The administrative side of health care

September 28, 2008
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When Alex Nesterenko came to teach at Grand Valley State University in 1984, he was already sensing a buzz in West Michigan about the health care industry. So when GVSU started talking about adding other programs to its school of communication, health communication just seemed right.

“I mentioned health communication as a logical step because I suspected — even at that point — Grand Rapids was moving on the health front,” said Nesterenko. “The hospitals here were taking great pride and thinking of themselves as rather high-quality health care. You could hear in our faculty — in nursing and other programs at Grand Valley — that there was a sense that big things were about to happen.”

In 1987, the health communication program was established to help fulfill the growing need for communication and administrative professionals in the health care field.

“As you grow any structure, you have to have the administration to go with it — and not only the administration, but then there’s the public relations side of it also,” said Nesterenko. “Health care is a funny field because it’s charitable and it also competes, so it needs P.R. people. It needs the best of the people in the P.R. profession — people who are not just barely able to do their craft, but in addition to their understanding of P.R., have a rich understanding of health care.”

The program requires about a third of the credits to be in health sciences — classes such as biology, chemistry and health care concepts. Alexis Howard, a recruiter with Saint Mary’s Health Care, said having a background in health care is important even for those not directly involved on the clinical side.

“A lot of times you have some general degreed business administration and so forth, but there are some targeted degrees in health care,” said Howard. “It’s two layers. You have the business component, but then you also have the background of health care, so if you’re looking at a student that is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in health care administration verses a general bachelor’s degree, they’re going to have a presumed leg up, because they’ll have some of the inner-workings of health care. From an insurance perspective, what does it mean to look at the budget from a health care perspective? What does it mean to know there is a nursing shortage coming up? Those are key components of what we’re going to be facing.”

Many people are aware of the need for clinical staff — nurses, for example —  but overlook the potential for jobs in the administrative side of health care, Howard said.

“There is a huge need from an administrative perspective for future leaders,” he said. “A lot of organizations are secession planning right now to help with what that projected outcome will look like in the future. I think it speaks on both sides — the clinical perspective and the administrative perspective — in terms of the needs we will have in the future.”

Julie McFarland, coordinator of employment with Saint Mary’s Health Care, said its internships, in general, have been growing.

“The more we have, the more we need, the more that people are finding out how wonderful interns are and what a great resource they can be for us: It’s a win-win for both. The students pick it up rather quickly and are of immediate use to us for those that have come to depend on interns.”

McFarland said that some see interns as creating more work, because of the training involved and other issues, but that is typically not the case.

“I know here at Saint Mary’s it’s grown, specifically over the last couple of years,” said McFarland, who has had an intern for the last nine years.

“They add a tremendous value, and I think more and more organizations are recognizing the value that interns can bring. And it’s also helping them to recognize what their needs are, because so many of the non-clinical jobs are so broad,” said McFarland. “For a person that is going to work in finance, hospital finance is different. There’s hospital finance for running the budget, then there’s the finance part of all the insurances and reimbursements and things like that. It’s getting people introduced to what that is and where do they want to go.”

Christina Freese-Decker, vice president of strategic planning and development, and executive director of the regional hospital network at Spectrum Health, has a unique perspective on the subject. She started out as a fellow at Spectrum Health after earning a dual master’s degree at the University of Iowa, and then was hired by Spectrum.

“With my program at the University of Iowa, it’s not a requirement to do a fellowship,” said Freese-Decker. “However, I feel it was extremely beneficial going from the graduate work to a fellowship, because it gave me the experience to do projects that were real time, that were valued, that had real data with them. I could benefit the organization and I could learn a lot.”

Freese-Decker was the first fellow for Spectrum, which started the program in 2002. Since then, the company has had at least one fellow each year. Spectrum also offers many internships: in technology and information services, human resources, finance, government affairs and others. The company offers both paid and unpaid internships. Those that are unpaid are usually for college credit.

“It also benefits the organization because they get someone to do some work, and most of these projects that we worked on and continue to work on are very high-level strategic. It’s not data entry or taking minutes,” said Freese-Decker. “It is valuable both to the organization and the individual.”

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