Few people get to witness the evolution of a brand new hospital from an insider’s perspective. Even fewer get to play a hand in how it takes shape. Yet, thanks in no small part to Vanderbilt’s Master of Management in Health Care program, four health care administrators from Huntsville, Ala., have had just such an opportunity.
Kelli Powers, Nathaniel “Nat” Richardson, Faith Rhoades and Carol Slivka—all members of the MM Health Care Class of 2011—spent the better part of the yearlong program collaborating on a capstone project to evaluate a new facility being built by their employer, Huntsville Hospital. Their project has continued to influence decision making in the organization well after graduation, but it isn’t the only part of their studies that has left a lasting impression. During their frequent trips up Interstate 65 to the Owen School, the four forged deep bonds with each other and their classmates, and the resulting friendships and experiences they’ve taken back with them on the southbound return have been life-changing.
“I haven’t felt so pumped about a program and the educational experience in a long time,” says Richardson, Vice President of Operations at Huntsville Hospital. “What’s been energizing has been the number of individuals in the classroom who are so spread out across the health care spectrum. We sit in a room with so many dynamic minds.”
Richardson was the first from the Huntsville team to commit to the MM Health Care program, which is designed to provide students with the business fundamentals and skills to manage people, programs and processes within health care organizations. While firmly entrenched in his present position, he wanted to further his education through a degree that would have direct benefits for his current job and career trajectory.
Richardson heard about the MM Health Care program from Jeff Samz, Chief Operating Officer of Huntsville Hospital and former CEO of the Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute. “He knew I was seeking the next level in my career,” says Richardson, who aspires to a C-level position at a large hospital system. “This program seemed to provide the most value and also aligned with where I am in my career.”
Samz’s and Richardson’s enthusiasm soon caught the attention of Slivka, Huntsville Hospital’s Director of Finance; Rhoades, Director of Medical Staff Services; and Powers, CEO of Athens Limestone Hospital, which is affiliated with the Huntsville system. Rhoades had begun graduate work elsewhere but readily switched gears for the chance to study at Vanderbilt with her colleagues.
“When the human resources director asked me if I was interested in changing to Vanderbilt, I said, ‘In a nanosecond,’ because of the reputation of the school and because I had a chance to take it with three other people from my organization. That’s life support,” Rhoades says. “The other contributing factor was the health care focus.”
Slivka shares this sentiment. “I don’t see myself doing something outside of health care. If you’re going to do this at this point in your life, you want to have some immediate take-away and provide some real-life value back to your company,” she says. “Huntsville Hospital has been willing to make an investment in me for knowledge I’m going to bring back and use. I really like that part of it.”
Huntsville Hospital enthusiastically backed the team approach to graduate education as it naturally aligned with the organization’s succession planning. “They’re interested in advancing their careers, and it’s a way for us to retain some of our top people,” Samz says. “Investing in them, we think, will pay off not only in the skills they learn in the program but it will keep them with us.” Samz also believes the fact that the four formed a “working pod” will continue to benefit the organization in the long term.
The program was appealing to Huntsville Hospital in other ways, too. There was Vanderbilt’s stellar academic reputation to consider, as well as the MM Health Care program’s flexible format, which is geared toward working professionals. Plus, the students were exposed not only to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which is widely regarded for its patient care, research and biomedical education, but also to Nashville’s dynamic health care business community, which includes Hospital Corporation of America and a variety of other health care companies.
“There’s just nothing else like the Nashville market,” Samz says.
The Future of Health Care
“What the world needs is changing,” says Dr. Mark Frisse, MM Health Care Faculty Director, Professor of Management and Accenture Professor of Biomedical Informatics at Vanderbilt. He explains that the MM Health Care program helps students see way beyond the limits of their institutions to the future of health care.
“First we expose them to a radically broader view of the world,” he says. “Then we bring the world into the classroom. This can only be done a few places in the country.”
Larry Van Horn, Associate Professor of Management and Executive Director of Health Affairs at Owen, adds, “The cost, quality and access problems facing the U.S. health care system are monumental. The clinician who understands the science of medicine and the science of business is in a position to create more value for our health care system.”
MM Health Care students attend classes every Thursday night and one weekend each month. Traditional B-school classes—such as marketing, finance, accounting, logistics, operations and leadership—are taught on weeknights, while the weekends are dedicated to health care. Frisse believes the classroom experience serves as a great leveler for everyone in the program. “You can’t tell the doctors from the administrators,” he says. “They have a uniform identity. They’re all students.”
The classroom benefits the faculty as well, he adds, noting that the high caliber of students helps energize the instructors. “The best teachers want to run these classes because they learn from these experiences,” he says.
During the course of the year, students develop close friendships, becoming sounding boards for one another. “Every day we’re texting or Skyping or emailing. Everyone relies on one another. Everyone wants everyone to succeed,” says Rhoades, who came into the program with a bachelor’s degree in health care management.
Richardson echoes that sentiment. “There’s a wealth of knowledge in that room. Everyone is from different walks of life and different regions of the country,” he says. “You can’t put a price on that much mind value.”
For Rhoades, the lessons of the classroom often can be implemented at work on Monday morning. She credits the high-quality instructors. “That started from Day One in the very first class. That is what knocks the socks off me. They are beyond experts,” she says.
Powers agrees. “It could not have been timelier. I’m looking at productivity and wait time [at Athens Limestone], and I’ve been able to bring what I’ve learned back to work,” she says. “It’s wonderful to be able to discuss ideas with people who don’t necessarily report to me.”
Meanwhile Slivka’s co-workers noticed a positive change in her right away. “I have a different set of eyes and I analyze things a little bit differently,” she says. “My boss said he can tell a difference in the way I look at things and in the comments I’ve made.”
“First we expose [students] to a radically broader view of the world. Then we bring the world into the classroom. This can only be done a few places in the country.”
The degree is perfectly suited for students like the four from Huntsville, says Sarah Fairbank, MM Health Care Program Director. “I tell prospective students we are designed for two kinds of people,” she says. “It’s for people who have been ‘siloed,’ who are working in a narrow field with lots of specialization. That might be a contracts person, a supply chain specialist, someone from the finance side or a physician with a narrow specialization in medicine. These are people who need a broader view of health care, along with management tools.
“The other type of person we see is someone who is coming into the health care field with a generally technical background—an operations specialist or IT specialist who has worked in other industries and is now in health care.”
Students range in age and experience. Some are young professionals preparing for a future in health care, while others are midcareer and ready to move up the ladder. There are also physicians who later in their careers want to use their accumulated wisdom in new and different ways.
A key element of the curriculum is personal coaching since the students are often transforming their own roles within their organizations. “The coaching was phenomenal,” Powers says. “It has helped me get on track and be more productive. I’m a very organized person, but I’ve learned that I need to devote specific time to reading articles and delegating.”
The average time commitment outside the classroom for the MM Health Care degree is at least 10 to 15 hours per week, though the initial learning curve may be steep at first for students who have been out of school for many years. In addition to these hours, the Huntsville students had to shoulder the extra commitment of traveling further than most students—approximately 100 miles each way. The routine is intense, Rhoades admits, but still very doable. “It’s such an achievable goal, so it takes the pain out of the travel,” she says.
Rhoades says it helped that members of the Owen community were standing ready to ensure their success throughout the whole process. This was no more evident than when deadly tornadoes ripped through northern Alabama last April. Staff, faculty and fellow students rallied to assist the Huntsville team and their communities.
“The support has been incredible. They pay such close attention to the needs of the students,” Rhoades says. “We in Huntsville have especially realized that. In bad weather, when it became clear we couldn’t get there, they quickly rounded the wagons and got some technology together. We had a live class by tapping in electronically.”
Breaking New Ground
As professionals make their way up the ladder, Fairbank explains that the challenge becomes, “How do you get people to look at you differently?” An integral part of fast-tracking that change in perception is another key part of the curriculum: the capstone project, an eight-month consulting engagement during which a team, usually of four people, takes on an institutional problem as if they were professional consultants. Through the project, the students are able to demonstrate immediate economic value by tackling important organizational issues.
“We seek to ensure that everyone coming out of our program projects a dramatically enhanced identity within their organization,” says Frisse, who oversees the teams’ work.
For the Huntsville team, their capstone project’s focus was evaluating the potential impact of a brand-new hospital in Madison, Ala., a community outside of Huntsville. The Madison area is growing, vibrant and affluent, with an average household income of $90,000. Many residents are scientists and engineers working for NASA, the defense industry or technical firms.
“When the human resources director asked me if I was interested in changing to Vanderbilt, I said, ‘In a nanosecond,’ because of the reputation of the school and because I had a chance to take it with three other people from my organization. That’s life support.”
The group concentrated specifically on how to position obstetrics services in Madison. “This is the first hospital to be built in Alabama in many years,” Rhoades says. “Not very many people get to participate in building a hospital from scratch. But we also had to consider that we belong to a hospital system with other hospitals that we need to be concerned about. It’s not all about us. This is about creating the best business for everyone so that we’re all successful.”
The Huntsville system first built a wellness center, physician office building and urgent care center on the property in Madison. The success of those ventures demonstrated the viability of a hospital. “Owen helps you think strategically, and that’s what [the new hospital in] Madison is all about,” Rhoades says. “Many years ago, the strategic planning began with a purchase of land. It began with a vision and a goal. Everything you gain from Owen classes and programs ties into that kind of scenario. I put it into practice every day in my job.”
For Powers, the capstone project was particularly interesting since the new hospital in Madison had the potential to impact her facility, Athens Limestone Hospital, the most. While some factors will remain unknown until the facility is up and running next year, Powers says the planning process helped alleviate undue concern about the new hospital’s potential impact and shifted the focus to the strategic side.
Richardson adds that building obstetrics services around the strategic mission of each of the hospitals makes sense, since the birth of a child often provides a family’s first exposure to a medical facility. “We have to get it right so that the mother and the child have the absolute best experience,” he says. “And we have to make sure that we design it so we don’t hurt the other hospitals. We may eventually find that it’s best to provide those services primarily at one hospital. It’s a very delicate situation, and we have to get it right.”
Besides generating practical ideas for Huntsville Hospital to implement, the project also helped the students learn how to work together as a team. “The strength of our team is that we’re coming at the project with different knowledge skill sets. We all come from diverse areas that are all important to the outcome we seek,” Richardson says. “I love writing and doing the research and pulling things together. Kelli has a global perspective on what other organizations are thinking. Carol looks at everything from the financial standpoint: What’s the bottom line impact from the standpoint of income statements or the balance sheet? Faith brings the whole physician perspective to the table.
“Now I appreciate my team members at a whole different level.”
Richardson also appreciates just how far he himself has come during a year’s time. It has been a journey marked not so much by miles logged on the odometer or hours in the classroom, but rather by immeasurable moments of progress. In the end, the MM Health Care program delivered him closer to his lifelong goals and gave him something that should pay dividends the rest of his career—confidence.
“I know I’m ready for my next project,” he says, “no matter where or what that’s going to be.”