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Published in CenterView on August 18, 2014
DHA candidates Mary Jane Collins and Guy Giesecke understand the benefits of the online program’s cohort model.
DHA candidates Mary Jane Collins and Guy Giesecke understand the benefits of the online program’s cohort model.

Cohort model key to online doctorate program’s success

By Bruce Coleman

Media Contact: mailto:bcoleman@umc.edu

As Children’s of Mississippi CEO, Guy Giesecke has embraced the challenges of executive leadership. His approach has led him to fortify his skill-set by earning a terminal degree.

“For a while, I thought about getting my doctorate,” Giesecke said. “I wanted to put forth the extra effort to better my education for the future as a leader in health care.”

He enrolled in some Ph.D. classes, but soon heard of a professional doctorate program being launched in the School of Health Related Professions – the Doctor of Health Administration program – that uses a cohort model to focus on upper-level managerial and leadership roles in the health-care delivery system.

From the start, Giesecke was intrigued.

“I thought this (program) really matches what I want to do,” he said.

As a certified registered nurse anesthetist for the last 13 years, Mary Jane Collins has tremendous confidence in her clinical knowledge. Her career path has transitioned from nurse to nurse anesthetist.

When she was named director of anesthesia services for East Mississippi Endoscopic Center, a small outpatient facility in Meridian, her livelihood appeared to be taking a different direction.

“I had been wanting to further my education, but I couldn’t decide what area to focus on,” Collins said. “It seemed like my career was headed toward nursing administration.”

Collins might have considered pursuing a traditional doctorate in nursing – until she learned about the D.H.A. program.

“Every class, from the beginning, was something that I needed as an administrator,” Collins said.

Giesecke and Collins are in the first cohort of the three-year program, which began in the fall of 2012 to train leaders in health-care administration, education and clinical areas to navigate changes in the health-care environment. The online program prepares participants to assume upper-level managerial and leadership roles in the health-care delivery system.     

According to Dr. Mitzi Norris, chair of the Health Administration Department and D.H.A. program director, the program covers virtually every topic pertinent to health-care administrators in the 21st century – from epidemiology and health marketing to health policy and strategic change management.

“Our mission is to educate health-care leaders,” Norris said. “I’m really committed to teaching individuals how to acquire the leadership skills they need to assume health-care leadership positions, and I feel the curriculum we have in this D.H.A. program provides a good basis.” 

Norris said unlike a traditional Ph.D. program, which is more research-oriented, the D.H.A. program’s emphasis is on application – participants develop a doctoral project that could be implemented in a current health-care system. 

Participants are required to have a master’s degree and professional experience in a health-related field. They are partnered with a mentor for two semesters, which gives them an opportunity to engage other administrators.

But what truly sets the D.H.A. program apart is its form – the vast majority of the classes are online – and its function – as a cohort model.

When Dr. Jessica Bailey, dean of SHRP, first envisioned the D.H.A. program, she had at least two unshakeable requirements: As a brand-new program, it must start with a small class size, and it must be a “true” cohort program.

“We wanted it to be different from any other Ph.D. program,” Bailey said. “Students must start with the cohort and finish with the group.”

The program has remained faithful to its roots. The first class of 11 is on schedule to complete the program in the fall of 2015. The second group of 11 was admitted in 2013 and the most recent cohort of 11 began this spring.

By keeping the class sizes small, yet diverse, participants gain insight from their classmates in different areas of health-care leadership, including those with which they might not be familiar.

“For me, it’s been extremely eye-opening to view health care from different perspectives,” Collins said. “I really have developed a broader understanding about strategic plans and all areas of health care.” 

While it remains a largely online curriculum, the D.H.A. program doesn’t run the risk of alienating long-distance students.

“Although we’re doing distance-type learning, I don’t feel like I’m isolated over here in Meridian,” Collins said. “I feel like I’m a part of what everybody else is doing. The networking opportunities are a large part of the program.”

This “personal” element parallels another of Bailey’s goals for the course: a focus on technology.

“We’re interested in helping students discover how they can use technology in their health-care administration programs,” she said. “And although it’s considered an online program, it’s really a hybrid – there are times when we require the students to be on campus for certain segments of the program.”

The greatest benefit to making the program available online, according to Giesecke, is its flexibility.

“An online program allows you to work on your projects and papers on the weekends, which is important with a job like mine,” he said.

But convenience doesn’t translate into ease with regard to coursework. Participants have found the class to be as challenging as it is comprehensive.

“They’ve done a really good job of covering topics at all different levels – from government policy changes on down to health-care administration changes,” Collins said. “This program forces you to come up with solutions that bridge the gap between government, administration and clinical practice.”

Norris said the program’s ultimate goal is to have quality applicants “so we can have quality students and stellar graduates,”

“I see it as vital to the health-care environment to have individuals with these leadership skills,” she said. “With all the changes in the health-care environment, it’s never been more important to have good health-care leaders.”

For more information about the Doctor of Health Administration Program,

including how to apply, visit http://www.umc.edu/dhainfo/.