A physician sets out to fill the business gap

A profile of Smeal Executive MBA Program alumnus Jeff Miller, a Penn State Hershey Medical Center physician who wanted to make better business decisions.

Portrait of Jeff Miller.Not long after joining the Penn State Hershey Medical Center/College of Medicine as a physician and professor of dermatology, Jeff Miller started taking on leadership positions, first in his department and then across the medical center.

As time went on, Miller said he came to a stark realization. 

“I started to recognize that doctors were faced with many business problems,” he said. “I thought, ‘Are we asking the right questions? Are we getting the right answers to make business decisions?’”

Filling a Gap

He collaborated with mentors both inside and outside of Hershey to discuss the idea of pursuing an MBA to fill in the business gaps that his medical training couldn’t. An Executive MBA would allow him to maintain a moderated work schedule and pursue the education he knew he needed.

“A lot of them said this is a good idea. We need physician leaders who have business literacy; that’s a big gap in our medical education. I knew there were MBAs that were specific for physicians, but I didn’t want that. I wanted to be surrounded by a broad group of professionals with a diverse set of experiences,” Miller said.

“When I learned about the Philadelphia-based Executive MBA at Smeal, I just got the feeling it would be a perfect fit. It was.”

A Huge Payoff

First he had to evaluate how he would fit the 21-month program into his duties at Penn State Hershey and life at home with his wife, Kathy, and their five children. “I knew going into this I would need her support and the support of the kids,” he said. 

When Kathy, the kids and his administrators at Penn State Hershey all signed off, Miller was ready to commit. Once he did, he realized that managing work and home life would be a balancing act, but one with a huge payoff. 

“The lessons you learn in order to be a great student during this program are going to make you even better at your job. It was the first time in my education that our work products depended on the performance of a team. You quickly learn to leverage skills of the individual team members,” Miller said. 

“That was one of the key facets of the program, working with teams. That taught me a lot. To this day I still use the principles of teamwork that were developed in the EMBA, how to lead and how to manage teams. In medicine, we convene groups of people, but it’s rare to see a high functioning team.” 

Power to Problem Solve 

It’s becoming less rare on the projects Miller is helping to lead. Miller approaches problems by convening the right team of individuals to identify and implement solutions. One project, as part of the Center for Enterprise Innovation that he co-leads, involved the turn-around time of reporting results of critical lab specimens in the emergency room. Miller, who was the valedictorian of the Smeal EMBA class of 2010, witnessed firsthand how a team of disparate employees can arrive at a solution, because the problem is tackled by the perspectives of all stakeholders. 

“The answers often come not from the leader but someone you wouldn’t expect to have the answer. In this case, the employee who had a high school degree was the one who had the best answer,” Miller said. “That element of teamwork, creating an environment where everyone has a voice, everyone can be part of the problem and part of the solution has been really powerful in medicine.” 

Leading with Confidence

Miller was called on to help lead the creation of The Center for Enterprise Innovation (CEI). The center is a value improvement system that looks at cost and quality opportunities at the College of Medicine, hospital, and medical group. The CEI holds Rapid Improvement Events (RIEs), week-long sessions that take teams of people out of the office to work on solutions to challenges they’re facing. Teams then have 30 days to implement the solutions they’ve developed.

“I probably would not have been asked to lead that if not for my EMBA experience. We focused on bringing lean thinking to healthcare. It’s a different kind of leadership, which emphasizes listening and respect,” Miller said.

He said the CEI has addressed supply chain issues in the operating room, examined the patient experience in clinics, and devised ways to improve cost with contracts.

Miller was also instrumental in partnering with Penn State Executive Programs within the Smeal College of Business to create and sustain an annual Leadership Academy and a business in healthcare conference. With key healthcare and business stakeholders in the same room, Miller said the conference promotes understanding healthcare problems from a different perspective.

“The Smeal Executive MBA program has given me a skill set that I never would have had, a new way to think, a perspective that enables me to be a more effective healthcare leader,” Miller said. “Because of the EMBA, I feel more confident in my leadership abilities and look forward to applying lessons learned in the classroom to our work environment.  For me, leadership has become less intimidating.”

Posted May 2015