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The University of Arkansas’ business school is embarking on a one-of-a-kind enterprise to transform the business of providing health care for the better.

The Sam M. Walton College of Business took some of the first steps of its journey late last year, first by creating a master’s degree program in business analytics with the help of a $2 million gift from Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield. The degree program is named in honor of retired Arkansas Blue Cross CEO Bob Shoptaw.

“There is a growing need for highly skilled health care data analysts who can turn information into insights that will allow providers, payors and researchers to develop new initiatives to improve patient outcomes, enhance care management and promote a whole person approach to care that addresses a patient’s physical health, behavioral health and social needs all together,” said Arkansas Blue Cross CEO Curtis Barnett. Shoptaw was an early industry leader in recognizing the critical role data and analytics can play in improving the overall health care system, Barnett added.

Then David Dobrzykowski, an associate professor in the J.B. Hunt Transport Department of Supply Chain Management, was named director of Walton College Healthcare Initiatives, a broader effort that includes the master’s program.

The goal of both steps is big and simple, Dobrzykowski said: to leverage the college’s wide-ranging expertise and become a relevant and positive partner for local health care systems. The region is lagging in needed health care infrastructure, as the Northwest Arkansas Council has found previously, but that leaves the field wide open for innovation and change.

“This region is just ripe to be a global leader in a new model of health care delivery,” he said, pointing to the local nonprofit Whole Health Institute and the incoming Alice L. Walton School of Medicine as manifestations of the area’s potential. “We are so excited about Northwest Arkansas truly being capable of becoming a demonstration project for the world.”

The business side of health concerns operations, keeping a hospital or clinic running and fully supplied, as opposed to the clinical side concerning medicines and surgical procedures. But the line between the two is a blurry one. How quickly a room becomes available, for example, is largely a management question but can easily become a matter of life or death.

The master’s program and future programs under the Healthcare Initiatives umbrella will allow providers to analyze such questions and find better ways to answer them, Dobrzykowski said.

Other Walton College programs with a similar overlap include two executive MBA tracks: one giving a special focus on health care in partnership the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the other granting a simultaneous doctorate of nursing practice in partnership with the Eleanor Mann School of Nursing.

Paul Cronan, information systems professor at Walton College, directs the healthcare business analytics master’s program and said it was unique in the country, meaning there’s no one else to use as a model. So he has leaned on advisers from UAMS, Cleveland Clinic, state government and elsewhere to piece together the necessary courses.

Cronan’s in the process of hiring faculty and expects the first students to begin this fall. He hopes eventually to create a new profession of health care managers, much like the wealth managers who help people prepare for retirement and so on.

“It is my goal to be an example and a forerunner for other programs in the future,” he said. “People helped us do this. We’re going to help others.”

Special thanks to our major investors for their support of the Northwest Arkansas Council and our work in the region: