Today’s workforce has a high demand for graduates of Iowa’s JD-MHA combined degree program.
A year before entering law school, Ammon Fillmore (10JD, 10MHA) spent many hours in hospitals carrying a big box of medical records for his father, who had recently been diagnosed with a terminal cancer. That experience provided a window into a challenge in health care and piqued Fillmore’s interest in improving the accessibility of health care information between providers. “My father was getting world-class care, yet the information around his care wasn’t remotely centralized or easily accessible,” says Fillmore. “I could see the frustration the physicians had in trying to get his data.”
That interest spurred Fillmore to pursue a master’s in health administration alongside a juris doctorate at the University of Iowa. Spending one more year in law school to target his studies toward his career goals, Fillmore found a compelling, interdisciplinary field brimming with opportunities.
The pandemic has highlighted the need for health information to be more readily available, as public health officials use data to inform decisions on COVID-19 testing and vaccine distribution. Rapid changes in health care practices and regulations over the past few years have created a greater need for people who understand the convergence between law and health care, making Iowa’s JD-MHA combined degree program more appealing than ever for students and employers. The UI is one of the nation’s few universities to offer the combined degree through two highly ranked programs, while also bringing students firsthand experiences through a partnership with UI Health Care. The specialized program, covering topics ranging from health information systems to health care ethics, provides in-depth training in health care management and law.
Since earning a JD-MHA degree from Iowa, Fillmore has worked more than a decade in health care privacy. As a general counsel and privacy officer at Indiana Health Information Exchange, he balances public needs with legal issues to disseminate health information between providers and public health officials. Whether its navigating health privacy laws to expedite food and nutrition assistance for pregnant women, or interpreting information from COVID-19 dashboards to provide public health authorities near real-time data on outbreaks, Fillmore delivers information that empowers smarter public health decisions. “COVID-19 has really shined a light on the need for public health data infrastructure,” says Fillmore. “Working in health information technology, especially the privacy and security side, it feels like the Wild West at times because you don’t have longstanding precedents to reference.”
FORGING A NEW PATH
Doug Boysen (98JD, 98MA) had few precedents to follow when he chose a combined law and health care administration degree before the formalized program existed at Iowa. Inspired by his internship experience in nonprofit health care at Covenant Medical Center in Waterloo, Iowa, he sought advice from a few UI alumni who chose a similar path. “The health care industry was becoming more complex and regulated, and it seemed like the law degree would be a good asset,” says Boysen. “I was looking for something that would provide options for different pathways.”
Initially working for a health law firm after graduation, Boysen has spent most of his career immersed in health care. Since 2018, he has served as president and CEO of Samaritan Health Services, a nonprofit health care system in Oregon. Boysen’s versatile education has helped him lead a five-hospital network of 6,000 staff members amid a pandemic, as well as through the September 2020 wildfires that forced the evacuation of all staff at Samaritan’s Lincoln City hospital and the transfer of patients to another hospital 25 miles away. “The JD-MHA has allowed me to better understand the regulatory complexity, changing directives, and waiving of regulations that have happened during the pandemic,” says Boysen. “I’m able to quickly take in that information and manage all the different moving parts.”
Boysen improves communication with his staff through an email or video message he sends every Monday morning highlighting system updates, award recognitions, remarkable employee efforts, or patient stories. He credits the College of Law for helping him become a better writer and communicator, whether it’s with staff, legislature, the governor, or the state’s hospital association board. “The writing training I received in law school helps me get my point across concisely and effectively,” says Boysen. “The verbal training taught me how to react on my feet—and at times you have to have courage, be bold, and advocate.”
CARE FOR COMPLIANCE
When the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, Darcelle Skeete Burgess (13JD, 14MHA) knew she’d find numerous career opportunities in health law. Learning more about her options through a UI combined degree open house, career services seminars, and conversations with law dean Gail Agrawal, Skeete Burgess enrolled in the MHA program near the end of her first year of law school and became interested in health care compliance. Skeete Burgess, who was raised in a family of health care professionals, gravitated toward working at a hospital rather than a law firm. “Being able to impact hospital operations and patient care sounded more fulfilling to me,” says Skeete Burgess.
As manager of regulatory compliance at Emory Healthcare in Atlanta, Skeete Burgess advises providers, clinicians, and staff on policies and processes that need to be implemented to remain compliant with federal rules and regulations. She investigates compliance and privacy concerns, communicates with patients, and reports privacy matters to the federal government. As telemedicine requirements have loosened and adapted amid the pandemic, Skeete Burgess interprets new federal regulatory guidance and advises providers and clinicians on how to maintain patient privacy while delivering care virtually.
Whether she’s talking with a patient, advising a provider on a compliance matter, or discussing a legal concern with general counsel, Skeete Burgess credits her JD-MHA degree experiences in helping her become an effective communicator. “My experiences from internships, classroom discussions, and case studies have prepared me for talking with various individuals and clearly communicating regulatory guidance, advice, and recommendations,” says Skeete Burgess.
As the pandemic presents new challenges and opportunities in health law, the JD-MHA combined degree provides students the versatility to carve a unique career path and differentiate themselves from their peers. “Find your intersection,” Fillmore advises students. “Find what you’re interested in, and cross that with the law.”
Tyler Strand is a writer and editor at the University of Iowa Center for Advancement.