We publish our conversations with inspirational individuals in the healthcare industry to promote the innovation discourse and support framework. We spoke with Arlen D. Meyers, M.D., M.B.A., the Founder and CEO of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs (SoPE). SoPE provides a network with peers and industry partners involved in all aspects of the innovation commercialization process in hopes of accelerating innovations in order to improve healthcare.
A transcript of our conversation is below.
Healthcare Innovators We are a relatively new organization called Healthcare Innovators. Our aim is just to promote the discourse on health innovation amongst younger students. We know you founded the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs. To start off, could you please give a little background about yourself?
Dr. Meyers: I’m a career academic ear, nose and throat surgeon. I recently retired from clinical practice to spend full time on physician entrepreneurship but for the last 40 years, I’ve been a practicing academic ear, nose and throat surgeon at the University of Colorado in various clinical research, leadership, etc roles.
During my education, I trained back east and then got recruited to the University of Colorado in 1976. During my academic career, while I was building my research, promotion, tenure portfolio, my research and development interest was in bioengineering. I was just interested in gadgets so that led to inventing with other colleagues a gadget while I was a faculty member that optically detects cancer. That led to a number of initiatives and events that transfer intellectual property protection, funding, spinouts, etc that eventually fed my interests in physician entrepreneurship. That eventually led to the creation of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs with other people.
Fundamentally what I learned in that journey was what most of us already know; the sick care system can’t be fixed from inside. Most physicians and health professionals have good ideas but don’t know what to do with them, and there was no really good solution. It’s just too hard to get an idea to market for the average undergraduate faculty member. The academic culture does not reward for entrepreneurship to our higher ed. For all those reasons, we created something that we thought could help people, that is the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs. We created it as a 501(C)3 and (C)6 member organization 5 years ago and now I believe we’re the largest such network in the word.
Healthcare Innovators Amazing. What made you pursue the MBA?
Dr. Meyers: Well I’ve written a lot about MD/MBAs. In fact, I was the principal leader in creating the MD/MBA program at the University of Colorado in the late 90s. I’ve had a lot of experience with this. My view is a couple: one is that any education is valuable; however, the opportunity cost is pretty high given student loans, time commitments, family, and conflicting interests. The decision to get an MBA for most doctors or most professionals is the old attitude, “I’ll just quote ‘grab an MBA on the way,’ and that’s kind of the egotistical, hubris, laden attitude for most doctors. That decision carries a lot of impact and it’s not a trivial decision anymore. It used to be “What’s the big deal? I’ll just get an MBA along with my MD, JD, MPH, PHD, you know all the letters that go after my name” and that’s what doctors are trying to do, but it’s stupid. Over half of the medical schools in the United States have MD/MBAs and there’s a lot of conflict and there are a lot of problems.
The bottom line is the following and these are my opinions. One, that an MBA for the average doctor basically offers, what I call, the 4 Cs: connectivity, credibility, credentials, and content, in that order. The value of a Harvard MBA is your roommate, not what you learned.
Healthcare Innovators Right.
Dr. Meyers: These days, you can connect to whomever you want on the Internet. Of course, there’s a difference in face to face but the fact of the matter is, it’s really about credentials, getting boxes checked, credibility, opening doors, etc. I think for most doctors, a MBA is stupid and people really just haven’t measured the value. I’m not discouraging people from getting graduate degrees if they want but the opportunity costs of not just the tuition, but the lost revenue, there’s an issue of, “Should the tax payers support student loans for medical students who are going to business school?” There are a whole bunch of issues.
Number two is, if you’re interested in doing a MBA as a physician or a health professional, most people do it for one of three reasons: one, they’re interested in some sort of health service organization leadership position and they want to get the box check. They want to be VP for clinical affairs, Chief Medical Officer, Chief Innovation Officer, just fill in the blank. They want to have impact on some policy level or making rules.
Then there are the entrepreneurs and my opinion is that at present, very few if any MD/MBA programs are directed to creating physician entrepreneurs. They are very general programs, and I’m not saying, again, as someone who has participated and created these programs, that there is not value in interfacing with non-sick care business people, but I’m not sure it’s worth the cost. My approach is, if you’re interested in being a physician or sick care entrepreneur, just do it, learn from experience, surround yourself with the right people, and make the mistakes. Just do it; it’s like clinical experience.
Healthcare Innovators You mentioned the impact of the network. Would you not say a physician entrepreneur would be better off with that network of people that are going into every business but medicine from business school. For example, getting to know someone entering a banking position may help you get capital going forwards for your invention. Do you think the value of the MBA is overcome by that or do you think in absolute terms, the $150,000 or so, does not justify that network.
Dr. Meyers: Yes, I think it’s absolutely worth integrating and networking with non-health care or non-sick care professionals because the future of health care and sick care innovation will come from outside of medicine. You need to understand how other industries and other entrepreneurs outside of sick care have solved a lot of the problems that bedevil sick care. Absolutely, I agree, but do you need to spend $150,000 to sit in the same classroom or in a lot of instances, you’re not even sitting in the same classroom because they’re virtual programs.
Healthcare Innovators I see.
Dr. Meyers: I think you have to assess the cost benefit and ask if it is really worth it? There are so many ways to interface and network with people who are willing to share their ideas that I don’t think that it’s worth it if that’s the objective.
Healthcare Innovators Got it. That’s where the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs comes in. I was listening to one of your other interviews and you talked about how it’s just essentially a congregation of like-minded individuals and whatever happens will happen from that.
Dr. Meyers: It’s a dating service.
Healthcare Innovators Right, right. A dating service.
Dr. Meyers: You throw enough people in the same sandbox who are like-minded and good things happen.
Healthcare Innovators Amazing. So what have you seen from your members so far in terms of innovation and creation? What promising things have come out of this society since it was founded?
Dr. Meyers: The society doesn’t create anything. Again, we’re a dating service. We don’t make babies. The people that we get to date each other make babies. So, I can’t take credit for it. I hope we have created a platform that has facilitated people making babies. The other points are that, there is no silver bullet to fixing what’s wrong.
In my opinion, the health care system is suffering from multi organ system failure. In other words, in clinical terms, if you develop sepsis, your kidney shuts down, your liver stops working, your brain stops working, you can’t breath, you heart goes into failure, multiple systems are shot. If you just try to treat one of them, like you put a tube in somebody’s throat and put them on a ventilator, they’re still going to die. There are multiple interventions if you want the patient to survive.
It’s the same thing with a dysfunctional sick care system. There is no one thing that we can do to fix it. There has to be multi-system support. There are lots of opportunities and senses of urgency that need to be developed and those fundamentally fall into a couple of basic categories. One is biomedical, which means drugs, devices, diagnostics, vaccines, combined products, research-based products, things we need to create to cure diseases that presently are untreatable like progressive neurologic disease, like viral infections and pandemics. The second group is digital health innovations, which basically is an overlap between biomedical innovation and clinical innovation because digital health innovation is coalescing around everything, whether it’s smart pills; are those drugs or digital health devices? Smart med tech with an implantable sensor and an implant; is that a device or a clinical health device? Then there’s the clinical innovation platform, which is, how do we change the business model? How do we change how we deliver care and to whom in a more cost effective way? How do we eliminate the waste? How do we eliminate unnecessary visits? How do we eliminate the terrible provider experience?
Again, 1) biomedical, 2) digital, 3) clinical, and 4) policy because the rules have the biggest impact on the other three. If you don’t change the rules, you wind up with stupid systems, which is what we have now. So, whether it’s ObamaCare, the FDA, intellectual property, or payment reimbursement, all of this depends on the rules. If you don’t change the rules, you wind up with what you’d expect: dysfunctional systems because you have stupid rules that create unintended consequences. When you ask me, where is the biggest area of opportunity for sick care reform, there is none, there isn’t. Just pick one, and it will occupy you for a lifetime.
Healthcare Innovators Amazing. So, what’s your opinion on the pharmaceutical industry, for example? That’s an interest of my own. Which areas do you think are the ripest for the greatest change within pharma itself? Or would you say that it doesn’t matter?
Dr. Meyers: It does matter. You have to prioritize your efforts. Now, the fundamental conflict is, how do you regulate the pharmaceutical industry to protect the public health and create ecosystems to do that while at the same time not stifling innovation? That’s the fundamental problem and whenever you push on one, it is going to balloon out the other side. What’s playing out and has been playing out since the creation of the Food and Drug Administration in the 30s has been that fundamental conflict. Since payers are beginning to pay more and more for drugs and there’s a presidential campaign, it’s coming under increasing scrutiny. Whatever rules, systems, platforms, or business models you want to create, that have to reconcile that conflict and there is no simple answer; there is no silver bullet. Personally I believe the two basic strategies have to be how do we make drug discovery and development cheaper, smarter, faster, and better and how do we make market mechanisms to create more drug price transparency and competition better?
Healthcare Innovators Thank you so much for all of that information. Based on what you’ve said so far, what would you tell students now? Would you tell them to delve into the industry and try anything that’s possible and see what captures their fancy so that they can change that area specifically for their lifetime? In other words, if you were a student now, how would you go about initiating change?
Dr. Meyers: You have to go into it with both eyes open and you can’t have unrealistic expectations, otherwise you’re just wasting your time. You have to have a measured, realistic strategy as an undergrad for a student to understand what you’re getting yourself into. Health care and sick care is a very complicated and highly regulated industry that does not often play by the same rules as many other industries, even those that are highly regulated like energy or financial services. You have to understand what you’re getting yourself into and I think your career pathway has to move along across several metrics simultaneously, not sequentially.
In other words, you have to get a fundamental understanding of sick care. I say sick care because we don’t have a health care system. We spend $3 trillion on so-called health care services, but about 90% of that is spent taking care of sick people, not preventing people from getting sick, which is how I define health care. So it really is a sick care system, migrating hopefully sometime in the future sometime to a health care system.
If you’re a student, you have to understand what’s necessary. Education alone will not get you there. You can take all the MBAs, courses, and whatever you want, but as I indicated, it has to be part of a platform. I would hope that your program at Georgetown is not an education initiative. I’m hoping that your program is a program that includes education, resources, networks, mentors, experiential learning, knowledge transfer, follow on, so that it’s sustainable and successful because you’re not going to be successful just learning this stuff and putting initials after your name. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a lot more than that.
Healthcare Innovators So how can we change our program or just the curriculum so that people are motivated to actually do something besides from checking a box?
Dr. Meyers: You can’t. It’s a fool’s errand. If you’re trying to create programs to make people entrepreneurs, I wouldn’t waste my time. Your role is to provide a platform for people. I call it unleashing the innerpeneur. You have no way of knowing who’s going to be successful. You have no way of knowing who has what it takes. All you can do is provide a fertile field so if someone wants to plant a seed, it will grow but like most gardens, most of the plants are going to get picked off by pests or they’re just not going to grow. All you can do is provide a platform so that those who have what it takes can thrive. And if you can be satisfied with graduating one person who has made a difference due to your efforts, God bless you because that’s what you should expect.
Healthcare Innovators You mentioned the value of a Harvard MBA. We’re reaching out to numerous Harvard faculty because HBS leading a major health care initiative. HBS and HMS is trying to bridge this gap between innovation and education within health care and they’re providing all the necessary infrastructure.
Dr. Meyers: It’s worth fighting the good fight. I think you just have to go into it with both eyes open, otherwise you have unrealistic expectations and you get frustrated and you say screw it. It’s a long slide.
Healthcare Innovators Dr. Meyers, thank you so much for your time and input. It was a privilege speaking with you.
About the speaker
In addition to serving as the Founder and CEO of SoPE, Dr. Meyers is involved with several global bioentrepreneurship education, research, and practice initiatives. He is Director of the Certificate Program in Bioinnovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado, the cochairman of the 1st International Bioentrepreneurship Education Summit, Associate Editor of the Journal of Commercial Biotechnology, and Editor-in-Chief of Medscape Reference Otolaryngology and SOPE Magazine. Dr. Meyers was named one of the 50 Most Influential Physician Executives of 2011 by Modern Healthcare.
Arlen D. Meyers, M.D., M.B.A.
President & CEO, Society of Physician Entrepreneurs (SoPE) at www.sopenet.org
Emeritus Professor, University of Colorado School of Medicine