There are some people that are so smart and have so much energy that you want to create a venture just for them to run it. Perhaps University College London – UCL felt that way when Nora Colton joined them five years ago, and the top ranked university launched a Global Business School for Health that she now leads.
After a distinguished international career that included a Postdoctoral Fellowship at Harvard University, Professorships in the US and China, and a senior leadership role at another university in London, Colton initially joined UCL as Joint Director of Education at the Institute of Ophthalmology and Moorfields Eye Hospital. Drawing on her own academic path, with a master’s in health economics from Spain, and a D.Phil. in Economics and the Middle East from the University of Oxford, she became the UCL Pro-Vice-Provost (postgraduate education) to drive transformational change for postgraduate education.
Birth of the Global Business School for Health
The idea of creating a business school at UCL dedicated to health care had been around for a few years. Nora Colton shares how Chris Outram, a strategist and founder of OC&C strategy consultants, approached UCL in 2016. “Chris found the health sector was growing at an exponential rate with many jobs being generated. He gave a presentation at a conference in London, approached UCL with the concept, and the Faculty Population for Health was interested!” she recalls.
After the initial idea for a business school for health and healthcare was conceived, UCL needed someone to flesh out the concept. “I had already held several higher education leadership roles – Department Chair at Drew University in the US, Dean at University of East London’s Business School, Vice-Provost for Postgraduate Education at UCL – so the Dean of the Population of Health asked me to join an internal program board for establishing GBSH.
They were talking about creating this school and it was a great opportunity to be part of something where you’re not just fixing things but getting to be creative and be a builder. I went for the role of Director, and I got appointed,” explains Nora.
Challenges facing healthcare sectors around the world were made evident throughout the pandemic, but many of these were having an effect before: ageing populations, increased non-communicable diseases, difficulties in employment of health technology, lack of healthcare workers. These issues were only exacerbated or pushed to the forefront. Exploring how to address such issues is where the UCL Global Business School for Health (GBSH) comes in.
Heading a brand-new business school has enabled Nora to put together and realize a vision, mission, and purpose for UCL GBSH, and witness the impact the school is having in such a short space of time. “A year ago, we were so excited to have applicants and be recruiting and exceeding our targets. I think a peak moment for me was when I walked into an auditorium and there were some 300 students sitting there. It was surreal. I thought to myself ‘you created this, and they came!’” This year, the school has received even more applications and the current students have had a very engaging experience reimagining health in an interdisciplinary setting.
Addressing Challenges in Healthcare
A challenge Nora is hoping that better management and leadership education can address is the labour shortage in healthcare. In December 2019, there were around 99,000 job vacancies for NHS England – as of December 2022, this had risen to 124,000. But this labour shortage isn’t unique to the UK. “Across global healthcare systems, there are labour and workforce issues. We need more clinical doctors and nurses, but also leaders and managers who can rethink healthcare and be courageous enough to take a step forward,” says Nora. The location of UCL GBSH in London presents a perfect case study using the NHS for health systems around the world.
“The NHS is an interesting example of something that was thought up in the post-World War II period but has changed tremendously. The reality of maintaining, sustaining, and funding such a universal health system, when originally it was conceived for a young population and a growing economy, and now exists in a stagnant economy with an ageing population, is an enormous challenge for the UK.”
While healthcare systems need more individuals in the workforce, this needs to be balanced with other societal demands. “There would be all sorts of wonderful and interesting things people do that we’d have to stop doing to achieve that. Consequently, we need people to be innovators and think about how we can bring about better outcomes for patients and improve productivity without turning everybody into a health worker,” explains Nora. “This is such a critical role for leadership and management, and what better place to do it than in a business school.”
Preparing Students for an Evolving Job Market
Although Nora now heads the world’s first business school dedicated to healthcare, her early educational and academic path took another direction. At university she was passionate about studying economics, set on the idea of becoming an economist. Her focus shifted when she saw health becoming more important as a sector.
“I started to become really interested in health and could see healthcare was going to become a great societal challenge,” recalls Nora. “At the time, I remember someone saying to me, you’re too old, you can’t change career path now. I still decided to pursue my master’s in Health Economics and Pharmacoeconomics at UPF Barcelona School of Management, and pivot into health.”
Nora hopes that today’s students and graduates can exhibit the same agility, exploring beyond what they may view as their prescribed, designated career path. “Each path you take might lead you to something much more interesting than if you continue with your planned route. Think of all the opportunities you’re going to miss out on by trying to stick to a formula, particularly when we talk about how society and jobs are changing so rapidly.”
UCL GBSH is committed to preparing students not just for the current job market, but also anticipate how their careers will continue to develop in the years to come by providing career coaching and guidance, psychometric testing, and a constant interaction with professionals from different areas of industry. The school invites many external speakers to share their expertise as well as their own career journeys, to encourage students to think about career opportunities in health and healthcare they may not have considered otherwise.
Nora’s own career shift is mirrored in the types of students now flocking to programs at the UCL GBSH. “As a business school, we take people from diverse backgrounds who want to pivot into health as well as those already passionate about health and healthcare. For many health programs, you need to already have some sort of health-related degree, so it’s been reassuring for students with a business background to realize that there are lots of people who start out in one area and move to another. And for students from science or medical backgrounds, they realise they can move into management and leadership roles.”
“One of the most important things we do as a school is not only teach people about business management for health but teach them in an interdisciplinary way that allows them to think about who they are and the kind of career they’ll have going forward. Just think about all the jobs that exist today that we wouldn’t have even known about when we were getting our degrees, let alone thought about how we could segue into them.”
Embracing Diversity: A Global Perspective
Based in London, the UCL Global Business School for Health reflects the international nature of the city in both teaching and in the backgrounds of staff and students. Nora Colton is motivated to ensure the school attracts diverse talent from all over the world. For their current MBA class, students represent 13 different nationalities with 50% clinicians and 50% non-clinicians.
“There are non-clinical students from biotech and pharma, and then there’s the clinical side where we have medical doctors, dentists, and nurses. We’re bringing together people from across health and healthcare to discuss how to address the challenges and solutions from a leadership and management standpoint, which is exactly what healthcare needs.”
Colton observes that many universities still teach health and healthcare in a very siloed way. “You go to medical school if you want to be a doctor, nursing school if you want to be a nurse, train in pharmaceuticals if you want to be a pharmacist. These disparate schools are sending individuals out to work in an interconnected healthcare sector, without necessarily communicating with each other. UCL GBSH aims to take a more interdisciplinary approach in its programmes and teaching, bring together all these professionals from across healthcare to solve challenges collaboratively.”
As the inaugural Director of the school, she is mindful of the importance of being a role model for female leadership. Especially when women make up around 80% of the healthcare workforce in the US and the UK, but only 20% of the CEOs or leaders within the sector are female. In emerging markets the imbalance is even more acute, with women occupying little more than 6% of leadership roles.
“As head of a business school, it’s about championing roles for women who have been at the coalface but not necessarily the decision makers or leaders,” explains Nora Colton. “Role models are so important, and if we are going to be the Global Business School for Health, we must have diverse staff. I want the students to be able to see themselves in the staff, regardless of where they’re from.”
And that diversity in leadership isn’t just important for those hoping to work in healthcare, but for the individuals that use the healthcare system. “Just as students in a classroom look to role models, so do patients, who are just as diverse. Being cared for by people who come from diverse backgrounds will lead to a better level of understanding for patients and better patient outcomes.”
Colton believes that part of improving the diversity of student cohorts involves the programs on offer. As well as their MBA Health, the UCL GBSH offers various specialised master’s programs, as well as an Executive MBA Health and Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) in Health. And Nora is already looking forward to future programs and the impact this can have on equity and diversity.
“Socio-economically there are many young people from less privileged or low-income backgrounds who might do a bachelor’s degree, but not think to pursue a master’s degree,” explains Nora. “Appealing to them at the undergraduate level helps move away from this idea of exclusivity about who can then go on to study a Master’s. Two or three years from now we are looking to launch a business and health bachelor’s degree, with a work placement or study abroad, for a pathway into health science or healthcare management.”
Nora ends our discussion with advice for students graduating into today’s job market. “Have a path, but don’t miss out on all the curves and the bends along the way that may make you a much happier, more interesting person in the end. You can have a trajectory in mind, but don’t become welded to that. When pathways emerge that look more interesting and impactful, don’t be afraid to take them.”
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