Using business skills to propel ‘big impact’ health improvements
May 24, 2013 — Five years ago, Shane Kiernan was an investment banker for a private equity real estate fund, helping evaluate potential acquisitions. In 2008, he established, and subsequently sold, a Dublin-based business called DealHunter that enabled consumers in Southern Ireland to buy products from Northern Ireland more cheaply. Today he’s studying at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) on a Fulbright Scholarship, on track to earn a master of science in health policy and management in 2014. His goal? To bring his business expertise to bear on health care improvements that have a transformational impact.
Why the switch? One reason is that Kiernan came from a family of health professionals—his father is a primary care doctor in Navan, County Meath, in Northeast Ireland. His mother is a nurse, his older brother is a doctor, and his sister is a neuropsychologist—so, even though Kiernan didn’t want to be a doctor himself, caring about people’s health was ingrained.
Another reason was rather serendipitous: in the spring of 2010, Kiernan happened to attend a lecture at his alma mater, University College Dublin, where he learned about the work of the Clinton Foundation, which fosters public-private partnerships to improve health, the environment, and economies around the world. It helped him realize that he could use his financial expertise not just in the world of business, but also in the developing world to make a difference in the lives of others. “For me, it kind of clicked,” he said.
Kiernan was able to secure an internship with an arm of the Foundation—the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI)—that brought him to Kenya. There, he helped write a grant to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria that was successful in bringing $350 million to Kenya’s HIV health service program.
“After that I was hooked,” Kiernan said. He worked for the Foundation for two more years, focused on health care financing in half a dozen countries in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2011, he decided to pursue a degree in public health. Although he’d gotten a lot of exposure to public health in developing nations at CHAI, he wanted to achieve a more global perspective of the field.
“I realized that to achieve the goals I had in mind, I’d need to round out my knowledge base,” Kiernan said. “I wanted to learn the formal language of health care through best practices and lessons from a broad set of international perspectives.”
At Harvard, a rich experience
Kiernan chose HSPH because it would allow him to do a summer internship with organizations that have a large impact, and to take advantage of the myriad educational opportunities offered throughout Harvard. Over the past year he has taken classes at Harvard Business School, Harvard Kennedy School, and MIT. He’s gained valuable insights from HSPH professors—“William Hsiao’s class on health care systems has been phenomenal,” he said—and has learned much from his fellow students.
“There’s a very rich experience among the students here,” he said. “One day I might hear someone talk about their experience in Singapore. The next day it could be about something in Brazil. There are all these intangibles that really add so much to the value of the HSPH degree.”
Kiernan has also taken on leadership roles during his time at HSPH. He’s involved with HSPH student government, the Harvard Graduate School Leadership Institute, the Harvard Graduate Council, and the HSPH Student Management Consulting Club, of which he’s founder and president. In his spare time, he plays rugby for the HBS rugby club. Those activities have been a valuable part of his education, providing him with opportunities to discuss potential careers, alumni networking, and the chance to connect with like-minded classmates, he said.
In the future, Kiernan would like to use his business skills to help evaluate health initiatives that provide the biggest impact for their cost. He also hopes to help health care organizations—like hospitals or life sciences companies—determine how best to plan and finance their own growth.
He definitely sees himself in a management role. “Prior to HSPH, my job required me to perform as an individual contributor,” he said. “Now, halfway through my degree, I am inspired to do much more. I want not just to be a participant in this field but a leader.”
photo: Aubrey LaMedica