UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, professionals in the health administration field have worked to meet their communities’ and organizations’ changing needs while functioning under new safety guidelines. 

Student Carrie Dugas and recent graduate Jennifer Inman said that the Master of Health Administration in Health Policy and Administration program offered online through Penn State World Campus gave them the skills and training needed to tackle the new challenges they face. 

After discovering a passion for working with the elderly, Dugas began working at a long-term care facility in North Carolina, where she was promoted to director of independent living and will oversee life enrichment, wellness, resident services, and transportation. 

But Dugas said she still wanted more of a challenge in her career and realized that she needed to go back to school. 

“I really wanted to branch out and broaden my horizon to bring ideas back to my organization as best I could, and then potentially figure out what my career’s next step is,” said Dugas, who expects to graduate fall 2021. 

Before the pandemic, Dugas said, her responsibilities included planning engagement programs and health and wellness initiatives for 285 residents. She also managed the budget, led general staff meetings, and implemented strategic initiatives for the department. 

When the pandemic started, Dugas said, her department had to quickly figure out how to provide care and services for residents in a safe environment, such as through virtual exercise classes, health check-ups, events, and more. When restrictions were later lifted, her department had to figure out how to re-open safely.  

Headshot of student Carrie Dugas

“Everything was flipped upside down and figuring out how to navigate working in long-term care when we have some of the most vulnerable population when it comes to this virus is hard, so that is hard on both the residents and staff,” said Dugas. “How do you protect older residents? How do you operate one way and then turn it into something completely different on the fly?” 

Dugas said that her responsibilities have also expanded to support the organization’s 295 staff members' physical, mental, and emotional health.  

This new responsibility reflected onto Dugas’s capstone project, which will survey long-term care organizations in North Carolina about employee morale during the pandemic. Dugas suspects that underfunding and working with vulnerable residents during the pandemic has led to increased burnout in staff. 

Dugas said that despite the challenges, her Penn State World Campus education, professors, and peers have helped her power through it all. 

“My courses could not be more relevant to what I'm experiencing within my organization, and it helps to have connections that have experience working in challenging health care environments,” said Dugas. “It’s great because you can rely on them for help and a new perspective.” 

Penn State World Campus’s online MHA program combines the principles of health care and business management to prepare students to lead change and solve problems in the dynamic health care environment. 

The program was created in collaboration between Penn State World Campus and the Penn State Department of Health Policy and Administration in the College of Health and Human Development. The online program is based on Penn State’s nationally ranked residential MHA program, which was established more than 25 years ago and is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education. 

The 49-credit program spans seven semesters and is composed of 19 total courses, including a capstone project that integrates content from all the courses, and two in-person intensives that bring students to the University Park campus for a week at the beginning and end of the program. The intensives were held virtually during the pandemic. Course focuses include financing health care, operations for health services management, quality improvement in health care, health care marketing, health economics, health law, and information systems in health services administration. 

The health care field is continuously growing, and graduates of the program will be taught skills to take on administrative, management, or executive positions in numerous health care–related organizations, such as hospitals and health systems, clinics and outpatient care centers, insurance companies, federal regulatory and public health agencies, and more. 

“We are preparing students to lead in a wide variety of settings by building skills and competencies that are often applied immediately in their current work,” said Chris Calkins, executive director of the MHA programs. 

“One of the hallmarks of our program is the depth of experience of our faculty, all of whom have held leadership roles in health services organizations. This experience enables us to meet students where they are in their professional journey and to work with them across diverse settings.” 

Jennifer Inman, a fall 2020 graduate, said she knew that earning her degree online was the right choice because she could continue in her role as the mental health business manager for Jackson County Health and Human Services in Oregon. 

Headshot of alumni Jennifer Inman

“I didn't have the intention to stop work to do my master's program, so I looked for a program that I could do while working,” said Inman. “The master's in health administration program curriculum was exactly what I wanted to work on, and it gave me an opportunity to get my degree while still working full-time.” 

As the mental health business manager, Inman oversees the various departments that handle mental health support in her county. When the pandemic reached Jackson County in March, Inman joined the county’s COVID response team as planning section chief — she continues to help monitor the spread of COVID-19 in the community and support the county’s response initiatives. Most recently, she’s been helping coordinate mass vaccination events in collaboration with public health officials, local hospitals, and the National Guard.

In September, Inman joined the county’s emergency response team for the wildfires and helped coordinate mass shelter for those displaced by the fires, including a medical center, emotional support, social supports, and connections to health care providers in the community. She said those efforts made up the health care section of the county’s larger emergency response to the fires. 

Inman said that when people think about health administration, they often only think of organizations such as hospitals and primary care facilities. They may not realize there are many local public health and community health centers working to keep communities safe and healthy. 

Inman said that in many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has been career-defining.

“For everyone who works in health care, the breadth of this and the impact on how we deliver care is massive. How we fund care, how we organize care, and our relationships to each other as care providers and agencies are changed,” said Inman. “All of those experiences are a massive shake; it's a culture-changing event.” 

Inman and Dugas agreed that the education and support they received from Penn State World Campus helped them persevere through the challenges they and their organizations faced in the last several months. 

“Penn State World Campus has helped me gain confidence in my abilities because I’m continuously applying what I’ve learned in my courses to my career,” said Dugas. “I don't know how I would function without all of the experiences that I have gained from this program.”