“Minority leaders are underrepresented in health care, and we wanted to change that.”
Mr. Jeffrey Simms smiled as he recalled the origins of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Health Scholars program.
Mr. Simms is an assistant professor of health policy and management in the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, where he also serves as director of professional development and alumni relations for his department.
“This program, which began in 2015, came out of a conversation with [Mr.] Chris Ellington, the president of UNC Health Care Network Hospitals and the executive president and chief finance officer of UNC Hospitals,” Mr. Simms said. “We were talking about the need for more people from minority populations to take on leadership roles within the health care realm, and decided it made perfect sense to recruit promising students and connect them with opportunities for real-world growth while they study.”
Mr. Simms and Mr. Ellington shared their idea with Mr. Dan Lehman, the vice president of operations at UNC Hospitals and UNC Health Care, and Ms. Aleyah Pryor-Pankey, system executive director for diversity, equity and inclusion at UNC Health Care. Together, they formed a steering committee, chose a name and launched a program.
UNC Hospitals agreed to fund the cost of tuition and health insurance for one Health Scholar per year in exchange for that student working eight to 10 hours per week on equity projects identified by the senior leadership team at UNC’s Memorial Hospital.
The first UNC Health Scholar
Ms. Lauren Jordan came to the UNC Gillings School in fall 2016 to earn a Master of Healthcare Administration degree. She began her work as the pilot UNC Health Scholar in January 2017.
“I dove right into working with [Mr.] Larry Mandelkehr, director of performance improvement for UNC’s Medical Center,” she recalled. “With his help, I got exposure to so many different areas of health care and began tackling meaningful projects focused on health equity right out of the gate.”
“Larry also is on the faculty in the Gillings School,” she added, “which meant he was the perfect bridge to connect theory taught in the classroom with real-life skills practiced in the hospital.”
As the first Health Scholar, Ms. Jordan initially looked into health disparities related to chronic illnesses and treatment plans, shadowing leaders throughout the UNC Health Care system. With this insight, she began development of an automated digital tool that would examine health care disparities playing out in the emergency room (ER) of Memorial Hospital. The tool, she explained, ultimately will have the capacity to continuously analyze multiple data inputs and alert hospital administrators whenever it finds a concerning trend.
“We’re always asking, ‘What can we improve for every patient who walks through our doors?’” she explained. “So, for example, we might look at patients’ average time spent in the emergency room, door-to-diagnosis. If we find that women typically experience a longer stay than men, we can do a deep dive into possible reasons for that discrepancy. Were the women’s health issues generally more complex and difficult to diagnose? Or is there a problematic disparity at play? The tool we’re creating will help ensure that everyone is provided with efficient and equitable care.”
Since graduating from the Gillings School in May 2018, Ms. Jordan has worked as an administrative fellow with Piedmont Health. In her new role, she liaises with C-suite staff on major projects – an opportunity that she says feels like a natural fit due to her tenure as a Health Scholar.
“I worked for five years between undergrad and grad school, but the two years of practical experience I gained while studying in the department of health policy and management offered a unique set of benefits,” she said. “My hands-on experience with high-profile projects made my résumé stronger, and the experience I got with public speaking and presentations gave me the confidence I need to work effectively with senior leadership wherever I go.”
The next generation of health care leaders
“I just finished my first year of grad school, and I’m already giving presentations to leaders in UNC’s ER department,” said Mr. Justin Dunham, the second UNC Health Scholar. “It means so much to be to be engaged in high visibility work that truly matters.”
Mr. Dunham, who worked with Teach for America before returning to school, says he appreciates how the Health Scholars program has shown him his own blind spots when it comes to health equity.
“Having worked with children, I’m deeply aware that they are a high-need group,” he said. “Thinking of them, I feel so passionate about providing quality health care for all. That said, I still have things to learn about people with different experiences than my own. Recently, I’ve been working with the hospital on maintaining a pledge to provide quality care to people from the LGBTQ community. I realized that I didn’t truly understand the unique challenges facing that population. There are multiple underrepresented groups in our country, and I want to help health care organizations be leaders in serving them all.”
Over the summer, Mr. Dunham has been leading an assessment of the digital equity tool that Ms. Jordan began developing. He still is figuring out what work he wants to do after graduation next spring, but says he definitely plans to make an impact on health equity and serve underrepresented communities.
“When I was named a UNC Health Scholar, I knew that people here saw value in my story and the work I want to do. Chapel Hill feels like a second family now, and I’m definitely going to pay this opportunity forward.”
[Photo: Left to right: Mr. Jeffrey Simms, Ms. Lauren Jordan and Mr. Justin Dunham]