The pandemic has put frontline healthcare workers under immense strain
The coronavirus pandemic has put frontline healthcare workers — and leaders — under immense strain © AFP via Getty Images

As the pandemic amplifies the problems faced by health systems around the world — from ageing populations and rising costs to inefficiencies and increases in chronic conditions — business schools are responding with new programmes and institutions focused on healthcare.

The need for business model innovation is increasingly evident as expenditure on healthcare outpaces growth in gross domestic product in many advanced economies. Leaders at the clinical, operational, strategic and policy levels find themselves under pressure to do more with less, extend health coverage, tackle shortages of staff and accelerate digitalisation. The skills taught at business schools, from operations and people management to innovation and finance, appeal increasingly to healthcare professionals and those in associated sectors.

UCL’s east London campus, which will house the new Global Business School for Health
UCL’s east London campus, which will house the new Global Business School for Health © Charlie Bibby/FT

“There is a growing recognition that healthcare is not just a public service, it’s a business,” says Nora Colton, the inaugural director of University College London’s Global Business School for Health. The school, launched in September, aims to educate the healthcare leaders of the future and address challenges highlighted by the pandemic.

An aim of the school is to help increase the number of people working in healthcare — the World Health Organization projects a global shortage of 18m by 2030 — and make them more comfortable with technology and collaborating across disciplines to tackle weaknesses.

“There has been a feeling in society that business school teaching is focused on the bottom line and that we only pay lip service to our wider role in society,” says Colton. “But, as a sector, we are heading in a new direction. Healthcare management programmes are growing very rapidly.”

The UCL school will offer several degree and executive education programmes, including an MBA in health, from next year. It is among a growing number of European schools providing healthcare-focused courses. Others include the MBA Health Care Management programme at WU Executive Academy in Vienna, Austria, and the specialism in healthcare management at Maastricht School of Management in the Netherlands.

Course administrators say that a rising number of medical professionals are turning to business schools for lessons in leadership. Meanwhile, business masters students are looking to move from other industries into healthcare — a sector that has come under the spotlight during the pandemic.

“We have a larger number of students today who are interested in healthcare, and a growing institutional recognition that this is a sector of extreme importance to society,” says Charles-Clemens Rüling, chair of public trust in health at Grenoble Ecole de Management in France.

Camille Bonte enrolled on Grenoble’s Advanced Master in Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Management in 2017 after previously studying bioscience engineering. “I could have chosen to become a healthcare practitioner, but improving patient care ultimately means viewing healthcare as a business,” she says.

Nora Colton, outside the new UCL building, says business school teaching is recognising its wider role in society
Nora Colton, outside the new UCL building, says business school teaching is recognising its wider role in society © Charlie Bibby/FT

Shortly after graduation in 2018, she joined the Future Leaders programme at GlaxoSmithKline, the UK pharmaceuticals group, where she has completed three placements in Belgium and Germany. In her current role, Bonte is planning the production of GSK’s adjuvant AS03, an ingredient added to Covid-19 vaccines to stimulate a stronger immune response.

“I was able to . . . apply the learning from business school in my current role,” she says, stressing a holistic approach in business and improved communication and negotiation skills that are invaluable in supply chains.

Shortages of physicians and nurses make headlines, but Rüling points to a lack of managers with the right mix of skills in the wider healthcare sector, which includes industries ranging from drugs to equipment, insurance and facilities. “It is common for senior doctors to become responsible for managing teams or departments, but they are mostly learning on the job,” he says.

Like some of his peers, he believes poorly developed management practices have contributed to high rates of mental ill health among front-line healthcare workers through the pandemic. “A lot of the workplace suffering stems from the fact that leaders are not sufficiently trained in the prevention of psychological risks and management of stress,” he says.

Rüling believes management science lags behind advances in medical science in the sector. At national and global levels, academics say there is a need to better co-ordinate and integrate care between fragmented and complex systems — in particular, the consolidation of health data to improve planning and research while safeguarding data privacy and security.

Rainer Sibbel, academic director of the MBA in International Hospital and Healthcare Management at Frankfurt School of Finance and Management in Germany, says leaders must strengthen the resilience of health systems by investing in capacity to withstand future shocks.

“The drive for greater efficiency has come at a cost,” he says, pointing to the lack of buffers or spare stocks in medical supply chains that led to shortages of critical products such as personal protective equipment and drugs, when the pandemic caused factories to shut.

Sibbel stresses the urgency of building manufacturing capacity closer to home and diversifying sourcing to address supply chain vulnerability. But, while the need for learning about this field and other management challenges is significant, the ability of healthcare professionals to devote time to training is severely constrained.

“There are serious practical challenges, with healthcare workers facing immense demands on their time during Covid,” says Bernard Crump, professor of practice in healthcare and leadership at Warwick Business School in the UK. “We need to ensure business education is sufficiently flexible and accessible,” he adds, pointing to part-time and online courses as potential solutions.

Crump says many healthcare professionals do not see business schools as a natural training ground, given their reputation for being finishing schools for bankers and consultants. “There has historically been a lack of acceptance that the medical profession needs management science,” he adds. “Clinicians who move into leadership roles are seen as crossing over to the dark side.”

Crump says business schools could play an important role in challenging these perceptions, and equipping the next generation of healthcare professionals with the skills to tackle current deficiencies. “Leadership needs to be more widely distributed at all levels of clinical care,” he says. “Churning out a few heroic CEOs just won’t work.”

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