-tier program,” Attali said. “I will accept the opportunity to foster the leadership and caring approach that the team has afforded me, paying it forward.”
The Next 25 Years
A significant question facing PEMBA’s administrators is how to increase the size of future cohorts without losing their trademark closeness.
“The pandemic revealed an astonishing need for physician leadership in healthcare,” Brown said. “But if we grow too large, we’ll lose relationships developed among the classes.”
“I don’t know if we want to make it much bigger because we’ll lose the personal touch,” Atchley adds. “At the same time, people want this information, and we want to let them participate. We are trying to find a balance.”
Scott McNutt, business writer/publicist, firstname.lastname@example.org