Management matters: How U.S. healthcare executives can improve millions of lives in Africa by sharing what they know

An abundant resource

There is an abundant resource in the U.S. that has the potential to improve the health and well-being of millions of people in the developing world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. It’s not a common plant species that can be bioengineered into a miracle drug. It has nothing to do with cell phones or the power of the sun’s rays. It’s readily available and doesn’t require sophisticated, costly extraction methods. The resource is management expertise. Specifically, healthcare management expertise. Allow me to explain.

Spark of an idea
In 2006, I attended a global health and entrepreneurship conference at Yale University, at which a keynote speaker said something that I found jarring. “In developing country health,” he stated, “the consequences of bad management are fatal.” Following the conference, I couldn’t let go of what he said in my mind. I resolved to comprehend what he meant.

Months of research ensued, but I finally understood his statement in its proper context. Namely, at hospitals, health centers and clinics throughout the developing world, management mattered…in an outsized way. In an environment where medical equipment, materials and trained staff were in perpetual short supply, the difference between life and death at a given health facility often hinged on the quality of its management.

Inadequate training programs for healthcare managers in the developing world
Furthermore, I learned that training programs that strengthened the “capacity” of healthcare managers in the developing world were few and far between. The nonclinical, management side of health was an area that had essentially been ignored.

The reality was that in most developing countries, doctors and nurses were put in charge of managing and leading health facilities, due to a lack of qualified candidates to serve as health system managers. Many of them had been placed in their leadership roles simply because they had a track record of success as doctors and nurses. For the most part, these skilled clinicians hadn’t received the necessary management training and education to be successful on the job.

Some promising developments
Twelve years have passed since the Yale conference, and the issue (some call it a crisis) of inadequately trained health managers in the developing world remains a major problem, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

But there have been some promising developments. In Africa, healthcare management is now widely recognized as a key component of a caring and responsive health system. And health management as a discipline has gained in credibility and popularity. Universities now offer courses in healthcare management in classrooms and via distance learning. Professional Beltway consulting firms and academic institutions have been awarded contracts to provide training – often in the form of 3-5 day seminars and workshops – to help health system managers improve their performance.

Where are the “practitioners”?
What is noticeably missing from this whirl of activity is what I call “practitioners” – experienced, pragmatic, hands-on men and women who have actually led and managed hospitals, clinics, and other health facilities. Executives who have learned valuable management and leadership lessons in the trenches for decades – not lifelong academics or professional Beltway consultants.

Incredibly, a training and mentoring model that employs practitioners to strengthen the capacity of health managers in the developing world has been virtually untested.

Healthcare management ain’t easy
In 2002, the esteemed management theorist and consultant Peter Drucker said, “Healthcare is the most difficult, chaotic, and complex industry to manage today.” I doubt that this statement is any less true in 2018. Moreover, I suspect that leading and managing a health facility in Africa is exponentially more difficult, chaotic, and complex, given resource shortages and the inadequacy of management and leadership training for African health administrators.

We have the supply in spades
In the U.S., there are thousands of recently retired and interim healthcare executives with more than 20 years of management experience – and the skills and expertise that are in short supply in Africa. Wouldn’t it make sense to tap into this untapped resource for the greater good beyond our borders? Wouldn’t it make sense to have American health managers work face-to-face with their African peers, exchanging ideas, sharing their experiences, and toiling collaboratively to solve problems and improve health outcomes?

Call to action
The scarcity of clinical personnel in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world has been well documented. But the acute shortage of trained and competent healthcare managers is an equally pressing matter – and one that requires increased attention and innovative new approaches.

Management and leadership training for healthcare administrators in Africa is currently delivered to a large degree by U.S. and European academics and professional consultants. Why not try a different tack? I believe the time has come for seasoned U.S. healthcare executives – managers with 20+ years of hands-on experience – to play a major role in strengthening health systems in Africa.

Consider what Mother Teresa once said: “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the water to create many ripples.” By sharing what they know, U.S. healthcare managers can create ripples that one day may turn into a wave.

Author’s Bio
Peter Korzenik is the Founder and President of Give Back Global, an international NGO that pairs senior-level U.S. healthcare executives with their peers in Africa on training and mentoring projects. He has sent hundreds of American business volunteers to developing countries around the world since 1991, and is a strong believer in the transformative power of “business volunteerism.”

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