Whitney Offenbecher: MHA Candidate, 2012
What brought you to the UW MHA Program?
Before coming to the UW MHA Program, I worked for a diverse array of government and nonprofit health care organizations, including those with local, regional, and international scope. Each new experience taught me more about the complexities of health care delivery systems. For example, working at Public Health – Seattle & King County, I learned how the local health department partners with the federal government, private health care providers, and community based organizations to coordinate and administer health care services. Although each organization taught me unique skills and introduced me to new challenges, I found myself most energized by work focused on developing systems that deliver more efficient, culturally competent health care services. When I looked into the UW MHA Program, it quickly became clear to me that this was the best path forward to pursue my career interests. The Program's emphasis on teaching students a diverse range of skills, the focus on career development, and the interdisciplinary curriculum all resonated with me.
What was your undergraduate major? What other educational experiences did you have before you came to the UW MHA Program?
My interest in health care began with the study of anthropology at Whitman College. My undergraduate work in anthropology focused on public health issues in diverse cultural contexts. For example, in India, Tibet and Nepal, I studied health disparities among dislocated Tibetan refugee populations. And in my undergraduate thesis, I examined cultural barriers to the introduction of the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine into the American health care system.
What work experience did you have before coming to the UW MHA Program?
Prior to coming to the MHA program, I worked with the Communications Team at Public Health – Seattle & King County in an AmeriCorps VISTA position. Much of my work involved the creation of systems to support communications during the 2009 H1N1 influenza response. I also facilitated the translation and distribution of public health and emergency preparedness materials for vulnerable populations and participated as a team member on a research grant to explore the use of text messaging for emergency public health communication.
Before working at Public Health – Seattle & King County, I interned in the External Relations department at PATH, an international nonprofit organization focused on providing health technologies and health care delivery systems throughout the world. I created systems to administer a donor travel program. My work included program planning with the PATH in-country staff; working with other departments to develop legal, travel and finance systems; and interacting with donors on a daily basis.
I also worked at Planned Parenthood, assisting with the creation of a statewide database of pharmacies that provide emergency contraception. After surveying pharmacies, I created a document to geographically track the availability of emergency contraceptives.
At an organization called the Family Medical Center, I created culturally relevant health educational materials for use by nurses with Latino patients in farm labor camps in the Walla Walla Valley.
Lastly, I worked a winter season as a first mate on a charter sailing boat in the U.S. Virgin Islands, helping the Captain sail the boat and leading the passengers on snorkeling tours.
What do you feel are the strengths of the UW MHA Program?
A primary strength of the UW MHA Program is the focus on developing well-rounded health care leaders. Students take classes on a diverse range of subjects, including team leadership, financial management, health law, biomedical ethics, and risk management. In addition to the broad academic curriculum, the focus on working in teams and developing leadership competencies prepares students to enter complex organizational environments and work effectively with people. As one professor often reminds us, "It's all about getting things done through people." We learn to give and take critical feedback about how we interact in groups and how we can improve our leadership abilities. The feedback has enhanced my ability to work well with others and helped me understand what kind of leader I want to be.
The UW MHA Program is also unique because of the strong focus on career development. Students are constantly provided opportunities to interact with local health care leaders through class lectures, mentorship programs, and alumni events. In addition to our professional mentors, the faculty is a great resource. All of the professors have experience leading health care organizations and willingly share their personal experiences to illustrate the connection between theory and practice.
Are there any outstanding or unique experiences that you would like to share regarding the UW MHA Program?
The professors design many of the courses to include a practical component, often soliciting local health care organizations to provide students with real-world projects within their organizations. My first quarter of the program, I worked on such a project. My group chose to engage in a process improvement plan for the reconstructive surgery service line at a local health care organization. Working alongside surgeons, nurses, and clinic administrators, we redesigned the patient education materials for patients of breast reconstruction surgery in order to increase patient satisfaction. After months of research and collaboration with the clinic, we presented our work to our colleagues, faculty, and the decision makers of the clinic. It was refreshing to work on a very practical level and to feel that we had made an impact on an organization. We also discovered the frustrations and challenges of applying theory to complex organizations. Whether it is learning to navigate bureaucratic organizations, working with incomplete data, or dealing with conflict within a group, the program strives to prepare students for the realities of working in health care organizations.
What goals do you plan to pursue for your career in health care management?
I am most interested in quality improvement and patient safety issues. It is rewarding to see how simple changes in process improvement on a service line can increase efficiency and improve staff and patient satisfaction. Working in process improvement appeals to me because it involves working with a variety of people across different functions of the organization, from pharmacists to surgeons to housekeeping staff. Learning to work with a broad mix of health care professionals while attempting to streamline processes for efficiency will serve me well for my future career in health care administration.