Healthcare in the U.S. is big business. More than $3 trillion are spent annually in the American healthcare sector, equivalent to the fifth largest economy in the world.
While the healthcare system has strengths it faces an array of challenges that include increasing costs, affordability, access, outcome variations, and regulatory and policy concerns. To address these complex issues, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School has launched the Center for the Business of Health.
This multidisciplinary effort spans UNC-Chapel Hill's campus, bringing together the University's leading health sciences divisions – including the top-ranked schools of pharmacy, public health, nursing, dentistry, and medicine – with the schools of business, social work, information and library science and law as well as departments in the College of Arts & Sciences. By building on this collaborative powerhouse of talent, UNC Kenan-Flagler seeks to distinguish itself and the University as leading national voices in the business of healthcare.
"Carolina believes in collaboration in a way that not every university does," says Brad Staats, faculty director of the Center for the Business of Health and professor of operations at UNC Kenan-Flagler. "Healthcare is increasingly an interdisciplinary issue and the real challenges facing healthcare are not going to get solved by any one person. As we figure out the science of how to do things better, there is the opportunity to improve health outcomes, reduce costs and improve access for more patients."
To achieve its goals, UNC Kenan-Flagler has gathered and deployed a top-notch team focusing on three areas:
- Conducting world-class academic research
- Providing transformative interdisciplinary education
- Harnessing the convening power of the University
Research conducted through the Center for the Business of Health includes theoretical research for academic journals as well as applied research on challenges faced by healthcare organizations. These projects take a team approach to scholarship, involving researchers from across schools at Carolina.
UNC Kenan-Flagler has a number of active business researchers in health care. Staats focuses on issues around learning while accounting professor Eva Labro is interested in managerial accounting in healthcare organizations. Marketing professor Sriram Venkataraman researches pricing and promotion issues in healthcare, examining the practices used by physicians to determine whether to prescribe specific pharmaceuticals. Mike Christian, organizational behavior professor, is working with Cheryl Jones, a professor at the UNC School of Nursing, to research burnout in the nursing profession.
"We're excited about creating connections between researchers throughout the campus and beyond," says Staats. Members of the new Industry Advisory Board, comprised of C-suite executives from healthcare companies from across the U.S. are eager to partner on research initiatives.
In addition to work done by scholars, industry and organizations, the Center’s influential scholarship includes research by interdisciplinary student teams and doctoral students. This is an element of the Center's focus on education.
Staats recounts a recent meeting with a doctoral student who was presenting work on rural health and hospital issues. "At the end of his presentation, I talked with him about the people he needs to meet with in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health," says Staats. "Two years ago that never would have happened because we didn't have those relationships established."
Preparing business leaders
UNC Kenan-Flagler is committed to preparing future leaders for transformational careers that will improve and increase the scale of impact to healthcare. The School can have a great impact on the field given that 15 percent of UNC Kenan-Flagler MBA students work in healthcare after graduation.
"We are excited about strengthening our existing healthcare offerings," says Staats. "There are already a number of great things going on at UNC Kenan-Flagler and now we are adding to that as well as creating infrastructure at the School level to support this effort."
The Undergraduate Business Program is offering new electives and efforts are under way to strengthen the MBA concentration in healthcare. Center leaders are in conversation with schools throughout the campus about collaborating on cross-disciplinary educational offerings.
Markus Saba (MBA ’93), a retired senior executive at Eli Lilly and Company, is serving as executive director of the Center for the Business of Health and leading the healthcare concentration.
"Markus is playing a key role in the Center and is focused on the student experience," says Staats. "He is going through our courses to understand what we’re doing and what we can do better, such as creating a new healthcare analytics course in conjunction with the master’s in health informatics program, as well as creating an interdisciplinary student consulting project course."
Saba joined the faculty as a professor of the practice marketing after serving as an adjunct faculty member since 2011.
“I am very excited to be a part of this important initiative at UNC Kenan-Flagler, where School leaders have made healthcare a top priority,” says Saba. “Our students amaze me on a daily basis – their focus, passion and knowledge of health care is remarkable. We have a rich variety of electives that bring cutting-edge content taught by renowned faculty and leading industry experts. Finally, hearing from employers about how well prepared our students are as they enter the healthcare industry is very rewarding.”
The Center supports UNC Kenan-Flagler's health science dual-degree programs: PharmD/MBA with the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, MHA/MBA and MSPH/MBA with the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, and MD/MBA with the UNC School of Medicine.
Beyond the teaching front, the Center supports the MBA Healthcare Club, one of the most active student organizations at the School. "We are working closely with the club to add more speakers on campus, more industry prep for career search, healthcare focused treks to cities, and an alumni mentorship program," says Staats.
The club launched an interdisciplinary case competition in 2018 with five-member teams representing schools across campus. "For capacity reasons, club members limited the competition to 15 teams which filled up almost immediately," says Staats. "It was a tremendously successful event, something that had never existed before but suddenly had public health, pharmacy and business school students all interacting – the future is going to require them all to work together."
The third area of focus is convening important conversations with key industry and governmental stakeholders, creating a neutral ground for breakthrough discussions and developments. "When we brought together the industry advisory board, one of the big things they brought up was a reminder about the University's role as an honest broker to have conversations," says Staats. "We can bring folks together to ask difficult questions and offer some of our own perspectives in order to try to strengthen the practice of healthcare."
Convening efforts include the annual UNC Business of Healthcare Conference, a premier event that unites practitioners, policymakers and academics to improve value creation in healthcare. Future events will assemble a wide range of stakeholders to explore a variety of topics such as delivery payment models, digital health, pharmaceutical pricing, the opioid crisis, ethical decision making by providers, and quality improvement in delivery.
White papers are disseminated to share the thought leadership at UNC. Center leaders bring together academics from diverse disciplines and backgrounds in research workshops to advance scholarship and uncover new opportunities for collaboration.
"At our best we are a catalyst," says Staats. "We do a number of things well but we enable others to do even more."
North Carolina is the perfect place to be exploring issues around the business of healthcare. "If you look at many of the big issues that affect the U.S. right now, including the urban/rural divide and economic development, North Carolina is at the heart of them," he adds. ”As the University of North Carolina we are for the people of this state. While this initiative has global implications, if we do this right, we will impact our state and that gives us leverage to impact the rest of the country and the world."