Our guest today, Dr. Akshat Kumar, earned his MD from Kasturba Medical College in India and completed his residency in Internal Medicine at Rutgers University/St. Peter’s University Hospital in New Jersey, where he became Chief Resident and then Attending Physician. In his spare time he co-founded thewisemd.com and later joined WellUHealth as Business Development Lead and Chief Medical Officer. Today he is an attending physician at Penn Medicine and a Wharton MBA student.
Can you tell us about your background? Where you grew up? What you were doing before Wharton? [1:28]
I am originally from Delhi, India. I was a math nerd in school, and none of my friends expected me to go to medical school, instead expecting me to focus on math/finance studies. But I wanted to use my problem-solving abilities to help people, which is why I decided to attend medical school. In my final years of medic al school I was able to work in some U.S. hospitals – in Boston and in Rochester, and those experiences motivated me to pursue further education in the U.S. I moved to the U.S. five or six years ago to pursue my residency training and then further worked as you outlined earlier.
You managed to get into a U.S. residency as an international medical graduate (IMG). How did you do it? [2:30]
There are two things that help IMGs – one is obviously having strong stats and the other is doing training in the U.S. I was lucky to have gotten some chances to work in the U.S. There is one more thing I have also come to realize since coming to Wharton – the power of networking. In medicine this is not a skillset that is touched on. During your training there is just so much focus on academics. It really helps to have people who can vouch for your work, which I had.
Can you give a couple of examples of how the practice of medicine is different in the U.S. than in India? [4:56]
The power of academic medicine is what made me decide to come to the U.S. If you want to do academic research, there is no place better to do it than here. There are negative aspects to that as well, though. For example, if I walk into the ER to see a patient I already have a lot of data with me – their CAT scans, their blood work, etc., so I have more data to work with, but sometimes that can lead to less use of bedside clinical medicine skills. I am a big believer in traditional medicine. You have to work hard especially in the U.S. on your clinical skills and not rely too much on technology. That is one aspect. The other is from a business standpoint. In India, everybody knows the cost of care, but here because insurance companies are paying for it, and the lack of cost transparency here was very surprising to me.
How has your experience at thewisemd.com, which you co-founded, and at WellUHealth influenced your decision to join the HCM program at Wharton and to get an MBA? [6:55]
Thewisemd was a consequence of this realization of lack of cost transparency. When I fractured my wrist I knew it was a specific type of fracture and required a specific type of treatment, but there was no way for me to know the cost of an x-ray vs an MRI, even as a doctor in my own hospital. So that led to the idea of cost transparency at the point of care for physicians to help patients make better decisions. Not to punish them but as motivation for them. It was quite exciting and a great idea, but made me realize you need more than just a great idea – you need a solid business plan to back it up. Same as with WellUHealth. It had some revenue but still was a relatively early-stage start-up. Both experiences made me really realize the power of business, not only as a science but also as a language. Ultimately that is what motivated me to want to come to Wharton. It made me view this as a skillset I needed to acquire.
In a recent episode, I spoke with Dr. Peter Pronovost and Dr. Chris Meyers from Johns Hopkins about the importance of including management curriculum (soft skills like negotiations, communications, leadership) within a medical program. It sounds like you would agree with that assessment. [9:21]
I could not agree more with that sentiment. If there are formal ways to acquire these skills physicians can more efficiently lead medical organizations. Healthcare is 19% of the GDP. There are some recent papers about physician leadership in U.S. healthcare and how that is a good thing. If physicians learn these skills and decide to leave [medicine], they tend to do better as they have been through the system. It’s easier for them to lead having gone through the process. Learning those skills in a formal way can only have positive impacts on how effectively 19% of our GDP is run.
What did you find most difficult in the MBA application process? [10:49]
Believing that it is the right path forward for me. I had already trained, done my residency, had a secure income, and a clear path forward. There was a lot of resistance of the value of an MBA. “Why do you need an MBA in the first place? You can learn everything you need while working or online.” So for me it was believing that I really needed this training and education throughout the process. You have to take the GMAT, you have to network, write the essays, etc., but if you don’t strongly believe it is the right path for you, it’s hard to keep going.
But I really did come to realize the problems we face are not clinical; they really are business-related. The more I worked in my hospital in different capacities, the more leadership opportunities I got, and the more responsibilities I got the more that reinforced my belief. I could see a need for physicians to get leadership and business training, so for me it ultimately felt like the right path forward.
How did you handle the Wharton TBD? What if anything did you find difficult about it? [14:11]
I think it can depend a lot on the group that you get, but it is a skillset you need. In my first few months at Wharton there are so many team projects that have required the same level of collaboration and team spirit, so it was important to test it with the interview, but at the same time it can be dependent on the group that you get.
What do you like best about Wharton’s MBA program? [15:05]
I am loving it. The level of opportunity in all spheres is amazing. The biggest value added for me is the academics – learning subjects like finance and economics. Other students have been exposed to this in earlier academics, but in medical school I was not, so learning the language of business through those subjects has been the most impactful. Also the size of the school is really beneficial to me. There are 60 Indian students in the class, which is really valuable to me. Eventually I want to go back to India so being able to have a larger network is important.
What can be improved? [16:49]
It can be a bit daunting at the beginning with 800+ people. I had the mindset that everything would be easy after I got in, and that is not the case. It is still very competitive, and you are competing with people from all around the world. It is great to be exposed to such great talent, but you might not always get the courses and projects you want. What has helped me is to really know what I want to do and what my thought process is so I can compete more effectively.
What’s a typical day like? [17:48]
Classes are from 9am-5pm, with a lunch break from 12-2, and in the evening there are always some events going on. Everything is very calendar-driven. There is so much going on you have to pay attention to the calendar, otherwise you just lose track of all the things happening each day. After 5:00 there are sports, club meetings, etc. I have never been this busy, even in residency!
Any feedback on the healthcare management program at Wharton? [18:54]
That is the best part about the Wharton MBA program for me. It’s what attracted me to Wharton in the first place. There are 80 students, and the best part is that healthcare has many components to it – not just hospitals and doctors, also pharmaceuticals, insurance companies, biotech firms, startups, those financing healthcare ventures – and these 80 students are very carefully selected and truly represent the diversity of the healthcare system. Even if we never had any classes together, just having these 80 people as part of one group has a lot of power. It has helped me get a view of the U.S. healthcare system that I had never had before. I am very conscious of the fact that I am still a physician and need to be rooted in that, but it is very important for me to understand the thought processes of those outside the physician community. How do pharmaceutical companies think about doctors? How do insurance companies? What’s in it for them? What are their concerns and worries? The program is a huge value add in the long run for impact on the U.S. healthcare system.
You are slightly older than most MBA students, was it hard for you to return to student life? [20:42]
For me it has not been hard. I’m not that far away from residency! To me it is an advantage. I know my priorities better, so I can better manage my time.
What are your plans for after graduation? [21:55]
I was not sure about this in the beginning, but being here has made me excited about consulting. I am looking to get more skillsets across industries, so my scale of impact will be better. Healthcare has a lot to learn from other industries, of course I am aware of all the clichés of consulting. My long term goal is to go back to India and make an impact in the healthcare industry there, and feel that global consulting can only help in that regard.
Any tips for MBA applicants? Any tips specifically for those coming from India? [23:15]
Because I was already in the U.S. when I applied, I am not as aware of the challenges Indian MBA applicants face as much as I am about residents coming to the U.S, but one thing that I should have mentioned earlier is to recognize it’s a long process. You really need to make sure that this is really what you want to do. My business school experience would not be the same had I not had experience with residency and with my other ventures. Invest in things you really want to do before you come to shape your perspective better once you are here.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [24:36]
The one point I want to highlight is about the transition from medicine to business. It’s definitely not easy – the worlds are so different. I am critical of my thought process as well. If you are thinking about it, I can vouch for the fact it was completely worth it making the transition for value add and because it’s been a lot of fun. In the long run there are a lot more career opportunities once you have made the transition so don’t be afraid to take that leap.
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