Celebrating 50 Years of Health Services Management and Leadership

A Conversation with Dr. Robert Burke
Authored by

There is something special about the third floor of 2175 K Street. It is the feeling that for those here, an office is more than a workplace, a colleague is more than a co-worker, and a job is more than its title. “It” may not be quite tangible, but one thing is clear. There is much more to this place — home to GW’s Department of Health Services Management and Leadership — than what meets the eye.

With more than 3,000 alumni spanning 50 states and 19 countries, HSML has a presence that stretches far beyond its K Street confines. These alumni form an extensive network, linking current students to mentorships and professional development opportunities worldwide. Through its emphasis on experiential learning, community service, research collaborations, and relationships with policymaking and health care organizations, HSML has become one of the largest and most successful programs in the country.

But HSML has not always been so omnipresent. Born 50 years ago as a track in GW’s School of Business, the program was, like many around the country, developed in response to the booming number of hospitals after World War II. Over time, however, HSML evolved into a peerless department among public health schools nationally. With a wink to its past, HSML has maintained the slogan “The skills of business and the values of health care.”

Though HSML’s chair for only a fraction of its history, Robert Burke, Ph.D., Gordon A. Friesen Professor of Health Care Administration, has already proven to be an integral part of the department’s escalating success. In his six-year tenure, Burke has seen the department evolve from a quiet existence to an international presence. He has nurtured an esprit de corps rooted in a passion for care. He was recently awarded a $4.2-million training grant from the Department of Health and Human Services — the first award of this type in GW history. And through the writing of a management textbook for the School’s “Essentials of Public Health” series that is used in similar programs across the country, Burke continues to demonstrate that HSML’s influence is widespread.

Now more than ever, our nation’s health care system needs strong and responsive leaders in the field of health care management. In honor of the department’s 50th anniversary, Burke shares why his department is that special place that will answer the call.

Congratulations on your department’s 50th anniversary. Why is this significant?

Of the 65 accredited master’s programs in health care administration around the country, we are one of the top five that has been in continuous operation. We have developed multiple programs in addition to teaching hospital administration, including a strong track in nursing home administration and physician group practice. We’ll soon establish a track in community health center management.

Being in operation for 50 years also means we have trained more than 3,500 students and still have 3,100 alumni, many of whom are top executives in hospital and health care management. Our alumni network is an integral part of who we are, as they assist students with residency placements, mentorships, and other professional opportunities.

If you gave a textbook from this program 50 years ago to a current student, would the material still be relevant?

As a matter of fact, the same author is still writing the classic textbook in one of our courses. While the content changes over the years (like the format of the hospital, the number of surgical suites, and the advancing procedures in hospitals), there are still some basic skills that you have to master. Things like business writing, how to address people, and how to write a thank-you note are timeless skills that were really important in my own career. We teach our students how to hone those skills, because this profession is really all about building relationships. 

So while we can teach a lot of the skills that are needed, it is really during the residency when the students can grow those skills. We rely very heavily on our alumni network to get our students into a residency program. At our last count, of the 66 accredited HSML programs, only five were still requiring a residency. Other schools don’t want the hassle or the risk of guaranteeing that their students will get into a residency, but we do. Without our alumni network, this would not be possible.  

How does HSML adapt to the constantly changing health care industry? 

Here is how I think our program works. The magic number is three. We have a three-year program: two years of didactic and one year of residency. Our courses are taught in three parts: theory, applications, and practice residency. And every course has a writing assignment, an oral presentation, and group work. Life in hospitals is all group work and primarily oral; so, if you don’t have those skills, you won’t succeed.

We have tremendous opportunities because we are in Washington, D.C. For example, our students can attend the National Alliance for Health Reform, a bipartisan program that trains new employees on Capitol Hill about current trends in health care. This way, the students can get up to date on the issues and meet the people who are thinking about these things here in the capital and around the country.

To keep up with changes within the field, we also have alumni come in to teach courses in current topics, like advanced hospital finance, issues in hospital management, and Six Sigma [business management strategy]. The alumni really like coming back and often say how great it is that we are teaching our students the skills that they can use when they start working.

What distinguishes GW’s HSML students and faculty?

The faculty and students here really want to be here and enjoy what we do. They have to have the passion to try to get an organization of very diverse people to work together to help people get well. They must understand that this is not a 9-to-5 job. It is a 24-7 world we live in, and care is always going on.

We also pride ourselves on being tactical. Other schools teach how to make the theory of management better; we teach our students how to do it. For example, every Friday morning we either have a current executive in health care come in and talk to the students or go on site visits to get inside the doors and really look at a hospital or a nursing home. It is this hands-on experience that really sets us apart.

What does the future hold for HSML?

We really want to enhance our scholarship offerings — it is the one area holding us back from being a top-ranked program. We hope to become the No. 1-ranked private university and among the top 10 for all health management programs.

Also, it is my goal to have a fully accredited executive training master’s program within four years. This would allow people who are already in the field to get a degree without taking time off from their jobs. The students would come in for long weekends and supplement some of that with distance learning. Although we don’t want everything to be on the computer, we have to be adaptive to the economy.

We are also working on developing international affiliations. There are few — if any — health services management programs in Europe. But we have an affiliation with a university in Holland, and we will be working with them to kick off some programs this summer. While some things really should be here at Foggy Bottom, we really need to take our place in the world.

We have come 50 years, and we are obviously going to go another 50. Health care is not going out of business — it will be changing, and we are going to be changing with it. It is how we move forward that is important.

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