Graduate students learn health policy through interactive La Follette course

Students sit at a tables discussing health policy topics
Students in PA 974 participate in a group discussion.

Graduate students bring rich life experiences and training into the classroom, and in PA 974: Health Systems and Policy, this collective intelligence drives learning. In this course, students from graduate programs across campus and MPA students explore U.S. health policy, diving into financing and delivery of medical care, pharmaceutical pricing, mental health policy issues, reform options, health equity, and public health policy challenges.

Portrait of Mary Kate O'Leary
Mary Kate O’Leary

Mary Kate O’Leary (MPA/MPH ’21), researcher and evaluator at the UW Population Health Institute, took the course in 2021. “I loved the deep dive this course offered into health policy problems, with class discussion moving us towards potential solutions,” O’Leary says. “I remember a class session where our group drew a systems map of incentives and interests involved in long-term care. I had experience working in assisted living, but reading the materials and talking with my classmates helped me to see it through a bigger lens, not just thinking about a few individuals.” O’Leary is now part of a team evaluating a publicly-funded long-term care initiative. “The course helped me to recognize how we might impact long-term care policy in multiple ways.”

Mary Michaud, who designed and teaches the course, spent two decades working in health policy and public health before joining La Follette as teaching faculty and undergraduate program lead. Michaud spent more than 15 years as an adjunct professor at UW–Madison, teaching interdisciplinary health policy courses for the UW Law School and the School of Medicine and Public Health. During her role as a division director for a midsized public health department, she also supervised learners, from undergraduates to MPH graduates.

Portrait of Mary Michaud
Mary Michaud

“People learn best when they work collaboratively on real-world problems they care about,” Michaud says. “To get to better policy approaches, students need experience evaluating evidence and having conversations where they can respectfully disagree.” Doing that requires relationships based on trust, so she ensures students interact during each class period.

Michaud uses experience as a professional facilitator alongside teaching strategies from the UW Discussion Project to help students form their own insights. To highlight ways health care markets differ from other consumer markets, for example, Michaud asks students to compare and contrast markets for hotel rooms and those for hospital rooms. This active, animated discussion helps students reveal problematic incentives in the ways medical care is financed, paid for, organized and delivered. 

Portrait of Tim Madigan
Tim Madigan

Tim Madigan took the course while completing his master’s degree in biomedical engineering at UW–Madison. “The course prepared me to see how FDA regulations shape the process for bringing medical devices and pharmaceuticals to market,” he says. After graduating, he worked as a regulatory affairs specialist for a medical device manufacturer and is now a first-year MD/MPH student at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Madigan will research a community health equity issue over the next four years. “Much of the background I have regarding public health and health disparities comes from the Health Systems and Policy course.”

Jason Chladek is a PhD candidate completing his dissertation in health services research in pharmacy at UW–Madison’s School of Pharmacy. His research identifies barriers and facilitators that formerly incarcerated individuals face in accessing medications from community pharmacies upon reentry. “The Health Systems and Policy course taught me how important interdisciplinary collaboration is to informing health policy, as different groups can uniquely think about and contribute to solving problems,” says Chladek. The course helped him think beyond the individual and examine the influences of the system and environment on population health.

Portrait of Justin Rivas
Justin Rivas

Students also want experience applying what they have learned. “When students engage in practical exercises that help them apply evidence to current policy problems,” says Michaud, “they are better equipped to contribute after they graduate.” To deepen students’ experiences in the course, Michaud reached out this fall to La Follette School alum Justin Rivas (MPA/MPH ’09), director of community health initiatives at the Milwaukee Health Care Partnership, asking him to develop two applied projects for the course. In class, groups explored financing options for hospitals aimed to more effectively work with partners to address community violence. Then students presented their findings to Rivas, who says their work will inform the Partnership’s Violence Intervention Steering Committee.

This spring, Michaud will teach PA 201: Introduction to Health Policy in the U.S. One hundred undergraduate students from more than 20 distinct majors will bring rich life and academic experiences into their discussions. She will also roll out a new client-based health policy workshop course for seniors. Both courses are part of La Follette’s undergraduate certificate in health policy.

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