Four years of medical school after four years of college. Three to seven years in residency and perhaps a one-to-three-year fellowship before you become board certified. A lot of education goes into becoming--an entrepreneur?
The answer is yes--at least for doctors who leave their practices to start a business. It seems a little crazy, giving up the prestige and income of being a physician, but Laura Eackloff, 45, has never been happier. She was a podiatrist for 10 years and thoroughly enjoyed treating patients, but she hated spending more time on the phone negotiating with health insurance companies than examining her patients.
"Honestly, health care is a business, and I didn't like the business of medicine," says Eackloff, who shut down her practice and opened Gotta Knit, a yarn store in New York City's Greenwich Village. Her friends and family were extremely supportive of her decision to help people with their hands instead of their feet. Although Eackloff admits her father, who paid for most of medical school, was slightly shocked.
"With the insurance companies I was always negotiating my fee," says Eackloff, explaining her reasoning for leaving. "It was no longer a true fee-per-service business, at least from my perspective. But if I teach someone an hour worth of knitting, they know it's $50. It's not as lucrative as medicine. I'm not going to pretend that it is. But it's a lot more rewarding."
For Dr. Maurice Ramirez, a former ER physician who still occasionally practices medicine, the leap wasn't as huge. He is now the founder and president of the consulting firm High Alert, LLC, a Kissimmee Florida-based consulting firm that deals in crisis management.
Ramirez found himself exploring the idea of leaving the emergency room after taking the National Disaster Life Support Instructor Program and being called to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Realizing just how devastating a disaster can be, he created his company, which offers more than 30 different services in disaster preparation, including obscure topics like disaster law and how to treat medical victims after an incident involving weapons of mass destruction.
Transferring the Skills
For any physicians also thinking of making the change, Ramirez says not to forget any of the skills that made them a good doctor. "The skills that made patients love you and diseases fear you--effective interviewing, rapid decision making, pattern recognition--those are all essential skills for the entrepreneur. And just like a good doctor, good entrepreneurs make referrals, get consults and ask for help."
Philippa Kennealy, MD, MPH, CPCC, PCC, agrees that doctors have some advantages over the entrepreneurs without the letters after their name. In fact, the retired family physician-turned-business coach now specializes in helping doctors become entrepreneurs, as her website, The Entrepreneurial MD, attests.
"They have an edge in certain areas," says Kennealy. "They have a powerful analytical skill, and even though it's a running joke that doctors are not communicators, many are. They also have the capacity to work independently and are able to be pretty decisive, which again, is a valuable skill. And they're smart."
But not all of their skills are transferable, warns Ramirez. "Don't assume that medical training--residency--is a good model for training employees or learning to lead. As a survivor of residency training, you're no different from a child abuse survivor, and you are prone to abuse those subordinates to you as a result. If you abuse them, you lose them."
There are other obstacles to being a successful doctor-turned-entrepreneur, says Kennealy, including the income adjustment. "The idea that they have to go for a period of time with possibly a negative salary, that can stall them," he says. "The ones who do decide to do something entrepreneurial are really motivated, and they have an incredible passion for what they're doing."
Transferring the Passion
That aptly describes Eackloff, who spent the last 18 months of her podiatry practice working evenings and weekends at a yarn store, just to make absolutely sure that her next career move was the thing to do. Equally passionate about his enterprise is Dr. Mark Allen, who left emergency medicine because he's hoping his business can improve it.
Allen is the CEO of Corticon Technologies, which creates software to help simplify decision-making for a variety of industries--financial, government, manufacturing, insurance and medical. Mundane decisions, such as how an order should be handled, to the complex, like when revenue for an entire division is reported, can present bottlenecks and legal issues if not handled quickly or correctly. In a hospital, in particular, you don't want those little things interfering with the bigger issues of life and death.
As it turns out, only five percent of his clients are hospitals; most of the industries that use the California company's software are in the financial sector. After launching the business, Allen realized that hospitals weren't yet ready for his technology. "Healthcare providers tend to spend a lot of money on those things that are reimbursed by insurance companies," he explains. "[And] hospitals are absolutely behind in their IT systems compared to everyone else."
But once Allen grows his business, which has 50 employees, into a powerfully profitable platform for his investors, he intends to focus on more philanthropic-leaning matters, like bringing his technology to the medical industry.
That, of course, is the way of the entrepreneur. There are always surprises and unexpected paths to travel. For instance, Eackloff never predicted that one of her earliest and best customers, Goldie Axelrod, 56, would end up buying into Gotta Knit and become a partner. The fact that she is coincidentally a nurse is all the more ironic. But the biggest surprise to Eackloff is that she's in the knitting business at all.
"When I finished medical school, I wanted to do something for myself and learn to knit," says Eackloff. "I wanted to finally learn something for the pure fun of it, as opposed to learning something that would help me with my career."
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.