Errol Biggs, PhD, LLB, MBA, has spent decades studying the role of governance in healthcare as an author and academic leader, as well as chief executive officer of a large teaching hospital. For the past 20 years, he has directed the University of Colorado Denver Masters in Health Administration (MHA) program, and has experienced firsthand the changes in how universities teach healthcare leaders pursuing an advanced degree in health administration.
A curriculum for an MHA program that worked 20 years ago would not serve students well today. For example, graduate programs for healthcare administration largely focused on hospital administration and topics specific to inpatient operations. Today, curricula are shifting to recognize that there are new players in the industry — Walmart, Walgreens, Amazon and the like — which are both healthcare venders and providers.
Graduate programs still grapple with finding the right balance between traditional students — who pursue post-graduate programs within months of obtaining their undergraduate degree — and the working students, whether they physicians, other clinicians or administrative leaders, who balance coursework with their full-time job in healthcare.
Regardless of the pace with which someone approaches a graduate or executive program in healthcare administration, Biggs notes that the educators remain focused on preparing them for seismic shifts in the industry. “The way healthcare is going to be delivered is going to change fairly radically,” Biggs says.
What will not change, though, is the business acumen required to succeed. “Healthcare, no question, is a business,” Biggs says. “There’s a cost that really needs to be dealt with, and innovation that needs to take place at a much more rapid scale than it has in the past. The challenge for health administration programs is to give graduates the tools to allow them to be innovative … to analyze big data, understand finance and think strategically.”
Helping graduate and executive program students to take the right approach to resolving challenges is a vital aspect of their education. “More importantly than teaching students what to think is teaching students how to think and how to deal with a changing environment,” Bigg notes.
In fact, the approach that the University of Colorado Denver takes is providing an MBA program that specializes in health administration, with all the usual courses in health law, economics and strategy, but paired with analytical courses and traditional MBA education in finance and accounting. Biggs adds that many of those pursuing the MBA, including physicians, have already worked in executive positions in healthcare, and want to enhance the skills they need to become a chief medical officer or chief executive officer in their organization. “Some are running medical group practices, others are running hospitals, as well as consulting and other areas, while they are working on their MBAs,” Bigg says.
This is due, in part, to some of the bigger health systems recognizing a need for their key people to have a graduate degree and offering scholarships or sponsoring tuition to obtain that MBA.
Biggs notes that traditional healthcare provider organizations are not always the intended next step for someone attending a graduate or executive program. “We have students that are looking at going into consulting, biotech firms, and big pharma,” Biggs says. “Job opportunities have just expanded broadly.”
To keep up with the rapid changes in the industry, Biggs notes that the program he leads is part of the Business School Alliance for Health Management (BAHM), a consortium of more than a dozen leading business school health management programs in the United States and abroad.
One of the most important functions of the BAHM group is to review group-members’ curricula, Biggs says. How Harvard teaches strategy is compared to other group-member programs, such as the University of Colorado Denver. “It keeps universities more current about what their curriculum should be,” he says. This level of review allows Biggs and his colleagues essentially to benchmark this aspect of their respective business schools — and it pays off for students, as well, who benefit from highly ranked and well-accredited programs that continue innovating.
“If graduates of these programs have a strong foundation and the basic business skills, I think they’ll be ready for whatever changes in how healthcare is delivered,” Biggs says.
To that end, Biggs notes that physician groups have a unique role to play in developing those leaders.
“The days of Marcus Welby have gone,” he says. “The medical groups are going to have a big influence on how healthcare will be delivered.”