SPH’s Saudi Success Story

Charlie Plain | June 23, 2014

Hidden within this year’s 425 School of Public Health graduates was a smaller but equally significant number: 25

The Saudi Arabian students along with MHA representatives Janet Duff, Drew Hatton, Dan Zismer and Tom Gilliam.
The Saudi Arabian students along with MHA representatives Janet Duff, Drew Hatton, Dan Zismer and Tom Gilliam.

Twenty-five Saudi Arabian men and women walked with the class of 2014 as the first graduates of an SPH pilot program that bring Masters of Healthcare Administration (MHA) training to their Middle Eastern country.

“Teaching the Saudis has been a terrific experience,” says the program’s chief architect and diplomat, MHA program director and professor Dan Zismer.

It’s a first-of-its-kind success story and one of overcoming logistical, cultural and academic issues so an intrepid cohort of foreign students could become healthcare leaders and proud UMN alumni.

From Riyadh to Minneapolis

The students’ road to Minneapolis began two years ago when officials with the King Fahad Medical City in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, contacted Zismer.

“They wanted us to partner with them to bring an executive MHA program there,” says Zismer. “They approached us because of the international reputation of our MHA program and the distance-learning executive MHA program we had developed.”

According to Zismer, the Saudis possess a sophisticated healthcare system and want to enhance it even further by creating a generation of healthcare leaders.

The executive MHA program (EMHA) the Saudis were in interested in is designed for practicing executives, physicians and other healthcare professionals seeking to advance their management and leadership capabilities.

Extending the EMHA program to the Saudi’s was initially a logistical challenge.

The design of the experimental two-year, distance program required course content to be delivered primarily online to the students in their own country and tailored to the particular needs of the Saudi’s medical system.

Zismer and other faculty also traveled to Saudi Arabia three times a year to connect with the students and deliver some lectures in person.

On top of that, an intensive “mini-residency” at the University was planned for during SPH graduation week to introduce the students to the major health systems in Minnesota.

Social challenges existed as well.

A primary concern for the SPH faculty was that women wouldn’t be allowed to participate in the program.

In truth, Zismer and his colleagues soon learned that one of the country’s most significant investments is university services for women and in this instance there wouldn’t be any problem with women taking courses.

“If you base a program in a medical facility where there are female physicians and executives, educating women isn’t an issue,” says Zismer.

With no barriers in place for students, Zismer says much of the program’s success was due to the efforts of Associate Program Director Tom Gilliam–and the support of the MHA faculty.

“Graduating our first cohort wouldn’t have been possible without our best faculty stepping up and saying ‘we’ll do this’, ” says Zismer. “I’m grateful the faculty here have been generous and in a sense worked overtime to make this program succeed.”

Transforming students into leaders

As for the EMHA participants themselves, Zismer thinks they were ideal students.

“They’re very worldly and highly educated and eager to learn,” he says.

One such student is Sari Rabah, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon and chairman of surgical specialties at the King Fahad Medical City.

Rabah found the EMHA program to be, in a sense, revealing.

“I thought the program was an eye-opener and, in many ways, transformational,” says Rabah. “I realized that health administration specifically, and public health in general, has the goal of serving the masses, which is of no less value than being a clinician and serving one patient at a time.”

The physician, husband and father of a young baby boy also found the demanding trip halfway around the world to Minnesota to be more than worthwhile.

“On the personal side, the Minnesota visit was one of the best memories I have had,” says Rabah. “It allowed me to strengthen even more the tight relationships I had formed with the other cohort members as well as some of the professors and program coordinators.”

“It gives me a lot of pride to be a graduate of this program and a part of the UMN alumni. I am looking forward to being a driver for change within my circle of influence, and I know that I have what it takes to succeed.”

Rabah’s thoughts clearly show his satisfaction with the training and reflect the results the EMHA program strives for in every graduate, whether they pursue coursework in Minnesota, Saudi Arabia or anywhere else abroad: a sense of school community, confidence in their newly enhanced leadership skill and faith in their ability to achieve.

~ Post by Charlie Plain

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