Partnership with a purpose: Health administration students team with community to exchange ideas, gain experience

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“It’s easy to open up a business—anyone can do that,” said Bradley Herremans, CEO of Suncoast Community Health Centers. “Now try keeping it open for the next 20 years. That’s the challenge.”

And so began a meeting late one January afternoon at Suncoast’s Brandon facility, one of the organization’s eight nonprofit, federally qualified community health centers serving 63,000 patients a year throughout southern and eastern Hillsborough County and parts of Lakeland. Suncoast provides children and adults, most of whom are uninsured or insured by Medicaid or the Hillsborough County Health Care Plan (a health insurance plan for low-income county residents that’s funded by sales tax), with a host of health care services—everything from well visits to vision exams to dental care and pharmacy needs. Patients without insurance pay on a sliding scale based on their income.

Seated around a conference table were Herremans and members of his executive team, including Natalie Wrightson, a recent USF College of Public Health (COPH) graduate and former Suncoast intern who now is a pharmacy compliance and financial analyst for the organization. They were joined by four COPH graduate students and their advisor, Dr. Zachary Pruitt. The students, all pursuing their master degrees in health administration (MHA), are taking part in Pruitt’s Advanced Seminar on Health Care Management, a course that develops analytic and decision-making skills regarding issues with health services.

The COPH’s MHA program—accredited by the Commission on Accreditation Healthcare Management Education (CAHME)—develops students’ knowledge and skills in contemporary management methods and policy decision making, integrating a population health management approach. Upon graduation, students are prepared for management and leadership positions in health services and related organizations throughout the nation.

The student group (Marjorie Brelsford, Samer Hussamy, Nishat Jerin and Emily Zapf) has been tasked with enhancing the financial stability of Suncoast’s health centers, which must provide medical services to roughly 950 individuals a day in order to break even. The capstone course requires the development of a team-based project to be presented in April. The students will conduct a financial and operational analysis to propose a plan by which Suncoast can assure success in the future.

Students get an overview of day-to-day operations at Suncoast Community Health Centers from its CEO, Bradley Herremans, top center. Also pictured are, clockwise, Zachary Pruitt, PhD, 
and students Emily Zapf, Marjorie Brelsford, Nishat Jerin and Samer Hussamy.
 (Photo by Zack Murray).

“These are very involved students who are excited to apply what they’ve learned from operations, finance and marketing on this project,” said Pruitt. “They will define the problem, look at data and literature to identify best practices, interview personnel and then explore and present interventions.”

And the timing couldn’t be better. Sustainability is a key issue for community health centers across the country, said Herremans. “So we’re looking at everything, and we will change some things.”

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The COPH began its partnership with Suncoast several years ago, when Pruitt cold-called the organization and explained the college’s commitment to the community and to health care management as a profession. As a result of that call, Suncoast invited students to intern.

From there, the relationship blossomed.

After those initial health administration interns presented their capstone internship projects, the college and Suncoast endowed a scholarship, which led to more interns . Suncoast began attending the college’s career fairs and providing speakers for its Healthcare Management Student Association, further solidifying its collaboration with the college.

By all accounts, the partnership is a win-win-win—for Suncoast, the college and its students.

MHA student Samer Hussamy poses a question to the Suncoast executive group. (Photo by Zack Murray)

“It’s easy to get tunnel vision when you do this work every day,” commented Herremans.  “It’s kind of like those dust bunnies you have living under your couch. After a while, you don’t see them. But then someone comes over and points them out, and that gets you to clean them up. The students are like that—they come in here with a fresh set of eyes and shake things up a bit. It’s good to get different perspectives. We learn, and they hone their skills. Besides,” he joked, “they work cheap.”

For now. Pruitt estimated that if the students were for actual hire, their services would cost $40,000 for the project. And he urged them to remember that number as they devoted time and resources to the project.

“We are consultants and that is how Suncoast treats us, with that kind of respect,” added Pruitt, who notes that the values of Suncoast and the college—values such as reaching vulnerable populations and those who need services but have barriers to access—align nicely. “That makes the partnership easy.”

And what about the students? What do they gain besides the obvious—an impressive highlight for their growing resumes and a post-graduation employment contact to mine?

According to the four from Pruitt’s class, the Suncoast partnership allows them to practice their passion—one of the college’s mottos—in a real-world classroom while making a difference in the community where they live and go to school.

“What’s great about this project is we get to apply our work in the real world and see how it might affect patients, and that’s really satisfying,” said Samer Hussamy, whose career interests lie in health analytics. Nishat Jerin, who hopes to land a job in finance, operations or strategy at a hospital or skilled-nursing facility after graduation, agreed. “We’re gaining professional experience but also giving back to the community,” she said. “We’re getting the best of both worlds.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health