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The Next Level: Sam Hanna Touts the Healthcare Management Program

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Man with dark hair and glasses.
Sam Hanna is a former industry consultant and an expert in health care and technology.

According to Sam Hanna, health care is about 24 percent of the national GDP. So the health care industry needs highly qualified people to make the system work. Hanna is the program director for the new, growing Healthcare Management master’s program at American University’s School of Professional & Extended Studies. Hanna is also associate dean for graduate and professional studies, and executive in residence in health care for SPExS.

In an interview with University Communications and Marketing, he talked about the Healthcare Management program and how analytics and artificial intelligence will change medicine. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

UCM: Can you describe the graduate Health Management program at SPExS? What would a graduate student hope to learn there?

Hanna: Our program is very unique in that it’s really targeted toward professionals who are working in the health care field, or who are looking to work in the field. So they tend to be mid-to-senior level career professionals who are working full time, have been out of school for quite some time, and are looking to increase their skills and move up to that next level. Our program is positioned to give them the ability to really advance their careers—either where they are or if they’re looking to transition into a different opportunity or a different company. It provides a holistic approach for what students need to know to break into the health care industry.

UCM: What kinds of jobs would it prepare a graduate student for?

Hanna: It varies based on their background. A lot of our students are clinicians who are looking to gain business experience. Or some are business professionals who work in various functions—such as HR, finance, IT, and operations—and they’re looking to take their skill set to the next level. If they are in the clinical world and want to work on the business side, it’s mostly to advance into more of an administration role. At a hospital, for example. But if they’re already working for a health care institution, this master’s program really sets them up to get that promotion to a management level position. To either lead the department or play a critical role in that leadership team.

UCM: How can technology improve the health care system in the near future?

Hanna: When you think about health care, you think about your interaction with your doctor when you get sick. And a few years ago we used to say health care was the treatment of patients. And then there was health care IT, which was really all the systems and computer use. Well, fast forward ten years to today, and you cannot really do health care without technology. If you go to your doctor now, most likely they’re going to walk into the room with a tablet. And they would log onto a computer while they’re talking to you to document their interaction, or to fill out the forms in their electronic medical record. So health care IT and health care have become synonymous. And with the advents of newer technologies, additional data, and fields like genomics, you really cannot treat that patient without knowing more about them.

UCM: How will artificial intelligence and analytics be used in the medical field?

Hanna: With analytics, we have all of these systems and technologies in place. So they’re basically creating enormous amounts of data on the patient. And to treat the patient better we’ve got to be able to understand what the data tells us. Informatics converts data into information that we can make decisions from. So the more data we have on the patient, the better decisions we can make. And that moves us into another field that is called machine learning. Whereby machines—or in this case processors—look at historical data and create some predictive analytics. That can help us understand if this patient is going to be more susceptible to, let’s say, chronic heart conditions or cancer. Or if their eating and lifestyle habits may cause something in the future. When you get that machine learning in place to be really advanced, then you get to the next level, which is artificial intelligence. And that’s basically the ability of very intelligent technology to not just predict, but actually provide feedback on how you can address an issue. Compared to radiologists, artificial intelligence can do as good a job, if not a better job, at reading X-rays of patients. They are trained, and every time they see an X-ray, they get smarter and smarter and smarter. Now, that does not replace the radiologist, but it will allow the radiologist to focus on really serious conditions. And then leave the child falling and breaking their arm or wrist to the machine.

UCM: We’re hearing a lot about how rural areas have less access to hospitals and medical services. Can technology help reach these communities?

Hanna: Yes, it can with remote medicine or telemedicine. Having virtual visits with your doctor on your phone, or on your device or your tablet. That is here and it’s happening now across the country. And major health care systems are investing heavily in that technology. Also, the Veterans Affairs Department is really investing in that technology, because they have veterans scattered throughout the country in communities that lack access to care. Also, as we roll out 5G—which is a new, much more powerful wireless spectrum—it enables larger bandwidth for data. That means more and more connected devices will be coming on the market that could be used for a health care need. Things like a remote monitoring of patients who have chronic diabetes, for example. All of that is coming.

UCM: Is there a downside to all this innovation, where people feel like they don’t have as much of a relationship with their doctor? There was recently a viral story about a woman in California who says her grandfather was told he was dying via a machine, with a doctor appearing in a live video link. Don’t we need people to deliver certain services?

Hanna: Yes. I think one of the big issues in health is around patient experience and patient engagement. And it’s really critical to keep that patient invested in their own care, and their own well-being. So using technology should not be a replacement of the doctor-patient relationship, or the nurse-patient relationship. It should be additive. So in cases like what you just described, communication should be happening from a person—from the doctor to the patient. And allowing technology and artificial intelligence to help us with solutions, not communication with the person.

UCM: How did you find your way into this field?

Hanna: When I graduated college, I worked for a consulting firm. And as a staff consultant, one of my first clients was a hospital. And I did some work with them around a cost-benefit analysis of a merger that they were considering. And I thought, ‘This is really fun.’ I did a really good job, apparently, and they really liked my work. This was something interesting, in a field that is really, really important. We all need health care. And so I worked on several other clients, and I became kind of the health care subject matter expert. And I grew up in my career in the consulting world, up until I became the health care technology leader for PricewaterhouseCoopers. And then I became the chief innovations officer for PwC. And with that role, I was able to take real emerging technologies like AI and apply it not just to health care, but across different industries. But being a health care person, that’s my passion and it’s really important to me. And I’ve always enjoyed teaching, so I taught as an adjunct in many institutions. And then I became the program director for a health informatics master’s program at George Washington University. Then I joined AU this past summer, as an associate dean here and as executive in residence for health care.

UCM: How do you apply what you learned at a place like PricewaterhouseCoopers to a higher education institution?

Hanna: That’s a big reason why I came here: I really like to apply what we learn in the real world to what we do in the classroom, and vice versa. So it’s important to give the students a real lens about how things actually happen in the field. What are the hot topics, issues, and opportunities that we can bring back to the classroom? And have them tailor their learning toward that experiential lens. So that way when we talk about an opportunity or an idea, we’re not just talking theory in a vacuum. I challenge students to take that opportunity and theory and practice it the next day they go back to work. Also, as somebody who ran a major consulting firm’s health care division, I look at what kind of employees I want to hire. And I want to hire strong employees who have the skills and resources to come up with the knowledge that they need.

UCM: What kinds of advice do you give students in the program?

Hanna: Well, I always tell them it goes by really, really fast. Even though it takes about two years to finish, our courses are eight weeks long. So you’re flying through. Buckle up and let’s go. Our graduating class is increasing in size because we are growing. And I always tell students that the learning doesn’t stop when you finish this master’s program. Go after that promotion, lean in to your work and to your career and make it better. Find a problem that you can solve. That’s the best way to really leverage what you’ve learned. Don’t just get the master’s degree and keep doing the same thing. Add value to what you’re doing, because that makes you more valuable.