Prime Questions Answered About the Health Policy & Management Leadership & Organizational Change Cohort Program

Considering how the Health Policy & Management MPH program might benefit your career?  Public Health Quarterly talked to Professor Ken Zakariasen, PhD, DDS, director of the Health Policy & Management MPH program, leadership and organization change cohorts, to answer essential questions.
Q:  Why is a Health Policy & Management MPH degree a stepping stone in building an exceptional public health career?
A:  If you’re going to be in public health practice, the MPH is the degree to get.  Our program, with its unique focus on leadership and organizational change, is for training managers and leaders in public health and healthcare.  Even if you have a clinical degree, this is the degree you need to move up in the leadership and management ranks. 
Q:  Your program has some major differences from the traditional MPH in Health Policy & Management.  What are those?
A:  One key difference is the unique leadership and organizational change focus I just noted – and we’re not aware of any other universities in Ohio offering a similar degree program.  Students chose the program because of this orientation – because they’re training to be leaders and that’s what they’re most interested in.
But there are several other major differences.  The program attracts experienced professionals.  Most students come from the health arena, while others are looking to transition into the field, some from the legal or business worlds.  Each wants to train to be a leader in health.  If you’re admitted and enrolled, but leave your organization, you have to find other full-time employment or voluntary commitment.  For this program, you have to be involved with an organization to relate your learning, to essentially serve as your “learning lab.”
Also, this program is packaged into a weeknight offering, with all students taking the same public health and leadership/organizational change courses as a cohort.  The teaching takes place one night a week for two years on Tuesdays at the Twinsburg Regional Academic Center or on Thursdays at Kent State Trumbull.  The rest of the work is done outside the classroom, much of it through group discussion and collaborative learning.  We offer this program at Twinsburg or Trumbull only – you can’t get it at the Kent campus or online.
Q:  Why do students chose this MPH program?
A:  We’re offering what students are not able to get elsewhere, in terms of training and flexibility.  Students come because we meet their needs.  The program was designed especially for working people, and it fits into their balance of work, family and school.  Our key organizing principle was meeting the needs of full-time experienced adults.  We don’t make students meet our needs; their needs must come first.  To get all their coursework completed, they don’t have to leave work at all.  But I do caution people that the program is intensive – because it’s still a full-time MPH program – and students need to have or develop good time management and discipline skills.
Q: How do you customize the program?
A:  The face-to-face class time is all at night, the same weeknight for the whole two years, except for breaks between semesters.  In between, there is online learning and group activity, but you don’t come to the classroom at any other time except the one night a week.  Students take one course at a time, with a new course every 7.5 weeks.  We put 15 weeks of material into the 7.5 weeks, but students only have to worry about that one topic, and it feels more doable.  We don’t do that for our other MPH programs – this is part of our customization for working adults.  With this structure, we also are able to attract the best faculty to teach, because this intensive focus is appealing to them.
We involve the students’ workplaces throughout our program.  For example, students do a practicum, rather than a thesis.  Most of the students do a special project in their organizations – it must be something not part of their regular job descriptions.  In our first cohort, which will graduate this summer, several students are spearheading accreditation for their health departments.  Others are doing strategic planning, designing intervention programs or creating a new division.  One student is building capacity through a workforce development initiative, determining what kinds of training employees need and how it should be done, e.g., what kind of educational methods and experiences best suit the needs of full-time experienced working adults.
Q:  Describe the faculty involved with the program.
A:  All are great teachers, and all are experienced.  Our dean and department chairs teach in this program, as well as our other more seasoned faculty members.  Our students are investing substantial money and time, and they expect our very best faculty.  If the faculty weren’t experienced – if they had the theories, but not the practice, they would be devoured by our students.  They want people who are experienced like they are, who have the “chops” like they have because of their work experience.  Our faculty talk from their own research and experience, they have held leadership roles, and they share their success secrets and lessons learned.
Our students are savvy and have seen almost everything in terms of good and bad leaders.  But what they learn from the program is how to analyze why leaders are effective or ineffective, and how to analyze their own leadership skills to maximize their effectiveness.  They come to really understand the dynamics of leadership within public health.
Q:  How do the students learn from one another?
A:  We do a lot of group discussion of problems, cases and assignments.  Typically, four students work together during the week over Skype or Google Plus, delving into a specific problem, issue or case and putting together a report.  The reports go out to each group, which thus provides intra- and inter-group learning.  Group discussions are also done in the classroom setting, addressing such questions as what’s going on here, what was the key to making it work or not.  Students discuss the problem among themselves, come up with ideas and report out.  Everyone in the classroom hears, so again, there is learning both within and between the groups.  Students thus continuously learn from each other.  There is seldom a focus simply on memory recall because that doesn’t get to the evaluation, problem-solving and integration needed at this level.  We discuss what it all means in the big picture.  The best learning is from studying an issue or case and discussing it together.  This is where the learning takes place, particularly capitalizing on the wide experience in the room.  Faculty make their comments, add what may have been missed and give mini-lectures as needed to facilitate the learning process.
Q:  The program has progressed from one location, Twinsburg, to now being offered at Trumbull.  What’s going on there?
A:  Because of the response we received in Twinsburg, and the fact that Kent has regional campuses, we can go out and serve different health regions, like the Warren and Youngstown area.  It’s better for students.  Rather than have 16 or 18 of them drive from the Trumbull area to Twinsburg, we send our instructors over.  We can attract more people to enroll, if they don’t have to drive 45 minutes each way.  We start a new cohort each fall in Twinsburg, and the program at Trumbull will start this fall.  At each site, we already have a number of students accepted and many more are in the pipeline.  The two programs are identical in terms of curriculum.
Q:  What are next steps for those interested in learning more about the program?
A:  Call Cheryl Laubacher at (330) 672-7107 or email her, and she will get material out to you.  Take a look at our video on YouTube.  If you want to talk to me or come to my office, I will schedule that at your convenience, in the evening or on the weekend if that’s better.  You do not have to traipse all over campus to enroll and register for classes.  We do a lot of expediting to make it as easy as possible.  For example, there’s a waiver for the Graduate Record Exam with appropriate levels of work experience.  There is unlimited free parking at the classroom sites.  It’s much easier than coming to the Kent campus.  One reason we teach the courses in Twinsburg is because it’s much closer to where the health systems are, making the commute from work easier.  We accept students almost right up till the day classes start, and we can turn around an application quickly.  There also are scholarships available.