What’s an MHA Case Competition? Tips & Strategies
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Case competitions deliver outstanding opportunities for healthcare administration students to showcase their skills and knowledge—so much so that students might feel surprised when they first learn about all the value these events offer.
These competitions enable students to research and analyze a challenging real-world healthcare problem, develop their collaboration and teamwork skills, network with industry leaders who are often hiring managers, and potentially win recognition, cash prizes, and even job interview invites.
Coming up, we’ll explore what case competitions entail, why these events have gained popularity among MHA students in recent years, famous strategies that can help teams win, and examples of some of the most prestigious and best-known recent competitions.
What Does an MHA Case Competition Look Like?
Case competitions are events where teams of university students present their analyses of a complex, real-world organizational challenge and recommend solutions to a panel of expert judges. These events offer a unique opportunity for students to apply classroom knowledge and research to real-world scenarios, and to develop and demonstrate a vast array of skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, public speaking, and team building.
We first covered competitions for MBA students in a 2019 feature article on our other platform about graduate management education, BSchools, and case competitions for MHA students are similar. All case competition teams receive the same written information about the client’s problem, and all have the same amount of time—with the same deadlines—before they deliver their presentations to the judges’ panel.
Then, the judges evaluate the quality of each team’s analysis, solutions, and overall presentation. Moreover, most case competitions are structured like tournaments, with several rounds where the winning teams advance to the next round.
However, there’s one big difference. In MHA competitions, the teams compete to solve challenging problems for a specific client operating in only a single industry: healthcare. For example, here’s the mission statement for the UCLA Global Health Case Competition, which reads just like the mission statement of an MBA case competition except for the next-to-the-last word:
Facilitate student networking, mentorship, and real-world problem-solving opportunities through collaboration in multidisciplinary teams that will develop innovative solutions to complex global health issues.
Who Are the Sponsors?
Traditionally, healthcare case competitions have been staged by master’s degree programs in healthcare administration affiliated with academic medical centers. However, today this isn’t always the case.
A collaborative multidisciplinary approach has become increasingly common in recent years, where professional societies or other graduate divisions like business schools or medical schools might join with the MHA programs to co-sponsor these events. These days, the competitions—and their cash prizes awarded to the winning teams—are often funded through the financial support of healthcare companies like hospital systems, pharmaceutical firms, and equipment manufacturers.
What Are the Topics?
These are called “case” competitions because each team receives a 20- to 30-page written scenario to analyze—similar to a typical Harvard Business School case study—that details a complex problem facing a healthcare organization. The case topics vary each year, but they usually focus on strategic, managerial, financial, or operational issues healthcare systems encounter.
From the recent topics in the competitions listed at the bottom of this article, one can observe that quality improvement, patient experience, population health, and digital health are common categories these days. Topics also focus on current controversies, such as strategies that might help reduce clinician burnout amid today’s increasingly frequent staffing shortages.
What’s more, some competitions’ topics are international in scope. For example, as this YouTube video shows, a 2021 sample topic at UCLA asked teams to provide innovative and creative solutions to address the most severe post-hurricane health challenges in various locations such as Florida, Mexico, Japan, and the Philippines. And a 2023 topic at Yale University titled “Flood Recovery and Resilience in Pakistan” asked teams to recommend interventions that would address waterborne diseases that resulted from floods in Sindh Province—and could be widely implemented for $1.5 million or less.
Who Are the Judges?
The judges’ panel often comprises executives and managers from the medical center’s healthcare system. At some competitions, the panel might even include members of the system’s board of directors and seasoned C-suite executives, like chief medical, strategy, operating, or marketing officers. Because hundreds of hiring managers often work for senior executives like these, a compelling presentation by a student before such judges can lead to transformative career benefits—including job interview invites before graduation.
For example, the Cleveland Clinic is well known for its nine-year track record of populating its judges’ panels with high-profile chief executives. Just look at the senior officer roles of the judges during the 2023 competition:
- Chief Strategy Officer Jim Cotelingam
- Chief Caregiver Officer Kelly Hancock, DNP, RN, NE-BC
- Chief of Operations William M. Peacock, III
- Chief Marketing Officer Will Rowberry, Cleveland Clinic London
- Executive Director of International Strategy Abigail Stapleton
Think about it: Unless an MHA student benefits from an enthusiastic introduction from a highly-respected mutual acquaintance like a university dean or a tenured professor, the probability that the student could gain any exposure in person or on video before a busy chief executive at a prestigious employer like the Cleveland Clinic would be nearly impossible. The opportunity such an on-stage spotlight provides is one of the main incentives encouraging MHA students to enter these competitions.
Are There Other Benefits Besides Exposure?
Since 2008, one of the top authorities on the applications of business case studies—and especially case competitions—has been the unique online resource Management Consulted. MC provides one of the most accurate and comprehensive websites about best practices in both the management consulting industry and graduate management education, and several BSchools feature articles rely on this astute team’s analyses and insights.
MC strongly encourages joining or creating a team and taking part in a case competition during graduate school. Here are two of their most compelling arguments:
There are a myriad of reasons for you to give a business case competition a shot. For one, working with a team will challenge your teamwork and leadership skills, including your ability to build consensus with peers over whom you have no direct hierarchical power. When you have people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives coming together to work towards a goal, you will undoubtedly have conflict, and conflict demands growth. Collaborative teamwork is a necessary component of any consulting career, and your team’s ability to execute under time pressure can put your skills in this area on display.
Another benefit of competing is to gain near-real world experience. The simulated experience of a case competition is more realistic than classroom discussions and develops your thinking and communication skills in a different way.
In a case competition, you’re solving real issues that your “clients” have faced or are facing. You’re digging deep into thorny business issues, often sifting through and analyzing tons of data, all to crystallize and communicate data-driven solutions. And the practice of pitching your recommendations to a seasoned panel of judges (i.e., learning how to sell and persuade) is invaluable.
How Do Teams Deliver Their Presentations?
Usually, three to six students will present a 15-minute PowerPoint slide presentation to the judges that explains the team’s analysis and recommendations, with each student discussing a key aspect for about three minutes. Then, before voting, the judges will have their own 15-minute opportunity to ask the students questions about their insights and analyses.
How does this work in practice? For example, 52 teams from universities across the nation flew to Los Angeles for the 2023 UCLA Center for Healthcare Management’s Case Competition. The top four teams’ final presentations—including the presentation by the University of Michigan team that won the $12,000 first-place award—appear in these YouTube videos.
Competition Tips: How to Win
Although there’s no one strategy that guarantees finishing first in any case competition, Management Consulted argues that there are indeed several steps that entrants can take that will boost their probabilities of success. Although a thorough discussion of these strategies lies beyond the scope of a single article like this one, here’s a brief summary of MC’s recommendations.
1. Divide Teamwork Into “ME/CE” Work Streams
The amount of data that a case team has to review and analyze under time pressure is massive. Accordingly, MC argues that efficiency requires the team to divide their work into “equal, non-overlapping areas.” In other words, each member’s work stream should be:
- Mutually exclusive (ME), meaning it has no overlap with any teammate’s work, and
- Collectively exhaustive (CE), meaning the team’s work covers all of the case objective’s main areas.
2. First Focus With a Hypothesis—Then Pivot
One of the first lessons that work experience teaches recent graduates is that inductive reasoning often won’t work in the real world, and this approach certainly won’t work under time pressure in a case competition. There’s not enough time for all teammates to review all the data first before envisioning their recommendations and drawing their conclusions.
What will work? First start with a hypothesis—an initial hunch about the key driver of the problem, and where the potential solution lies.
Next, here’s the approach MC recommends:
Defining this early hypothesis should be done in conjunction with establishing your work streams, ensuring that the team’s efforts will prove out and build a specific recommendation (or disprove the draft recommendation, allowing you to pivot!).
A hypothesis-driven approach allows you to be efficient in your analysis—if your initial hypothesis is right, you just saved yourself a lot of time looking at data that would not be useful. If you’re wrong, you’re learning information to help you pivot to a new hypothesis. As you work through your case competition, report any findings that lead to a need to update or change the team’s hypothesis to the Team Leader.
3. Structure Presentations Using the Pyramid Principle
Effective presentations in the real world demand deductive reasoning, with the specific recommendation or conclusion first, followed by the arguments supporting the proof.
Called the Pyramid Principle, this is the structure Management Consulted recommends for PowerPoint presentation storytelling because executive attention spans are ridiculously short. “If you don’t make your point in the first 10 seconds, you’ve already lost your audience,” says Columbia Business School MBA, former Bain & Company management consultant, and MC’s owner and CEO Jenny Rae Le Roux in her article accompanying this YouTube video.
The first post-MBA female professional hired by the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company in the 1960s, Harvard Business School alumnae Barbara Minto invented the Pyramid Principle and wrote a book about it in 1985.
4. Leave Judges With a Strong and Compelling Final Recommendation
The judges should have no doubt following the presentation about a team’s proposed solution and evidence-based rationale. Judges also need the team’s recommendations ranked in the order in which the client should attack the next steps.
Case Competition Examples
These events are open to qualifying teams from universities across the United States.
American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE)
ACHE of South Florida
Healthcare Leadership Development Case Competition
Business School Alliance for Health Management
Global BAHM Case Competition
Hankamer School of Business
Robbins Case Competition in Healthcare Management
Administrative Fellowship Program
Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy
Sloan Master in Health Administration
Healthcare Students Association Case Competition
Emory Global Health Institute
Emory Morningside Global Health Case Competition
Johns Hopkins University
Johns Hopkins Carey Business School
Johns Hopkins Graduate Consulting Club
Danaher Case Competition
Ohio State University
College of Public Health
Association of Future Healthcare Executives (AFHE)
First-Year Health Administration Case Competition
Pennsylvania State University
College of Health and Human Development
Department of Health Policy and Administration
Penn State Health Policy and Administration Case Competition
Texas A&M University
Mays Business School
Humana-Mays Healthcare Analytics Case Competition
School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine
Department of Health Policy and Management
Tulane Health Policy Case Competition
University of Alabama at Birmingham
School of Health Professions
Health Administration Case Competition
University of California at Los Angeles
UCLA Center for Healthcare Management
University of Michigan
School of Public Health
Health Policy Case Competition
University of Pennsylvania
Penn Biotech Group and PennHealthX
Penn Healthcare Case Competition (PHCC)
These events are restricted to qualifying teams of students who currently attend the sponsoring universities. The winners represent their universities in one or more national competitions, such as those listed above.
University of Minnesota
School of Public Health
UMN Carlson School of Management
Interdisciplinary Health Data Competition
Yale School of Medicine
Yale Institute for Global Health
Global Health Case Competition