Training the Next Generation of Health System Leaders

May 19, 2023

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IHPME and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health (DLSPH) are working to address a gap in the training of public health and health systems doctoral students to better prepare them to be future health system leaders. Unique to public health doctoral education, this course provides training on core leadership competencies, enabling graduates to be better prepared to take on leadership roles across health systems. The course is called “Training for impact: The Art and Science of Health System Leadership” and is available to all PhD students at IHPME and DLSPH.

IHPME is leading the charge in Canada for training future health leaders and researchers with the skills to advance evidence-informed health system transformation.”

~ Dr. Audrey Laporte, IHPME Director

Training Health System Leaders

The course stems from pan-Canadian efforts to modernize doctoral training to prepare students for leadership and impact in a diverse array of employment sectors and roles – including in learning health systems. A 2015 Pan-Canadian Training Modernization Strategy – led by Dr. Adalsteinn Brown (Steini), CIHR’s Institute of Health Services and Policy Research, and a task force of health system and academic leaders across the country – identified that many students want to use their research skills to make real-world impacts within the health system but feel underprepared to do so. Their work found that few public health and health systems doctoral programs across the country include leadership training within their curriculum. Brown, IHPME’s Professor Meghan McMahon (and Associate Scientific Director with CIHR-IHSPR), and the task force developed a competency framework to enrich health services doctoral training with a core suite of leadership competencies. The competency framework has been adopted by several embedded research fellowship programs, including CIHR-IHSPR’s Health System Impact Fellowship and the OHT Impact Fellowship, but has not yet been widely implemented in universities. 

“PhD students want to use their doctoral training and research skills to make an impact and contribute to real change and improvement in our health system. To achieve this, our future leaders also require the opportunity to develop their skills in leadership, including change management, collaboration, and communication, among others. Generally, these skills are not yet incorporated in core doctoral training curriculum. Our course aims to complement and enrich students’ PhD research training with an introduction to health system leadership designed to improve their capability to lead change and make positive evidence-informed impacts.” ~ Dr. Meghan McMahon, Assistant Professor, IHPME

IHPME and the DLSPH decided to address this gap and introduce a leadership course directly within the PhD curriculum. Three IHPME faculty, Professors Meghan McMahon  and Beverley Essue and Senior Fellow Terry Sullivan teamed up to develop the course concept with co-design and engagement with a group of PhD students and Senior Fellows

The course intentionally aligns to the Pan-Canadian Training Modernization initiative and aims to prepare a new cadre of PhD graduates for embedded research and leadership roles within health system organizations and learning health systems. 

Support from both IHPME and DLSPH has resulted in the incorporation of this instrumental leadership course within the PhD curriculum. 

“We adopted a co-design approach to the course development that involved a working group of PhD students and Senior Fellows who helped inform the content and approach. This was invaluable and the course development is ongoing.” ~ Dr. Meghan McMahon 

Currently unique to IHPME and DLSPH, this course provides a potential model for adaptation, scale, and spread to other universities to help advance the pan-Canadian Training Modernization Strategy and the implementation of the enriched core leadership competencies within doctoral training curriculum. This course reflects a shared commitment of IHPME and DLSPH towards training modernization, to the enriched core competency framework, and to ensuring all PhD students in the program have the opportunity to complement their research program with the leadership training required to effectively lead in future-facing health systems.

Learning with Leaders

The course focuses on the “art and science” of health system leadership, offering students a sampling of key leadership competencies, ranging from: leading self, collaborative leadership, inclusive leadership, change leadership, communicating for impact and leadership for sustainable health systems. It also provides the opportunity to learn from faculty and practice experts. With a deliberate and explicit emphasis on equity, diversity, and inclusion, this course exposes students to a vision of leadership that addresses the pressing and pervasive inequities that challenge health systems globally. Sessions include a blend of learning modalities including theory burst, small breakout discussions, leadership panels, and hands-on exercises such as mock debates to practice applying their skills. A stellar line up of diverse, expert guest faculty connect students to leaders in the key domain areas. The course involves a cohort of Senior Fellows who contribute lived experience, mentorship for the students, and insight regarding the ‘art’ of leadership.

“We’ve been quite intentional about mainstreaming an equity lens throughout this leadership training, including unconscious bias training, a focused session on inclusive leadership (that I co-lead with Dr. Akwatu Khenti), and explicit attention to EDI within each session (i.e., choice of case studies, speakers, readings, etc.). We know the capital that organizations gain from diversity in leadership and this focus is really resonating with students.”  ~ Dr. Beverley Essue, Associate Professor, IHPME

Value for Students 

One of the goals that McMahon and Essue have for this course is for it to contribute to the growth of a new cohort of doctorally-trained individuals who are committed to the use of data and evidence to inform change and transformation in leadership roles across health systems globally. They want to ensure that their graduates have the leadership skills they need to navigate the complexity of the health system and lead, inspire, and drive evidence-informed change. 

“This course provides a fundamental bridge between the theoretical and practical for students at IHPME, regardless of whether they anticipate working outside academia or not. The leadership skills and contemporary topics discussed in this class help prepare students for “what’s next” in their careers and leadership journeys.” ~ Nicole Minutti, IHPME MHSc in Health Administration Alumna and Current PhD Student in Health Policy

The course was designed to enrich the PhD students’ toolkit of research and analytic skills with leadership skills, provide students with the opportunity for mentorship from experienced health system leaders, and expand the students’ professional networks. The value to students is in the increased knowledge and capabilities in health system leadership and in new relationships with health system leaders.

“The fact that the course occurs over a full academic year is also kind of unique and allows time for you to see how the facets of leadership play out in some of the dynamics that you might be involved in while also having opportunities to kind of put some of the learnings into practice in your own work. I also really appreciate how committed the instructors are to gathering feedback and continually making the course better. One of the things that I think is pretty unique about the way the instructors are approaching teaching this course is they seek feedback after every session in addition to the end of year course evaluations.” ~ Danielle Toccalino, IHPME HSR Student

Student Feedback

The following quotes were provided anonymously by students from the course in their evaluations:

“Wonderful course that should be a pre-requisite for all graduate students.”

“It has been one of the most impactful learning experiences I’ve had to date.”

“Terrific course, loved learning from the faculty, senior fellows, leaders and classmates.  What a privilege to have been a part of this inaugural cohort.”

“Completely loved this course, I would greatly appreciate more courses like these… In my opinion, this course was a huge success! The instructors and senior fellows are amazing and insightful. The EDI aspects were intentional and well-put together, which is reflective of inclusive and open-minded instructors… It was truly a privileged opportunity to be part of the first cohort. My favourite course at IHPME. Thank you so much.”

Future Plans

McMahon and Essue have implemented a continuous learning and improvement approach to the course design that allows for adaptive adjustments to its design and delivery to enhance the students’ learning experience. They plan on continuously refining and improving the course and hope that all IHPME and DLSPH students who are interested in making an impact with their PhD training will consider joining the course. 

Another item they are considering is to create a course toolkit that other programs and universities interested in training modernization and health system leadership can use to create similar learning opportunities or that can be used for multi-university collaboration on a pan-Canadian course. 

Special Thanks

Drs. McMahon and Essue would like to thank the following experts for their contributions to the course:

Guest faculty from IHPME

Alison Paprica, Ross Baker, Kevin Smith, Fiona Miller, Walter Wodchis, Kerry Kuluski, Geoff Anderson, Rob Reid, Laura Desveaux, Nakia Lee-Foon, Abi Sriharan, Rick Glazier, Jonathan Lai, Wendy Nelson, Christine Shea and Tina Smith. 

Guest faculty from DLSPH 

Steini Brown, Samuel Oduneye, Ryan Hinds, Akwatu Khenti, Rob Steiner, and Seema Marwaha.

Senior Fellows

Terry Sullivan, Janet Beed, Connie Clerici, Mimi Lowi-Young, and Deb Matthews, Robert Devitt, Malcol Moffat, and Jonathan Guss. 

Guest Expert

Anna Greenberg, Chief Regional Officer, Toronto & East at Ontario Health

If you are interested in reaching out to either Dr. Meghan McMahon or Dr. Beverley Essue to learn more about this course, please feel free to contact them directly: 

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