In an uncertain healthcare landscape, the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz School of Business is teaming up with the university’s Graduate School of Public Health to address what it describes as an overwhelming national need for quality health care managers.
The two schools are launching a joint MBA and Master of Health Administration degree this year. The program will take three years to complete, and students will participate in a management residency in the summer after their first year that must take place in health care services or at health-related practice sites.
“The synthesis between the two areas is pretty important, because of the increased competitiveness in health care and the uncertainty of federal funding programs,” says Wes Rohrer, director of the MHA program. “The health care systems of the past couple decades have had to be particularly cost-conscious, so there’s a real balancing act between ensuring high-quality care and addressing the needs of a population, and also trying to maximize access to services and keep costs under control. Health care managers face that challenge on a daily basis.”
RECREATING A DISCONTINUED PROGRAM
The Katz School and the School of Public Health previously had a joint program that was discontinued about a decade ago. Rohrer says it was a popular degree, but at the time coordinating between the schools was a challenge because the B-school had an 18-month continual learning program and didn’t adhere to the university calendar.
Now, the B-school follows the traditional university calendar, and that paved the way for a recreation of the program. “We came to the same place from two points of view,” says Mark Roberts, Health Policy and Management department chair. “From the business school, it’s hard to ignore healthcare. It’s the largest industry in the United States. And from our point of view from the School of Public Health, the business of health care is becoming more and more complex, and we need to understand that business to be able to manage it well.”
For MBA students interested in healthcare management roles, Roberts says the traditional MBA doesn’t go far enough because the healthcare industry is quite different from other types of business. “In healthcare, there’s a lot of things that make it more complex. For one thing, it’s finance is completely different. It’s not financed by direct purchases, but by insurance,” he says.
RARE UNANIMITY OF PURPOSE
For public health students seeking a management role, Rohrer says, “For a manager to be effective with the complexity of the healthcare system and healthcare policy, they need to have a firm understanding of finance, marketing, and management, and there’s certainly a big emphasis on big data and data analytics.”
In the years when there was no joint program, Roberts says, a number of students from each school would take courses at the other, and some would still get both degrees independently. The students would report back that the two programs had enough in common, and that they felt it could have been more efficient if the schools coordinated.
To create a degree program, Roberts says the university has to go through several different approval processes. And to create a joint program with two schools, the program had to be vetted and approved by both of the schools’ curricular committees. The MHA/MBA program was approved unanimously by both schools — a rare occurrence, Roberts says.
TREMENDOUS PRESSURE TO CHANGE HEALTHCARE
A big topic in healthcare business, of course, is the Affordable Care Act, and whether it will be repealed. “That almost makes it more important to have stronger business skills,” Roberts says. “Many of the things happening that the ACA was trying to deal with — those problems will still be there” in the event of a repeal.
If the ACA is repealed, Roberts says, it’s hard to know what kind of work environment MHA/MBA graduates will be entering, since we don’t know what it will be replaced by. But one thing is certain: Their expertise will be needed, in whatever capacity.
“We have an expensive healthcare system with tremendous amounts of variability in the quality of what you get based on who you are. And the people who pay for healthcare, Medicare, and employer health insurance still have to worry about what they’re getting for what they’re spending,” Roberts says. “There’s tremendous pressure to change the way healthcare operates, and that’s not going away, even if the ACA does.”
FAST-TRACKED LEADERSHIP POSITIONS
With a new program and an uncertain landscape, Rohrer acknowledges that MHA/MBA graduates will experience a lot of unknowns. But they expect that they’ll have a leg up in the job market and will be fully prepared to assume fast-tracked leadership positions in a variety of healthcare organizations.
In particular, he’s excited about the opportunities in healthcare finance. “In business school, you have a whole series of courses in accounting, taxation, auditing, and strategic financial planning,” Rohrer says. “The ability to go that far more in depth than we can in the typical MHA program — that would be one of the best skill sets for MHA/MBA graduates.”
Roberts adds that Pitt is just beginning to advertise the program, which he hopes will eventually have around 10 to 15 joint MHA/MBA students at a time. Already, three first-year graduate students currently at the University of Pittsburgh have decided to pursue both degrees.