The MBA In The Heart Of The Healthcare Industry

The Simulation Operations Manager shows Vanderbilt Owen students around the lab. Hands-on training is a key part of the Vanderbilt healthcare MBA. Vanderbilt photo

Studying for a healthcare MBA at Owen means immersion into the industry in a way few other programs can match. A key element of its healthcare concentration is a week-long program in the fall of first year during which students learn about the practice of healthcare through the eyes of physicians, nurses, and patients. They watch actual surgeries being performed at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and they visit the university’s other healthcare facilities like its Mass Spectrometry Research Center and its LifeFlight air medical transport service. They visit community clinics, as well. As one recent student described the experience, “With no medical background, all I knew about an emergency room or an operating room environment, I had learned from shows like ‘House.’ And it’s not really like that.”

When he left the Marine Corps to attend business school, Jameson Norton wasn’t sure what path he wanted to take. But very soon after starting at Owen, he took part in the healthcare immersion week — and his path became clear.

“As soon as I got ingrained within the healthcare program, not honestly knowing that healthcare was going to be my option, I got to experience the healthcare immersion program that Larry Van Horn runs. It was on fall break of my first year at Owen and I got to spend a night in the emergency room. And as soon as I did that, immediately it clicked — that this is the culture that I’m familiar with. These are my people in a sense that they are people who are intrinsically motivated, that care deeply about what they’re doing. You know, I felt it was the right alignment of things, in a sense.”


Burch Wood, Vanderbilt Owen director of health care programs. Vanderbilt photo

Larry Van Horn is an associate professor of management and executive director of health affairs at Vanderbilt Owen. He’s also the founder and co-director of the school’s Center of Health Care Market Innovation and co-director, with former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, of the Nashville Health Care Council. Van Horn also organizes Owen’s one-week healthcare immersion for first-years, which he calls an essential part of giving students “an appreciation for where we are today, and how we got to where we are.”

The immersion is “something that’s unique that we do here that nobody else does in their graduate programs and businesses,” Van Horn tells Poets&Quants. “Over the course of this week students are in an operating room observing surgery, shadowing a nurse, they’re in emergency departments, ICUs. They go and observe at dialysis centers, ambulatory surgery centers — a lot of these experiences where they see healthcare and then we have 30-plus industry executives come in from all walks of life, all sectors, and talk to them about their experience, where they are and where the world’s going. So they get a firehose directed at building their experience base as fast as possible.”

A thought leader on healthcare organizations, managerial incentives in nonprofit hospitals, and the conduct of managed care firms, Van Horn has conducted research for major players in the industry and consulted for national consulting firms, managed care organizations, pharmaceutical firms, and foreign governments; currently he’s preparing “something to get some people’s attention” on the opioid crisis. He spends a lot of time on the road talking to healthcare audiences about a world that is constantly shifting, convulsing, adapting. “Where’s it gonna go? What’s gonna happen? What are people thinking about? What do they need to worry about? Part of my focus is on involving customers in healthcare. We have a little research center here that focuses on doing research into the shift in the way individuals are purchasing health care when they’re spending their own money. I figure you’d probably make different decisions when you’re spending your money as opposed to someone else’s. 

“Healthcare’s been a world for the last 40 years where the assumption’s been, ‘I’m spending someone else’s money,’ but the world’s moving toward people having higher deductibles, health savings accounts, spending cash, making different purchase decisions, in different locations from different providers at different price points. And that’s a great thing for America, and that’s what I spend my time worried about.”


Source of 2017 healthcare internships for Vanderbilt Owen MBA students. Source: Vanderbilt Owen

Why is it important for MBA students to see how healthcare is actually delivered. Burch Wood, Vanderbilt Owen director of health care programs, says it’s important to widen what may often be a narrow conception of the industry.

“I believe that you can’t change things unless you know how they work,” Wood tells P&Q. “And to know how they work, you’ve got to get an understanding both at the level of putting your feet where the work is being done and understanding how people are thinking about healthcare. And we try to mix that in the immersion experience. 

“People might think very narrowly about what healthcare is. But in the course of this immersion, in the course of this intense experience, their eyes get opened to a much broader conceptualization about what healthcare is. And what their place in it could be.”

Another way Owen students find their place in the healthcare picture is through the program capstone, an eight- to nine-month consulting experience. Given Vanderbilt’s connection to so many healthcare businesses, the possibilities for what the capstone might entail are nearly limitless.

“We don’t just give them this educational background, which certainly gives them a very good foundation of layered business knowledge, but we try to put it into work,” Wood says. “We have a roughly eight- to nine-month consultative project that they work on in groups of about four or five people. They work on a real project to effect change in an organization that they are working in, to try to really change the way they do something, which is really interesting.”

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