You could say that nursing is Amarachi Ngwu’s family business. Both of her parents are nurses and their commitment to helping others inspired her to study nursing at George Mason University in Virginia.
Now, all three have first-hand experience of how decisions by managers critically affect patients and the staff who care for them. It is a reality that was brought home to them last year, as coronavirus stretched the US healthcare system to its limits.
When one of her nursing professors remarked that tackling the system’s shortcomings meant understanding it as a business, not just as a public service, it struck a chord with Ngwu. “I grew to recognise that if I wanted to be part of the solution to healthcare’s problems, I needed to fully understand its commercial side as well as its medical,” she says.
So she enrolled at Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School, which offers a specialism in health management, innovation and technology.
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Courses are available full time on campus — and virtually during the pandemic — as well as part-time in a flexible online format.
Although Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins ranks as one of the best medical schools in the world, Alexander Triantis, Carey’s dean, admits that it may not spring immediately to mind when people think of business education.
Yet, in giving MBA students access to its parent university’s medical and scientific research, Carey has been quietly building a reputation in teaching the business of health. And it is an area of expertise increasingly under the spotlight, as medical researchers make new breakthroughs and populations in developed countries age.
Triantis says that what sets Carey apart is its “very close ties” with the university’s Schools of Public Health, Medicine, and Nursing, and its biomedical engineering programme. He adds that the pandemic has significantly boosted interest: “We’ve had a huge surge in demand starting last summer for our flexible MBA programme, and especially our healthcare stream.” Spring semester enrolment numbers for the flexible MBA are up 170 per cent year-on-year, bringing the overall total for the programme to about 1,500 students.
Among last year’s intake was Taha Jangda, a partner at HealthX Ventures, an early-stage fund based in Madison, Wisconsin, focusing on digital healthcare investments.
He wanted to validate his hard-earned entrepreneurial experience with a business qualification and — like Ngwu — had become interested in the workings of the healthcare system.
“Healthcare in America isn’t failing for lack of effort. But decision makers in the system need more understanding of business,” he says. “I wanted to sharpen my skills to help make that happen, but an executive MBA wasn’t going to give me the depth I needed.”
Brian Gunia, who teaches management and organisation at Carey, says the school tries hard to integrate real-world experience of the health sector. “Students have the opportunity to be paired with a real-life working mentor in the healthcare industry,” Gunia says.
In their first two years, students take practical courses in design thinking and commercialising medical discoveries. Other courses match students with “innovators and inventors” within the Johns Hopkins health system to analyse how to turn healthcare innovations into real-world products or services.
This past year has obliged the school itself to innovate, with coronavirus driving even on-campus students into remote learning. In her first semester as a full-time student, Ngwu never saw the inside of a classroom.
“It’s not the way I’d planned to do my degree, but in the middle of a pandemic we’ve all had to adjust,” she says.
Jangda, however, who lives 800 miles away in the Midwest and works full time in venture capital, had opted from the start to study online, and says the flexibility of Carey’s programme was a big part of the school’s appeal.
“If you want students who already work in the business, you need flexibility of delivery,” he says.
While many education providers struggled to pivot online amid lockdowns, Carey’s existing online knowhow enabled it to move quickly. It helped that the school is part of the Future of Management Education Online Alliance — a grouping of schools that believe online learning should have the same “transformational impact” as face-to-face courses and have built a platform to deliver it.
“The school has a large team of instructional designers, teaching specialists and media experts supporting our online programmes,” explains Justin Habash, assistant dean for teaching and learning. “While we already offered many asynchronous courses, we had to shift quickly to offering more online synchronous versions for students who needed live classes and contact with faculty and peers every week.”
On balance, Habash says students have reacted positively. “Before Covid, many students were drawn to the classroom because they wanted connectivity,” he says. “Now many are realising they can find that connectivity . . . in an online space.”
Ngwu was one such student. She had worried that lockdowns would rob her of the full educational experience. Yet after two semesters of virtual classes, she says her position has changed.
“I’ll still always prefer in-person classes. But when online courses are done right, it can be tremendously useful to have the flexibility,” she says.
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