Aug 2, 2011

Another Health Care Workshop? Five Reasons Why SQLA is Worth Experiencing

It's been almost six weeks since I left the IHI Open School Student Quality Leadership Academy (SQLA). Admittedly, I volunteered to put together a blog post weeks ago, but my hectic schedule as an outgoing student (classes, work, research projects, job interviews, networking, and summer visitors) kept stealing my attention.

As an emerging health professional, I have availed myself of numerous free networking events and educational seminars (and food). Eventually, after attending so many that fixated on the need for change in health care, I became jaded about how much these events actually contribute to inspiring innovation. But when I heard of SQLA, knowing IHI's great reputation for visionary leadership in health care improvement, I couldn't shake the feeling that this program was going to be different from the rest. Since attending, I have felt inspired to share my experiences with prospective attendees and, in the process, encourage you to apply for next year's Academy.

Upon reflecting on the lectures and activities from the SQLA weekend, there are five reasons why I would recommend taking part in SQLA to all students in any field of health care (I personally am a clinical social worker and MPH candidate in Health Policy & Management):

1. Exposure to Diverse Perspectives: At our table alone, we had two international students, a nursing undergraduate, a physician, several advanced med students, a Masters-level nurse, and a public health social worker (yours truly), representing great diversity in geography, race/ethnicity, age, and education. Each member contributed thoughtful examples and insight from his or her actual experiences, covering an even broader spectrum of sub-specializations (mine is behavioral health). This rich confluence of experiences was very enlightening, introducing me to the perspectives of professionals in other health care areas with whom I have literally never interacted, and may not have for much longer if not for SQLA. For too long there has been an unfortunate dearth of cross-disciplinary collaboration among our segregated health schools, and SQLA breaks down these barriers.

2. Unbeatable Expertise: All of the weekend's presenters were seasoned veterans of health care leadership and innovation. Each one holds or has held very senior positions in national policy advising and/or academic medical centers. This year's presenters were predominantly current or past leaders from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston - one of the most respected, innovative health care organizations in New England. The only one without at least 20 years of professional health care experience was Dr. John Halamka, who is merely the youngest chief officer in the history of BIDC, had served as a key health information technology (HIT) advisor to the Obama Administration, and was recently contracted by Japan to assist development of a new HIT system across their Northern region following this year's devastating earthquake and tsunami. To say his knowledge and perspective are expansive is a serious understatement, and each presenter was of equally strong caliber.

3. Gaining Essential Management Skills: Take a walk in the woods to build rapport with your opponents and identify shared values. Use interest-based negotiation methods to manage and overcome conflicts. Implement "double-loop learning" to learn from and prevent future conflict situations. Carefully choose when to identify people instead of numbers when quantifying problems. Learn how leadership vision and operations management can foster an environment that minimizes conflict. The "Transition Curve" framework offers a method for managers to conceptualize and facilitate change processes with minimal staff resistance. Before embarking on a difficult conversation, ask those involved about their understanding of a situation, and let this guide your approach and language. These are just several of many examples to evidence that SQLA actually covers concrete management techniques that any of us can apply to improve our team's performance, morale, and ability to adopt innovations.

4. Assessing Personal Strengths and Needs: Through exposure to new management concepts, personal anecdotes from presenters, and group and individual exercises, the weekend at the Leadership Academy gave me the time and tools I needed to identify where I may struggle and succeed as a new manager in the health care industry. This self-understanding will be handy for upcoming job interviews, and also in identifying positions where I'm most likely to succeed.

5. Having Fun! Of course, after days full of challenging sessions, self-evaluation, and passionate presentations on health innovation, we were able to unwind. Harvard Square (and the rest of nearby downtown Boston!) offers a plentiful assortment of interesting activities and quality spots to pass the time with good people and entertainment. This year featured a public dance party in front of Cambridge City Hall, which closed down the largest roadway through town and featured thousands of locals partaking in a good old fashioned outdoor celebration. After three years in the same social and professional circles, networking, story-swapping, and joke-telling with 100 new, equally passionate students was rejuvenating. The city offers an eventful, lively locale for this gathering, which is pivotal because our work, no matter how valuable or urgent, cannot become our entire life. So once the lessons have been learned, there is much-deserved time to get out and play! So come early, stay late, and enjoy the marvelous landscape, history, culture and nightlife of Boston. Good things should come to those who wait (and bravely work on the daunting challenge of health care improvement)!

- Sandy Cohen, MSW, Boston University School of Public Health