Meeting primary care challenges with business education

Business Skills for primary care physicians

Doctors are struggling.

A study on burnout in the workplace showed that nearly one in two physicians feels emotional exhaustion or regret about their choice of career. Doctors work in an environment that has been taken over by administrators and bureaucrats; consultants bringing in the latest efficiency tools; forms and paperwork that have replaced time with patients; and a demand that they place economics above patient care. 

Over the past few decades, medicine has rapidly turned from a craft into a business. But doctors are not trained to run businesses – they are trained to heal patients. This disconnect means that doctors have been pushed aside in their own industry. To regain control over their professional lives – and over the future of their profession – they need business training. But as yet no one has figured out how best to provide such training. 

Throughout history, until this generation, doctors have been lone healers, answering to no one except their patients. Doctors merely needed to be concerned with the medicine; everything else would take care of itself. Medical education has reflected this – across the world, the medical school curriculum is focused exclusively on diagnosis and treatment. Doctors learn how to heal, but not how to practice. The nuts and bolts of working as a doctor – dealing with staff, setting up an office, managing a budget with ever-increasing demands, the commercial realities of the real world – are not just ignored but deliberately removed from a doctor’s training, seen as tarnishing the purity of patient care.

Empowering physicians with business skills

In a perfect world, this is not a bad thing. We want doctors to be focused on patient care above all else. We do not want them making medical decisions based on cost. But the institutions where doctors are practicing are forced to think about profit even when the doctors themselves do not. Too often, outsiders are brought in to increase productivity, putting demands on doctors that take away their freedom and autonomy, turn medicine into an assembly line, and, in the end, can hurt the patients they are trying to help. Efficiency is prized above all else – but the single-minded focus on efficiency ignores the reality that medicine is practiced by human beings, and frustrated, disempowered doctors are not the people we should want taking care of the sick.

Doctors need to be given the tools to regain control. They need training to learn how to work together, to lead, and to spend their time in effective ways. They need to be managers and supervisors as well as diagnosticians. In other words, they need the kinds of skills that business students learn. Some business schools do offer joint MD/MBA programs, but these can serve only a small, elite audience at best – and to some extent an audience that ends up in consulting and business roles rather than back in practice. 

In the 21st century every doctor needs this kind of training; whether as part of residency training or as a short, easy set of tools that can be taught without the need for a full MBA program (and the time and expense that would entail). With the right business tools, primary care physicians will continue to flourish and truly be the ones to lead medicine forward. We owe it to our patients and to ourselves.

Charting the future of primary care

Primary care is confronted with challenges from all sides. Primary care leaders and teams must navigate financial constrictions, low workplace morale, restrictive payment models, rising health care costs, increasingly aging populations, the integration of behavioural health, and patient satisfaction.

Transforming primary care and health care systems to meet 21st century societal needs and patient expectations requires new approaches to teamwork, culture, financing, and the use of information technology. To help primary care physicians meet these challenges, The Ivey Academy has partnered with Harvard Medical School’s Center for Primary Care to deliver a two-day executive education program for Canadian primary care health professionals.

Charting the Future of Primary Care: Leadership, Teams, and Culture introduces primary care practice leaders to cutting-edge approaches to primary care from leading practices around the world. In this program, you will join in discussions with leaders from around the world who are reinventing their approach to primary care. You will have the opportunity to share and develop a framework for transforming your own practice. And you will create relationships with others on the same journey, so that once the program ends, you can continue to share your experiences with a network of future leaders who work on the cutting edge of primary care delivery.

In this program you will:

  • Analyze various primary care delivery models and leadership challenges using real-world business cases led by Ivey and Harvard faculty.
  • Summarize the challenges and changes in primary care and the implications for practices and organizations.
  • Develop approaches to lead, motivate, and align people around a common vision or direction.
  • Effectively work within and lead complex organizations.
  • Apply a set of skills related to building, participating in, and leading effective teams.
  • Build a network of future leaders who want to work on the cutting edge of primary care delivery.
  • Assess different methods/styles of working within and beyond the structure and constraints of the current health system to create an optimal system design for improved health, engaged and enabled patients, efficient care delivery, lower costs, and thriving primary care teams - all within a Canadian context. 

This Group Learning program has been certified by the College of Family Physicians of Canada and the Ontario Chapter for up to 12.50 Mainpro+ credits.

Discover better ways to deliver on the promise of primary care with Charting the Future of Primary Care: Leadership, Teams, and Culture. For more information on the program, please download the program brochure.


About The Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School
The Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School is the home for executive Learning and Development (L&D) in Canada. It is Canada’s only full-service L&D house, blending Financial Times top-ranked university-based executive education with talent assessment, instructional design and strategy, and behaviour change sustainment. 

Rooted in Ivey Business School’s real-world leadership approach, The Ivey Academy is a place where professionals come to get better, to break old habits and establish new ones, to practice, to change, to obtain coaching and support, and to join a powerful peer network. Follow The Ivey Academy on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.


A version of this article originally appears in The Financial Times ©, September 8, 2013 by Peter Pramstaller. The author is a neurologist at the Central Hospital of Bolzano (Italy) and scientific director of the Center for Biomedicine at the European Academy of Bolzano.

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