The Business Perspective on Global Healthcare

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Monday, November 15, 2021
Olufunmilayo Olopade
Walter L. Palmer Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine and Human Genetics, Booth School of Business, The University of Chicago
Photo by iStock/Everyday better to do everything you love
In a new class at the Chicago Booth School of Business, students explore solutions to worldwide healthcare crises.

From lifesaving cures to lightspeed innovation, the frontier of global healthcare makes incredible progress every single day to tackle—and often solve—medical challenges.

But globally, the healthcare system is riddled with inequalities. Treatments for many of the most common illnesses are not universally accessible, whether due to income gaps, poor policy decisions, or perceptions of the need for profit. However, the disparities in global healthcare are not insurmountable. Addressing them just demands the right amount of commitment and collaboration across sectors.

You could be forgiven for thinking that a class of ambitious, free-market-minded business students would not be everyone’s first choice to dismantle the barriers to equitable healthcare. But the skills businesspeople bring to the table are, in fact, invaluable. When business leaders set out to solve a healthcare issue—bringing their financial knowledge to bear and aiming to achieve social good—they can craft practical, financially sustainable outcomes.

That realization is what inspired the launch of the Global Health and Social Policy course at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. It was designed to help inspire a new generation of bold, bright business minds to start thinking about solving healthcare crises.

In 2011, an introductory course on global health was developed by my husband, Christopher Sola Olopade, professor of medicine and director of international programs at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine. He and I then developed the idea further, and in 2014 we offered the health and social policy course for the first time at the University of Chicago Centre in Paris. At the time, it was available only to biological science students. But in 2020, we took a leap of faith and opened it up to MBA students at the Booth School of Business with three-hour classes held once a week for nine weeks.

We found that it quickly paid off to have a program where new MBAs worked alongside experienced senior healthcare executives. Both groups learned new ways of thinking and made valuable connections with one another. The business students demonstrated without a doubt that they could grasp our medical teachings and bring new, thought-provoking views that enriched the learning environment for the whole class. After all, global health is an issue for everyone. We’re all in this together.

Marrying Business Acumen and Healthcare Expertise

Even before launching this course, I was no stranger to the overlap between medicine and business. I founded the company CancerIQ, which helps providers use genetic information to prevent cancer across populations in urban and rural settings.

It became clear to me then that many healthcare enterprises could benefit greatly from the expertise of business leaders, while entrepreneurs working in the biomedical field would be more successful if they created connections with medical professionals. I believed that if we could bridge the gap between business and healthcare, we could turn more new medical ventures into reality—and potentially improve the well-being of thousands.

Business students are known for having razor-sharp quantitative skills and an aptitude for analysis. Those are qualities that can help any struggling healthcare operation. But in our class, we want to teach students to consider the social entrepreneurship aspects of a situation, not just the numbers. We want students to realize that their expertise can help them build businesses that are socially beneficial as well as financially sound.

If we could bridge the gap between business and healthcare, we could turn more new medical ventures into reality—and potentially improve the well-being of thousands.

This is why our new class brings together a mix of students with business, biological, and other academic backgrounds. For our first program at Booth, 19 participants were full-time MBA students; 11 were from executive or evening MBA programs; four were from the University of Chicago’s graduate program in health administration and policy; and four were undergraduates from economics, mathematics, molecular engineering, and public policy studies. We capped the class size at less than 50 so that we could build a very interactive learning environment where instructors were accessible to every student.

We also enrolled students from all over the world so that learners could hear a range of perspectives formed by totally different experiences of healthcare. My husband and I both grew up and received our initial medical education in Nigeria, where the medical system is vastly different from the one in the U.S. In our classes, we are able to describe those differences to the participants. Our students share their own experiences, which ensures that our classroom is never an echo chamber reverberating with the same views. Instead, we are able to collectively pinpoint where reform is most urgently needed.

Addressing an Unequal Healthcare Landscape

Among the topics we discuss in the Global Health and Social Policy class are:

Multisectorial and cross-border cooperation. Creating health equity calls for engaging consultants and investors at global and local levels. We start by acknowledging and understanding the inequalities of global healthcare, so we can think through ways to raise standards. We stress that leaders at the cross-section of business and healthcare must realize that structural reforms are needed to achieve equitable solutions.

We use the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals as a framework for our approaches, because these take a global perspective on all the world’s great challenges. We ask students: Which goal are we aligning with? Why are we doing this? Why is it so important?

Gender equity. Globally, breast cancer is the No. 1 reason that women die. We have sophisticated treatments, even cures. Yet because so many women around the world cannot get access to the help they need, their diagnoses equate to death sentences.

A prime example is Nigeria, which is a developing nation with a wealthy, upwardly mobile middle class that can afford to fund its own healthcare. Yet, the treatments themselves simply aren’t available, even for those with the ability to pay.

It doesn’t have to be this way. For instance, the medical community could run clinical trials to demonstrate drug efficacy and roll out genetic testing. These measures can be done inexpensively—and save thousands of lives. Students in our program are encouraged to identify such opportunities and help develop systems reforms that prevent patients from falling through the cracks.

Social consciousness. Our mantra is that health is wealth. The course nurtures socially conscious entrepreneurs who, regardless of personal economic or political views, are determined not to leave deprived populations behind.

We also look at social policy reforms. We show that a healthy market and good social policy can exist in harmony. We teach students that they don’t need a lot of money to drive social enterprises forward; they just need to think creatively about targeting innovation. For instance, we walk students through case studies in Bangladesh and Rwanda where women saw great success when they were specifically engaged to help their communities.

We teach students that they don’t need a lot of money to drive social enterprises forward; they just need to think creatively about targeting innovation.
Research and big data. Healthcare used to be something that happened between patients and doctors. Today, we are living in the era of big data, and we would be foolish not to use it.

Granular data can be put to work to inform major policy decisions and important social changes. While we look at the obvious research subjects—such as clinical trials, drug prices, and drug marketing strategies—we also explore a wide range of other topics. These include well-being and nutrition, reproductive health, data science, and climate change. By examining data from sources like the Global Cancer Observatory and health institutes like the Global Burden of Disease, students in this course also learn how ill health can be related to the environment. For example, they come to understand that a wildfire in California causes weather changes across the continent, and pollution in Hong Kong spreads beyond its borders—and both can cause individuals to suffer from respiratory diseases.

We have students read a set of texts to gain different perspectives on key issues. Students must write up their own analyses of these texts and post their writings before class. Then we host lengthy discussions where our diverse pool of learners can swap opinions and challenge one another.

Inspiring Global Thinking in an Isolationist Time

The events of 2020 showed with utmost clarity the importance of staying connected, working collaboratively, and thinking globally. We saw that the COVID-19 virus was a worldwide phenomenon that could not be contained within a few unfortunate countries. And we also saw how it could be mitigated through a vaccine like the Pfizer/BioNTech shot, which is a product of a U.S. and German company working together. Healthcare is a global concern, and tackling it demands global cooperation.

The ongoing vaccination rollout happening all over the world is a testament to the herculean effort by health experts, scientists, government officials, and ordinary people everywhere. If we can work together to fight the coronavirus, why can’t we do it to fight cancer? Or diabetes? The pandemic has caused devastation, but it has given us one immense gift—a case study for what cross-border innovation and collaboration can achieve.

The pandemic also tested academia like never before, inspiring changes in the way we teach, and that was true for this program as well. In the past, we have run the class on the Chicago campus as well as the University of Chicago’s Paris campus, and we have taken excursions to the World Health Organization in Geneva and the London School of Hygiene. During the 2020–21 academic year, most classes were held over Zoom, but we hope to return to more in-person and international settings in the future.

The next Global Health and Social Policy course is scheduled to run on the Chicago campus in the spring of 2022. It will be part of Chicago Booth’s wider Healthcare Initiative, which serves as a center of gravity for the diverse disciplines that engage in healthcare research at Booth and facilitates collaboration with partners across the university.

Every Mind Adds Value

The global health program has flourished under the umbrella of the Chicago Booth Business School because it brings together two schools of—often conflicting—thought. We have seen that healthcare experts and business executives can work together to reach solutions that one group could not find on its own. These solutions are efficient and practical and have a positive social impact on the world.

All we ask each business applicant to bring to this course is an open mind and a desire to make a difference. We tell students that it is never too late to direct their business skills to another field. And we remind them that we never know who will produce the next lifesaving innovation.



Authors
Olufunmilayo Olopade
Walter L. Palmer Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine and Human Genetics, Booth School of Business, The University of Chicago
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