CASE STUDY: Penn Medicine brings competency-based education to its practice.

Even as a young student, Gina Dent had dreams of earning a college degree and working in healthcare. She attended a college preparatory school and was accepted into Widener University, where she started her coursework. But after a couple of years, fatigue set in. “As a young adult, school just wasn’t what I wanted to focus on anymore. I figured I would always have time to go back later,” she shared.

Wanting to take a break from school, Gina entered into the workforce, making her way through the healthcare industry in frontline roles. After a few years, Gina progressed toward her goal of obtaining a degree by taking classes at a community college, but she found the scheduling and pace discouraging. Having two young children and a fulltime job, she didn’t have time to take on a full course load. “I knew I could do well in the program, but it wasn’t something that I could accomplish in a reasonable amount of time,” she explained.

In 2007, Gina started working for University of Pennsylvania Health System (Penn Medicine) as a patient access representative, interacting with patients in matters of insurance, billing, and customer service. While she didn’t know it at the time, her new employer would be instrumental to helping her finally achieve her goal of earning a degree. “People love to come to Penn Medicine because we're known as an organization that supports employee learning,” said Judy Schueler, Vice President of Organizational Development & Human Resources at Penn Medicine.

Better care through better training

Penn Medicine is dedicated to promoting continuous learning and improvement within its health system and established the Penn Medicine Academy to fulfill those goals. Headed by executive leadership, the Academy helps the system to continually improve care delivery and patient outcomes, to make Penn Medicine a better place to work, and to train staff to deliver care in a consistent and standardized way. “We have senior leaders who want to have a better workforce because they understand that if we have a better workforce, we deliver better care and service,” explained Judy Schueler.

“For practice management in ambulatory settings, employees tend to learn important competencies through experience, so they don’t always acquire the knowledge, skills, and behaviors in a consistent way,” Judy said. Across the healthcare industry, patient service representatives, financial business representatives, and practice coordinators are learning as they go—but their work is becoming increasingly important to improving not just care quality but also the patient experience.

Consequently, Penn Medicine Academy seeks out partners, educational models, and apprenticeships that help it create a consistent, standardized way of training and educating its workforce. So when Judy learned about College for America—a competency-based, workplace-applicable degree program with options specifically for nonclinical healthcare workers—she knew that it would be a great addition to the Academy. “College for America offers another exciting opportunity for us to make our organization better,” she said. “Its competency-based education model has promise for us, particularly in the area of practice management.

“Unlike existing business degrees in health care, the College for America degree focuses on helping employees manage a physician or ambulatory practice, coupling that education with an apprenticeship kind of model through real-world projects,” Judy shared. “I know of no other degree in the country that really focuses on the right blocks of knowledge in practice management like this one.” With the program’s competency requirements spanning regulatory requirements in an ambulatory setting, revenue billing and cycles, understanding how to improve the patient experience, responding to patient satisfaction surveys, value-based purchasing, and more, Judy was sure that Penn Medicine Academy needed to bring in College for America.

Competency-based education for standardized training and proven learning

College for America (CfA) at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) is a higher education nonprofit that launched in 2012 with the goal of better connecting workforce research, higher education, and labor market needs—and the goal of breaking down the traditional barriers that prevent adult workers like Gina from earning a college degree. As a result, CfA built a degree program specifically to work for working adults and their employers—one that is radically affordable, more accessible for working adults with busy lives, and more applicable to the workplace.

The postsecondary school offers accredited Associate of Arts (AA) and Bachelor of Arts (BA) degrees that are self-paced and based on mastering competencies through real-world, business- and healthcare-oriented projects. The program costs only $2,500 a year, which fits within most tuition reimbursement programs—and well within Penn Medicine’s generous $8,000 reimbursement policy.

Penn Medicine worked with CfA to launch a pilot program in February 2014 with nearly 30 employees. Its intent is to eventually open up enrollment to all employees across the system who can benefit from an Associate of Arts in General Studies for Nonclinical Healthcare or a Bachelor of Arts. “While our employees have never said, ‘I wish I could have a competency-based education program,’ they have said that they want an accessible program for this point in their lives—one that gives value to the work that they’ve already done,” said Frances Graham, Director of Workforce Development at Penn Medicine.

Gina Dent is part of this pilot program. “Once I heard about it, I was really impressed with how the whole program was laid out. It was something new that I knew I could do.”

A flexible learning model for busy working adults

Instead of attending classes and taking exams, CfA students like Gina learn by completing real-world projects. “I love the projects, Gina shared. “I can use my experience to finish a project, but I'm also learning new things by doing the projects—things that I probably wouldn't have researched or learned on my own.”

To complete a project, a student must demonstrate a defined set of competencies (for example, “can demonstrate active listening skills in one-to-one and small group contexts” and "can use charts and graphs to convey information"). The AA degree programs require mastery of 120 core competencies, and the BA degree programs require mastery of 120 core competencies as well as 120 advance content knowledge competencies. These competencies are validated by industry subject matter experts and map to SNHU’s and other universities’ traditional credit-hour-based degrees.

CfA requires that students master every competency, regardless of time, in order to earn a degree. Employers like Penn Medicine have increased confidence in employees who have proved mastery of workplace-relevant competencies in a controlled and standardized way. “People draw conclusions about what employees know based upon a resume, but you don’t want to confuse a resume with reality,” Judy Schueler stated. “A College for America degree validates skill, knowledge, and behavior.”

And students like Gina appreciate that they have the time they need to master them. “I might plan to take a month to finish one project. And then I might take that month, or I might get my project done earlier,” Gina explained. “Then for another project, I might plan to complete it in two weeks. And if it takes longer, that’s okay. It’s all based on what my schedule is going to be like and what I already know.”

As with all education and training programs, adoption and persistence is critical to success. CfA is committed to meeting students where they are and giving them the support they need. For example, it provides a robust set of resources for each project to help students develop competencies. Gina exclaimed, “When I saw the amount of resources they give you, I thought, ‘Wow. They really want you to do a good job and they wanted to give you as much help as possible.’"

Additionally, dedicated learning coaches provide one-on-one support when students want it, when they need it, and even when they don’t even know they need it. Coaches have regular check-ins with students, congratulate them on their accomplishments, and watch for warning signs that indicate that they may stray from their self-set goals. “Having coaches who reach out to the students is so unique,” said Frances Graham. “It helps with their motivation, and it’s consistent and targeted. It’s good to know that someone has an eye on our employees and wants them to succeed.”

Measuring success by statistics and stories

As an organization that believes in rapid experimentation, Penn Medicine will be measuring Gina’s and other employees’ progress at several milestones, including in the first 30 days and first 100 days. The organization will look for its current pilot students to be able to demonstrate their knowledge, skills, and behaviors and to complete their degrees.

Like all CfA partners, Penn Medicine receives a monthly report that identifies the employees in the program, the number of competencies they’ve completed, and their projected time to graduation. This data indicates employee progress but also helps the healthcare system support its people. “We want to know when our employees are graduating, so we can celebrate and recognize them,” explains Frances Graham. “With this report and level of partnership from College for America, we can anticipate those milestones.”

Following a successful pilot implementation and the planned open enrollment, Penn Medicine intends to use the CfA program as a pipeline to develop talent for practice management, as it typically adds 20 to 30 new practice managers to its workforce each year.

While the CfA program delivers measurable benefits, some of the most impactful results aren’t communicated by numbers and figures. For Gina Dent, the program has instilled in her new levels of motivation and confidence. “Now that I know how to use different resources and have learned new ways to do things, if I have to do a project for my job, I’m that much more committed to doing everything the right way. I put more integrity into what I put my name on.

“College for America is making me more aware of how much I’m capable of. I have the motivation and the encouragement from the feedback that I get on my projects that I can do whatever my employer needs me to do. And they can count on me to do it well too.”

For information about how you can bring College for America to your organization, let us know here or call 1-855-764-8CFA.

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