Transforming health care in America

TU’s MBA in Health Care Delivery Sciences program admitted its first cohort this fall. This new degree program aims to equip professionals with the skills needed to serve as change agents and leaders who can address challenges affecting the future of health care. Jacob Thomas (BS ExSS ’19) and Mary Beth Sawyer (BS ExSS ’19), recent TU exercise sports science graduates, share why they chose to pursue the MBA HCDS and how they plan to do their part to change health care delivery in the U.S.

Why focus on health care delivery?

Jeffrey Alderman, M.D., associate professor of Community Medicine and director of TU’s Institute for Health Care Delivery Sciences, says that northeastern Oklahoma — like the rest of the nation — faces increasing health care pressures as well as disparities in life expectancies influenced by race, education, health literacy and other social determinants of health. Health crises such as high incidences of diabetes, opioid addiction and underserved mental health needs require complex solutions that go beyond the traditional health care model. “Dartmouth College pioneered the study of health care delivery as a science in 2010, followed by the University of Southern California, but Oklahoma and surrounding states lack this type of specialized education,” Alderman explains.

The MBA in Health Care Delivery Sciences’ core curriculum includes course topics such as variation and value in health care, communications, quality, ethics, policy and economics, balanced with a foundation of core business knowledge. This differs from graduate programs in health care administration or public health, which focus more on operational management of a health care practice. “Our program will go beyond that to understand not only what’s happening today, but also what health care might look like five or 10 years from now,” says Alderman. “For example, if you lead a health care organization, you have a staff of people running your operations day to day, but who is involved in innovation? Who is looking at strategy and understands the interlacing between policy and social determinants of health?”

Understanding the business of health care

Jacob Thomas initially came to TU as an athletic training major but halfway through decided to switch to exercise sports science because he wanted to pursue a career as a physical therapist. “I ultimately did neither,” he explains. Instead, he discovered the university’s biomechanics lab through the Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge (TURC). He worked with Roger Kollock, assistant professor of Athletic Training/Exercise & Sports Science and director of TU’s Biomechanics Research Lab, to perform research funded by a grant through the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST) to measure the physical readiness of firefighters. Kollock asked Thomas to remain on the project as a graduate assistant. He thought about his goal to become a physical therapist, but after exploring options, felt the MBA in HCDS offered a perfect fit. “The degree persuaded me away from the practitioner side of physical therapy and more toward the business and administrative side of health care,” he explained. “I didn’t realize this was something you could study as part of a degree program, and it’s opened my eyes to a different part of the health care system.”

He enjoys his work with Kollock, noting that, “I’m a nerd, so I really like a lot of the things other people don’t, like the data reduction and writing manuscripts.” He gets satisfaction from the research, which helps firefighters avoid injury in the workplace.

In his first semester of the program, Thomas has gained insight into the process of creating quality and value in health care. “We learn a lot about how to measure what quality means and ways you can make that happen. Most people think of health care as one person providing care for you, and this is more about the big picture and helping everything work together.”

He’s found the transition to business classes to be fairly seamless and appreciates the opportunity to tie his MBA classes to his background in exercise and sports science. “It helps me to know both perspectives,” he explains. “I know what it’s like to be a frustrated provider of health care and also to know that things aren’t working the way we want them to.”

As for his future career, Thomas plans to keep his options open until he gets further into the program. He’s identified interest in both medical entrepreneurship and medical administration. He also continues his work with Kollock, which will wrap up in two years. Overall, he says he has been pleasantly surprised by his experience in the MBA HCDS program. “I didn’t want to do business initially, but Professor Alderman and others are always ready to talk with you more about the program. I’ve gotten so much one-on-one interaction — faculty are quick to address concerns and help when you need it.”

Improving care: A community effort

Native Tulsan Mary Beth Sawyer loves her city and its namesake university. Sawyer’s older siblings all attended TU and when it came time to choose a university, she felt right at home on its campus. She remembers having an early love of both sports and medicine. “There’s a picture of me at age one with a stethoscope I had picked out, trying to help people. It was something I understood,” she said. Though she started out pre-med, Sawyer quickly realized that pre-med was not for her. She chose to focus on physical therapy instead and shadowed in a few clinics, where she saw a lot of flaws in the health care system and the way people were provided care. “It wasn’t the practitioners,” she explained. “They just couldn’t do more with the limitations put on them. I knew there had to be a way to improve the quality of care for patients.”

A preliminary course in health care delivery drew Sawyer to the MBA HCDS and turned her focus from physical therapy to creating better access to health care resources. “It riled me up,” she said. “I would go to Professor Alderman after class and say, ‘That was so upsetting.’ But being upset by it is a good thing, because it means there is something to fix and something to improve on.” Through conversations with Alderman, Sawyer realized what she wanted to do and how she could be part of the solution.

Sawyer wants to educate the community on health care; more specifically, how to take care of themselves and how to navigate the system. She envisions accomplishing that kind of education through programs offered in schools and community centers. “There is a lack of knowledge,” she explains. “The system itself also needs to be changed, but that will take a lot of policy work.”

As Sawyer notes, many people don’t have basic knowledge when it comes to choosing the right health care options or navigating insurance terms. She cites the Haven Healthcare, a joint venture of Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan Chase, as an example of corporations combining resources to create better health care experiences and outcomes for employees. “Insurance should be presented in a way that’s easy to understand,” she says. “Break it down and put it in terms that the average person can understand.”

She believes that model can be replicated in Tulsa. “We have huge companies that employ large numbers of citizens, and Tulsa is one of the most philanthropic cities in the world. The type of community we have here will make it easier to support these community initiatives. I’m so excited about the future of this city, and I’m so excited to be part of it.”

Making the leap from an exercise and sports science background to MBA courses means Sawyer is learning a different language. Though some business concepts ring familiar because her parents own a small business, she also encounters terms that she’s learning for the first time. Sawyer finds support in TU’s faculty members: “The professors are very understanding that it’s not my background and invite me visit during office hours if I have questions. They have been so helpful to me. World-class faculty in a small setting has always led me back to TU.”

The MBA in Health Care Delivery Sciences is designed for working professionals and can be completed in as little as two years. Along with core courses and electives, students will complete a capstone project that addresses a health care challenge of their choosing. Ideal candidates include practicing clinicians as well as non-clinicians such as health system executives, nonprofit administrators, clinical directors, pharmaceutical and insurance executives, attorneys and policymakers.