Leadership · Learning

THINKING OUT OF THE BOX – Why doctors are the heroes of management consulting

What the hell is management consulting? – This was the first thought I had when I first heard about management consulting in my last year of med school. I Googled the Internet and one of the world’s most renowned management consulting firm stated on its website: ‘We are the trusted advisor to the world’s leading businesses, governments, and institutions’. Ok, so this is probably the most unspecific job description I have ever seen.

I came to learn that indeed, the work of a management consultant covers a wide range of topics. Any problem that a business, government or institution needs to solve can become the headline of a consultant’s work. In fields of health care that means, it could be work done for a ministry of health for a certain country supporting them in designing their healthcare reform or for a health insurance helping them to implement disease management programs.

Why can consulting be interesting for medical doctors? – The health care industry has traditionally been one of the most important areas for management consulting. It ranges from businesses in medical devices, pharma, health insurances, governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and hospitals.

In all the above-mentioned businesses, medical knowledge is crucial to understand processes, mindsets and patient behavior. Medicine is, however, such a complex field -unlike business administration- that knowledge is pretty hard to acquire in a ‘learning on-the-job’-setting. Therefore, medical doctors are a rare but highly in demand species.

But it’s not all about doctor’s medical knowledge –they also bring valuable problem-solving skills to the table. Here’s why: When a patient comes in with a problem, the doctor starts to dissect it. He or she takes the complaint, the signs and symptoms, the lab values, the radiology reports, consults with colleagues (i.e. experts from other specialties) and gathers whatever other information is necessary in order to paint a coherent clinical picture. The ultimate goal is to ensure an accurate diagnosis that will lead to a sound action plan and implementation strategy.

Guess what? These are exactly the core skills management consulting firms are looking for in a fierce war of talent. Hence, medical doctors are the perfect fit: they bring the whole package!

What’s in for the doctors? – Management consulting can be a great opportunity for medical doctors to step out of the clinical routine and experience health care from a different perspective. They get the opportunity look behind the curtains of global pharma companies, sit down with top executives of health insurances and get to learn why it’s important to be aware of efficiency levers in hospitals. It can be a very exciting playground to explore different businesses, countries and meet people from other cultures.

Management consulting also offers a very stimulating environment that welcomes curiosity and creative solutions, but at the same time demands for top performance and highest professional standards. Literally, thinking out of the box is part of a management consultant’s job description.

My personal experience – In my almost five years of management consulting, I have worked across 3 continents, on over 15 projects with a great number of top executives in health care business. Topics were ranging from transforming sales force for a global pharma company in New York City to designing a health authority for a country in the Middle East. I sat together with CEOs of listed med-tech companies, the health minister of a country and the global head of operations of a global generics player. The topics I have had the opportunity to work on are as different as the countries and people I have worked with. I now can state that I have experienced and understood health care from a whole other angle than I have before as a physician. My learning curve has been pretty steep so far.

However, switching to the dark side doesn’t work for everyone – The transition from scrub to suit can be tough. While doctors experience the immediate impact of the work on patients and their families, visible immediate impact in management consulting is very rare.

Most projects are done on a white board and are at a very high strategic level. Implementation often takes months or years. Also, advising the business world often also means advising for maximal profit. This inevitably comes down to recommending measures like cost cutting –i.e. firing people, setting stretch targets for employees or increasing workload. Like in any other job, sometimes unpopular or morally questionable decisions need to be taken. This might go against the values one loves about being a doctor. However, against the common public opinion that this is what defines management consulting, those so-called cost-cutting projects are the minority of all projects.

It’s not as dark after all – In my experience, the good news is that every management consultant can very well steer the topics he or she wants to work on. I for example, have always been interested to cover a wide range of topics related to health care industry and so I did. I hated to work on projects that involved cost cutting, so I avoided them. I loved to work on growth projects with high impact to improve health care on a broader level and so I did. So yes, there is a dark side to tackle but it is smaller than one might assume – and you always have a fair choice to say ‘no’.

The life after management consulting – what’s the way out? The average cycle time of management consulting lies between two and four years: there is a visible light at the end of the road. Many management consultants see their work as one important step at the start of their business career. This is also true for medical doctors. A reasonable career in management consulting can open multiple career doors, ranging from hospital management to leading positions in pharmaceutical companies (e.g. in R&D or even in startups in the fields of digital health). The way I like to think about it is as an ‘equation of success’: medical doctor x experience in management consulting = superhero in the business world.

Not to forget, doctors have one outstanding advantage compared to many others: they can always go back to medicine and be a doctor if it doesn’t work out for them.

Stay tuned to read more about this topic. The second article is coming up soon!

profile picSophie C., MD, is based in Berlin. Sophie graduated at the Medical University of Vienna. Her fields of research covered stem cell research in diabetes as well as inflammatory mechanism in heart failure. She was also active in fields of Philosophy of Science with focus on medicine theory, comparing Traditional Chinese Medicine and Western Medicine. Sophie joined one of the leading global management consulting firms in November 2008. She currently works as a project manager with focus on health care topics. She also worked as an editor for an online business news agency during the crisis in 2000/01. Next to her work as management consultant, she is an active member of an NGO in Cambodia, supporting projects to help disabled children and poor rural villages. Sophie is passionate about sports around mountains and water involving snowboarding, rock climbing, hiking, kitesurfing, diving and sailing.


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