Health administration course uses pandemic to see the value of health care

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — From learning to successfully navigate the increasingly complex health care environment, to studying leading economic and epidemiological models, many courses offered by Penn State’s Department of Health Policy and Administration pivoted to incorporate COVID-19 as a real-time learning experience during the spring 2020 semester.

While the coronavirus shifted the learning experience from the classroom to a virtual setting, David Vanness, professor of health policy administration, saw the pandemic as an educational opportunity for graduate students in HPA 597, Valuing Healthcare: Policy and Practice.

The course is based around the principle of using resources efficiently and ethically to maximize population health while controlling costs. The goal is to prepare students to contribute to academic research and public debate about the "value" of health care interventions and value-based policies affecting coverage and pricing of medical technology both in the United States and abroad.

“COVID-19 has emphasized just how important it is to understand the use of models for evaluating health care strategies. It also emphasizes the importance of resource limitations, opportunity costs and optimization. Students who have taken the course will have a strong foundation in these concepts,” said Vanness. “We are taking the opportunity to do some hands-on learning about the mechanics of compartmental models and microsimulations by programming our own working COVID-19 simulations.”

Dave Vanness, professor, health policy and administration Credit: Penn State Health Policy and AdministrationAll Rights Reserved.

Existing course objectives involve issues that have turned out to be central to the policy and ethics debates over COVID-19 policy. Students study implications of measuring the impacts of health care on morbidity and mortality using quality-adjusted life years — an approach that has been criticized as valuing the lives of the aged and disabled less than the lives of the young and healthy.

“I’ve always thought that people who make the extraordinary commitment to attend graduate school largely do so for two reasons: a drive to participate in the process of discovery, and a desire to do good for others," said Vanness. "COVID-19 has left students uprooted, uncertain and frankly, scared. It was my hope that by applying principles we had already learned to better understanding COVID-19 public policy that we could join in the discovery and contribute to the greater good. And, in doing so, relieve some of the hopelessness and anxiety that we were feeling.” 

The final day of the course, clinical trial results on the effectiveness of remdesivir — an antiviral drug that is being tested to treat severe cases of COVID-19, were released by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The course concluded by pulling together everything that was learned to debate the crucial question: “How much should we pay for it?”

Graduate courses in HPA provide students a solid foundation for shaping health policy and making vital changes to global health-related organizations. Learn more about graduate courses in the health policy and administration program at Penn State on the health policy and administration graduate program webpage.

Last Updated May 12, 2020