The Covid-19 pandemic exposed the heavy pressures on health systems across the globe. The World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic in March 2020 and it has spread to more than 200 countries, with 123.7m cases confirmed globally and more than 2.7m known deaths.
Even as vaccination programs hit milestones, many hospitals are on the brink, facing a shortfall of capacity and critical cash shortages, while a backlog of non-emergency cases builds and a mental health crisis escalates.
Meanwhile, business schools are placing a renewed focus on the healthcare sector and how best to administrate and lead it. The need for business innovation in the industry has never been so great. Coronavirus laid bare the dysfunctions and inequalities in health systems, and forced a rethink on the role of digital technology, alongside a greater focus on improving efficiency and cost effectiveness.
Nora Grasselli at ESMT Berlin highlights the social responsibility and business opportunity for training providers: “Since March 2020, we have seen very clearly that it is indispensable for healthcare workers, public health specialists, and scientists to arm themselves with skills and practices that are traditionally associated with leadership development,” she says, including decision making, collaboration, influencing, negotiating, and public speaking.
How executive programs in healthcare are adapting in a pandemic
Grasselli is director of the Young Physician Leaders Program, which seeks to give outstanding clinicians under the age of 40 the management skills they need to lead global health systems. It’s one of a range of executive education courses designed for healthcare professionals, including the Leadership in a New Era of Health Care program at Wharton and the Managing Health Care Delivery course at Harvard Business School.
However, many potential applicants — who will be feeling the strain of the relentless toll of Covid-19 — dismiss executive education as unworkable in the pandemic. “As healthcare systems are still overloaded, executive education courses have not been the focus for, or within capacity of, healthcare workers,” says Grasselli.
This paradox highlights an important challenge for training providers in the pandemic world: how to offer greater flexibility and new ways to learn online.
For ESMT, the solution has been to work with a partner, the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP), an international network of academics, to offer “digital learning nuggets” to alumni of the Young Physician Leaders Program – a network of 250 physician leaders worldwide. Topics have included conflict management, building resilience, and coping with vaccine hesitancy.
Grasselli says: “This is definitely the time to support and upskill healthcare. It is an opportunity for business schools. However, we need to find innovative, cross-industry schemes and multi-organization collaboration to finance these programs. To achieve the highest impact, science, politicians, the private sector, and civil society need to work and learn together.”
Helping participants rethink healthcare delivery and develop innovations
Sarah Soule, co-director of the Innovative Health Care Leader Program at Stanford Graduate School of Business in California, agrees that the pandemic has demonstrated the need to provide training as never before. “Executive education courses focused on healthcare leadership create new value in light of existing global challenges,” she says. “I see this as a great opportunity for both existing and future leaders to rethink their roles and ask: what could we be doing better during the pandemic and beyond?”
Stanford’s Innovative Health Care Leader Program, running online in July 2021, features design thinking and personal leadership development. Soule says the pandemic is an opportunity for healthcare leaders to rethink delivery of care and develop innovations to address gaps and make improvements. “Innovation is necessary in every aspect of healthcare leadership, and it can be taught.”
The design thinking sessions focus on teaching human-centered, prototype-driven processes for innovation that can be applied to products, services, and business and organizational design.
Soule says many participants find working in healthcare incredibly rewarding, and come to Stanford hoping to make a greater positive impact. “Healthcare workers have dedicated themselves to what gives their life meaning and purpose,” she says. “The pandemic has reminded healthcare workers that putting to practice the skills we teach can make a positive impact in their corner of the world.”
Stanford’s admissions process is necessarily selective and a typical cohort is composed of senior executives and policymakers with at least 10 years of experience in medical schools, health maintenance organizations, hospitals, and foundations. Participants include hospital CEOs, COOs and CFOs, as well as academic deans, senior vice presidents, department chairs, and center directors.
ESMT is similarly selective, with the top 20-25 applicants chosen by a panel of global healthcare leaders each year. In addition to clinicians, ESMT opens a limited number of places for the private sector, such as physicians in the pharmaceutical and medical technology sectors. Participants of the Young Physician Leaders Program graduate with greater awareness of leadership challenges and cultural differences in leadership behaviors.
“They also gain a deeper understanding of organizations acting in the global health sector and how they should interact, especially the potential for public-private partnerships,” says Grasselli.