Tennessee Tech now offers healthcare-focused MBA program

By Michelle Price
UCBJ Managing Editor

Healthcare professionals know healthcare, but they don’t always know business. For those looking to advance into business management within the healthcare industry, Tennessee Tech University has developed a program to help bridge that gap.

Tennessee Tech has developed an industry-focused MBA designed specifically for those who are already working in the healthcare industry and are interested in the business and leadership aspect of their organization. This program allows working professionals to network with colleagues while moving through a comprehensive, AACSB-accredited MBA program in a collaborative, cohort manner — all while accommodating full-time employment responsibilities.

Having strong healthcare credentials is not always enough to rise to the top in an organization.

“Healthcare employers are not looking for employees who have more healthcare knowledge. They have healthcare knowledge. They need fundamental business knowledge, delivered to healthcare professionals,” explained Kate Nicewicz, director of graduate programs in the Tennessee Tech University College of Business. “Our goal at Tennessee Tech is to meet the needs of the community, our stakeholders and local industries.

“We want to be seen as a resource, so if we can keep our eyes on the trends across the state, and we have the abilities to adjust our programs and be agile, then that’s what we want to do.”

Thomas Payne, dean of the Tennessee Tech College of Business, has done a lot of work in the past tailoring programs for specific industries.  At his last college, he created a similar program that focused on the banking industry. It was very successful and sparked his idea for Tech to create the industry-focused MBA for professionals in healthcare.

“It’s very much a business degree,” explained Payne. “It is not a healthcare administration degree. We do have classes that focus on healthcare: healthcare analytics, healthcare economics and a seminar on healthcare policy, but it is teaching finance, marketing, accounting, economics and management to healthcare people.

“We’re not trying to teach healthcare.  We’re teaching business to healthcare people.  That’s the concept that I think makes ours more unique and frankly, more valuable than most of the programs out there.”

The program follows a cohort model and is selective, allowing only 20-25 students per cohort. All of the students are working professionals, most without a business degree, and this program gives them a broad base of business knowledge.

Kim Wheeler, an MBA student in Cohort 1 of the program, has two undergraduate degrees from Tennessee Tech and is a senior research manager at HCA. The industry-immersed MBA program fits exactly with her career goals.

“It’s like we are all going through the same classes at the same time and we’re all facing the same troubles of balancing work and life and school,” Wheeler said. “We’ve developed a close relationship among our cohort. There are three other HCA employees in the cohort and until we started the cohort, I didn’t even know who they were. We’ve developed closer working relationships through the cohort.”

Tennessee Tech’s industry-immersed MBA is innovative because it’s mostly online, but students do meet in Nashville once a month.

“Residency weekends start with Friday evening dinner, and on Saturday students meet with professors,” shared Nicewicz. “Saturdays can entail anything from: reviewing and application of concepts, collaboration on projects, bringing in guest speakers, or panel discussions. It’s an opportunity for professors to get creative in how they deliver content.”

The professors definitely get creative with this program.  Tom Timmerman and Debbie Ballou are two of the professors working with the current cohort.

Timmerman previously helped the university create one of the first entirely online MBA programs in the nation.  He is teaching Organizational Leadership and approaches the industry-focused program in basically the same way as his usual online MBA course. He delivers the same content, same lectures, same tests.  The difference is they meet once a month in person and he uses that time to prepare students for examinations.

“I review the material and answer sample questions,” said Timmerman. “I think seeing them once a month, on Saturday, and spending three to four hours with them gives me a connection I don’t have with the online program.

“The advantage of this program is those connections that you don’t get with the online program and the relationships that are harder to develop online, even though it’s only once a month for three months, there are still better and deeper connections with the way we are doing the industry-immersed program.”

Ballou teaches healthcare analytics. She has created a project-based course and is teaching the course in something of a novel way.

Using a dataset provided by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee with the identifiers removed, the class is doing analytics involving which clients will respond to wellness campaigns, in terms of once they’ve been notified – and they can be notified in a number of ways, through emails, direct mail, etc., or through phone calls – that they have a gap in care that they need to close. This means that they need to go to the doctor and have some test run or procedure performed and whether they actually follow through on that need.

Ballou put the classes into groups of four or three with the MBA student managing undergrads in a technical team.  She stressed that as managers of a technical team, they need to understand what their technicians are doing. As a result, they are learning the techniques of data cleaning, explanatory modeling and predictive modeling, which is machine learning. The class is going through all the steps a data scientist would over the course of the semester.

“I think it has worked better than it could ever have worked with the regular completely online MBA because these MBAs know each other so well,” Ballou said. “Because they’ve taken every course together and because I know that every single one of them is some kind of healthcare expert, they can really provide the understanding of the healthcare field to the undergrads that they are lacking.”

Two aspects of the program that make it extremely appealing to working professionals are the flexible pathways to admission and the relatively low cost.

Tennessee Tech gives people credit for their full profile and body of work instead of relying on GMAT or GRE scores, which are no longer required.  They look at work experience, undergraduate performance, graduate level performance, and for the industry-immersed program in particular, their statement of purpose and full resume.

“There might be someone who was out of school for 10 years, has a GPA of 3.0, and has a Pharmacy degree, they don’t need a GMAT,” explained Nicewicz. “There is a matrix in place for different levels of performance. For working professionals that is huge.

“It means that somebody who is in their 40s or 50s and doesn’t want to take a standardized exam but has work experience that shows they would be an asset to the program, doesn’t get tripped up on the idea of an admissions exam.”

At $722/credit hour, the entire program is less than $22,000– an affordable number in relation to other graduate degrees.

“This isn’t a healthcare MBA, it’s a traditional MBA,” Nicewicz concluded. “Broader is better. People aren’t staying in the same jobs for 30 years like they used to. If someone works in healthcare administration and then five years later, they don’t work in healthcare, they have a degree that doesn’t say healthcare, and it’s still applicable across the board in every industry.”

“It’s a very intensive rigorous program that is condensed into 18 months,” Payne added. “When students graduate from Tech with an MBA, and through this healthcare program, they are very well equipped to move into management positions and to take their healthcare training and move it up to the next level. That’s a big deal.”

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