Shoring up the business side of medicine

New bachelor’s degree program aims to turn out better prepared administrators for local health care industry

Story by Amie J. Schaenzer

MARIAN UNIVERSITY’S NEW BACHELOR’S degree in health care administration is in its first year and couldn’t have come at a better time.

“The health care industry is showing a number of areas where people are moving in to the field,” said Jeffrey Reed, dean of the School of Business at Marian. “Health care is changing rapidly. Everything is becoming more complex. We thought it was appropriate, from a business side, to add the health administration degree.”

So far, six students at Marian have signed up for the bachelor’s degree program. The private college in Fond du Lac began offering the program this past fall and anticipates its first round of graduates in spring or summer of 2011.

The timing to add such a program couldn’t be better, said Reed. Leading health care executives with a more well-rounded education and better expertise will be needed to deal with several monumental changes coming down the pipeline in the health care industry, which is at a crucial turning point and has taken center stage in national politics as legislators debate a massive health reform bill.

Another colossal challenge for executives includes dealing with a mandated overhaul of medical technology requiring all records be filed and stored electronically.

Top health care executives in Fond du Lac interviewed for this article – who also participated in Marian’s advisory panel to design, promote and launch the health care administration bachelor’s degree program – said they wished such a degree existed decades ago when they attended undergraduate studies.

Traditionally, many health care administrators enter their jobs with either little or no knowledge of the health care industry. Typically, they climb the ranks through accounting or finance into the leading executive roles at a health care facility or within a health system.

The new degree program through Marian is designed to provide students with an understanding of the business aspect of the health care industry, Reed said. Students graduating with a degree in health care administration will be required to also obtain an additional major in business or information technology to round out their education.

As health care costs rise, trends change, technology shifts and top executives are expected to keep up on area demographics and an aging population, the new degree is meant to bring better educated and prepared administrators into the health care field in the years to come, Reed said.

“We are trying to create a market,” he said. “(Students) come in and have a degree in marketing or a degree in accounting or in human resources...they are not familiar with the health care industry.”

Ideally, Reed foresees graduates receiving entry-level jobs in health care facilities and then, over the years, being promoted to top health care administration roles.

“It will make them that much more marketable,” he said. “It’s not typical for a 22-year-old to move in to management position.”

Developing a degree

THOUGH MARIAN BEGAN OFFERING its new health care administration program this past fall, work began much sooner to recognize the need and the opportunity for the program, develop a core curriculum, identify and hire qualified instructors, and roll it out to students. 

The process started with Marian faculty and administration reviewing other similar programs across the country. In Wisconsin, Lakeland College near Sheboygan and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire offer bachelor’s degrees in health care administration.

“We started by looking at the current landscape of higher education,” Reed said.

From there, Reed formed an advisory panel consisting of eight health care professionals from the area. An initial round table discussion exploring the feasibility of the program took place in March 2008, and then was followed by a meeting in November 2008 where the panel reviewed the draft proposal.

That was the time that Reed said Marian also brought in a group of colleagues as consultants from D’Youville College in Buffalo.

“They assisted in the original development of the program’s curriculum,” he said.

From there, Marian business, nursing and science professors reviewed the suggested curriculum before determining it could deliver the courses to begin administering the degree.

Marian already had some of the tools in place to offer such a program, Reed said. A renown nursing program helped, he said, as does the school’s radiologic technician bachelor’s degree program. Coupled with the school of business, Read said Marian can offer the program by primarily using personnel and professors on staff. Only one part-time faculty position was added, a former hospital administrator.

“We are starting small and hoping to grow the program,” Reed said.

The addition of the degree to a university in the Fox Valley area is beneficial to the region’s health care industry, Reed said. Reed said many of Marian’s graduates come from the Fox Valley area and have the opportunity to pursue internships – an additional requirement for graduating from the program – as well as careers in the area.

Challenges facing the industry

STEVE LITTLE KNOWS FIRSTHAND the challenges facing the health care industry today.

As the senior vice president and chief financial officer for Agnesian Healthcare in Fond du Lac, Little started his career in the health care industry as an accountant, eventually progressing up through the ranks. When he came in to his executive role at Agnesian, Little said he had a lot to learn about the more unique nuances of health care.

“You tend to have to learn the (health care) industry in a sort of draw by fire way,” he said. “You are thrust in to it.”

Little said a program such as the one Marian now offers would have been beneficial to him during his own undergraduate studies.

“When you look at the career paths (of health care executives), they grew up in nursing, business, engineering, finance – they have been in and around the field, but they have never been in an administrative-type role,” Little said. “(The degree) had purpose and meaning to better leadership in health care.”

Little and seven other medical executives took part in the program’s advisory panel, providing feedback on a new health care administration degree. Little’s feedback on the program was extremely positive. He said oftentimes candidates coming in to top-level executive jobs in health care are not properly prepared for the position.

“I think there really has been a gap in our higher education system that doesn’t address health administration,” Little said.

Little explained the ensuing challenges for health care executives as monumental. They include finding ways to make health care more efficient and effective – while at the same time being affordable – in an industry that accounted for more than 16 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product in 2008. He added that the growing and continued poor lifestyle choices by individuals, as well as an aging population, will continue make efficient and effective health care a necessity.

Simply put, Little said, the business and operational expertise for individuals coming into top administrative roles is often not there.

“They are being groomed under their specific field of study, whether it be nursing, finance, biomedical engineering. They are coming up as experts in that industry,” he said. “They do not have a breadth of knowledge.”

A new era of care

MARI BETH BOREK, CEO for Lutheran Home and Health Services in Fond du Lac, also took part in Marian’s advisory panel, providing feedback relative to aging services, long-term care and health care administration in a rehabilitative setting. Borek, who has a background in social work, said she faces several challenges in her job administering a nursing home with programs for assisted living, wellness and rehabilitation.

“This is a highly regulated industry,” she said. “We need new graduates with well rounded backgrounds who have an idea of running a business but also are looking at the health care components, the legal elements, loss prevention, from a patient perspective and a staff perspective.”

Escalating patient expectations in aging services has required several changes in the past decades, Borek said. Whereas five to 10 years ago, patients spent their last three to four years in a nursing home, now seniors spend a year on average with up to 75 percent returning to their homes. Today, people do not want to die in a nursing home, she said.

“People are looking for different choices these days,” Borek said. “Most folks don’t wake up and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to go to the nursing home today.’ We all want to be as independent as possible.”

This has lead to a booming demand for modern assisted living facilities and residential apartment complexes especially designed for various levels of independent senior living.

“Part of my job is helping staff understand that what we did five years ago is not what we are doing now,” she said.

Borek believes the addition of Marian’s program will help augment some needed professional education and training to the Fox Valley area.

“This is just a beautiful blend of the health care and business fields that is going to meet current demand,” she said.

Amie is a freelance writer who is currently living in the Chicago area and works fulltime as an event planner in downtown Chicago. Prior to her current job, Amie spent three years writing and reporting for daily newspapers in the Fox Valley, including the Oshkosh Northwestern and the Fond du Lac Reporter. Amie was born and raised in the Fox Valley area (Hortonville) and received her Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from UW-Oshkosh.