May 4, 2015
Chris DelGrosso, Mary Winters and Keenan Jones took the stage on Feb. 27, 2015, in Birmingham, Ala., and launched their pitch as if they were working a boardroom at one of the country’s top health-care providers. Looking back, they felt, it was almost as if they had been contestants on “The Voice.”
Under the lights, in front of a live audience and a panel of judges — but without the backup band — they explained their plan for developing a respiratory center at a local hospital that would employ the latest technologies and use innovative strategies to improve individualized therapy.
Then they held their collective breath while the judges conferred.
What the students heard when the judges spoke — lavish praise — made their hearts sing.
“We felt like performers on the television show, when all the judges turn their chairs around and give you more compliments than you can take in,” Jones says. “We only learned later that they don’t often say so many positive things.”
When the dust settled, Jones, Winters and DelGrosso emerged as winners of the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) 2015 Health Administration Case Competition, and they brought home a $9,000 check to split three ways.
Winning never gets old, but the UNC Gillings School’s wins in this arena are not new. The School’s health policy and management department has an extraordinary track record of success at student case competitions such as these.
Jeffrey Simms, MSPH, a Gillings School alumnus and clinical assistant professor and director of professional development in the department, serves as the team members’ mentor, performance critic, cheerleader, travel agent and troubleshooter.
“One of the things I most looked forward to about the competition was having the chance to work more closely with Jeffrey,” DelGrosso says. “He’s undoubtedly one of the biggest factors behind UNC’s continued success. He’s truly a great teacher, coach and friend.”
“I love working with these students,” Simms says. “They’re so dedicated. You have to be well-organized and excellent at multitasking to maintain good grades while taking on this month-long commitment. Our students put an extensive amount of time and energy into researching the problem and developing a business proposal.”
The department sponsors a team in two national case competitions each year — UAB in the spring and the National Association of Health Services Executives (NAHSE) in the fall. The win at UAB last month marks the third consecutive year in which a team from the Gillings School has ranked #1 — and the sixth time in eight years a team has placed in the top three or better.
In the past seven NAHSE competitions, the Gillings School has had four top-three finishes, two of them first-place.
Students also volunteer to participate in other national case competitions and use their own financial resources to cover travel expenses. In spring 2014, a team from the School won first place at the Cleveland (Ohio) Clinic Case Competition. In spring 2015, two UNC teams were selected to participate in the final round in late April.
Competition judges often are senior-level executives from health systems around the country.
“A big benefit to students is the exposure they get to people who would be in a position to recognize their talent and hire them later on,” Simms says. “They also network with their peers from programs around the country, people with whom they may work later in their careers.”
LeVelton Thomas, who earned a Master of Healthcare Administration degree at the UNC Gillings School in 2013, was on the team whose members won the NAHSE case competition in Houston in 2012. Thomas remembers the time-commitment pressure, squeezing the extra work into the weeks already packed with classes, exams, projects and personal responsibilities.
“The experience showed me that no matter what challenge is in front of me, even though I might be swamped, I can do it,” says Thomas, who is in the middle of a postgraduate administrative fellowship at Duke University Health System. “Knowing the workload I can take on and still be successful has given me confidence.”
“Quickly learning to function as a team serves students well,” says Sandra Greene, DrPH, interim chair of health policy and management. “The problems in the health-care system today are too complex to be solved by individuals. They require multidisciplinary teams, along with good interpersonal and leadership skills. We strive to teach those skills to prepare this next generation of health-care professionals for their careers.”
Simms adds that the case competitions are a great place to refine those learned skills.
“We’re appreciative that these venues have given our students opportunities to shine,” he says.
Carolina Public Health is a publication of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. To view previous issues, please visit sph.unc.edu/cph.