Innovative virtual course helps leaders tackle pandemic challenges in real time

Brown physician-scholars Dr. Ashish Jha and Dr. Megan Ranney led a virtual course that featured national health and medicine experts and offered lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic while there’s still time to learn from them.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — The end of the COVID-19 pandemic feels nearer every day, but this year’s global health emergency may well mark the start of an age of pandemics, experts agree — so the sooner the world can learn from and adapt to its challenges, the better.

That’s why public health and medicine scholars at Brown University wasted no time in preparing and delivering virtually a pandemic problem-solving course for working professionals.

An idea hatched late in 2020 became reality in February 2021, when the first class session was held online with Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown’s School of Public Health, and Dr. Megan Ranney, an associate professor of emergency medicine and director of the Brown-Lifespan Center for Digital Health. Twice weekly over six weeks, Jha and Ranney led the course with visits from national leaders to share frameworks, tools and lessons learned with course participants — a range of civil servants, policymakers and business leaders charged with addressing the unprecedented challenges of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S.

When Jha began his tenure as dean of the School of Public Health last September, he discussed with colleagues at Brown the need to think creatively about how to provide public health education for people who didn’t live near the University. Based on conversations with Brown Provost Richard M. Locke and other academic leaders, Jha said it became clear that the traditional model of public health education — attending classes in-person, on campus, with a long-term goal of an academic degree — didn’t need to be the only way to deliver instruction, and perhaps “smaller bursts” of education could also be useful for some people.

“There’s such a hunger for public health information, but obviously not everyone can travel to Providence for a class right now,” said Jha, who brought to Brown prior experiences in leading large open online courses.

“I really couldn’t think of a better topic as an initial educational offering than: ‘How do you solve complicated problems in the middle of a pandemic?’”

Dr. Ashish K. Jha Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health
Ashish Jha headshot

Shankar Prasad, deputy provost and vice president for academic innovation, said the pandemic presented an opportune moment to deliver in new digital format highly relevant instruction in service of Brown’s mission to make a positive impact on urgent issues in society. And for participants, what better time to try a remote short-form course than during a year of so much virtual learning, working and socializing?

“We were interested in finding ways to decouple place from learning,” Prasad said. “We wanted to find a way to use digital online education to expand the reach of the University and create new pathways of learning for diverse audiences around the world.”

With an interest in bringing Brown expertise to a broad audience, the focus of the course seemed obvious.

“I really couldn’t think of a better topic as an initial educational offering than: ‘How do you solve complicated problems in the middle of a pandemic?’” Jha said.

Lessons from the frontlines

The course — Pandemic Problem-Solving: Surviving and Thriving in the Age of Pandemics —  was structured to re-create the collaborative work that course leaders say is essential during a pandemic, bringing together people with diverse expertise from around the globe. Each 90-minute session was moderated by Jha or Ranney, who engaged featured experts in conversation on specific themes. The class would then divide into curated breakout sessions for knowledge-sharing and real-life problem solving with peers.

Speakers included leaders such as Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the Rhode Island Department of Health and a Brown MPH alumna, who discussed vaccine distribution; Dr. Dave Chokshi, commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, who presented on surveillance data; and Dr. Michael Mina, a Harvard epidemiologist and a core member of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, who discussed COVID-19 testing. Others presented on behavior change, health crisis misinformation and pivoting a business in response to pandemic-related financial loss.

The goals were to enable participants to work through challenges they might face in their careers and communities, to learn from the successes of others, and to equip students with the ability to devise long-term plans to prepare for the next pandemic and avoid mistakes and pitfalls made during this one.

In considering the themes and speakers that would be most informative for participants, the organizing team reflected on their own experiences. For example, as an emergency physician, Ranney understood firsthand the immense value of preparation.

“Last February, when those of us in public health and medicine saw the need to prepare for the impending COVID-19 pandemic by increasing stores of PPE, we did so in the usual ways: Working within our health care system to increase local supply, drafting petitions, writing op-eds, publishing articles in medical journals,” she said. “Then COVID hit our shores, and sure enough, we ran out of supplies almost immediately. It became clear that no one was going to save us; the federal government wasn’t going to step in.”

Ranney joined with other emergency physicians to form Get Us PPE, a national nonprofit that obtained donations of masks, gloves and gowns and sent them to frontline workers in need.

“I don’t traditionally work in supply chains; my public health experience is in understanding behavior change and risk,” she said. “But I very quickly realized that the same kind of thinking that’s helpful when trying to match the right health intervention to the right person could also be useful to matching PPE to the people who needed it most. I also thought about how I’d seen elsewhere in public health the value of informal communities of people who care coming together to address problems. With Get Us PPE, we were able to create solutions that wouldn’t have happened if we’d just waited for help.”

That lesson made its way into the Pandemic Problem-Solving course. In a session on supply chains, participants heard from Charlie Merrow, CEO of a textile company that, in response to last year’s catastrophic PPE shortage, pivoted to become the largest producer of U.S.-sourced medical gowns and coveralls.

"In times of crisis, you can think creatively and also form coalitions to create change.”

Dr. Megan L. Ranney Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine and Director of the Brown-Lifespan Center for Digital Health
Megan Ranney headshot

“In that session, participants learned about using agile thinking to meet a tremendous local need,” Ranney said. “I hope that what they took from that was that you don’t need to sit helplessly and bemoan a problem — in times of crisis, you can think creatively and also form coalitions to create change.”

The class roster of 46 included leaders in government, business, community organizations, health, education, law and more. Staff at the School of Public Health actively recruited participants who support marginalized communities, many of whom were awarded course scholarships.

A March 11 class session featured Dr. Uché Blackstock, founder and CEO of Advancing Health Equity and an emergency physician. In a lively conversation about health inequalities, Ranney and Blackstock discussed how Black people have higher risk factors for health issues that have nothing to do with biology, and how skin color often serves as a marker of “social determinants” that impact health and wellness. Blackstock stressed the importance of addressing health inequities with policies that build the strength of communities.

As they spoke, the chat thread for the virtual course was abuzz with a tandem discussion of useful synonyms for “social determinants” — “social risk factors,” “social predictors of health,” “adverse childhood experiences,” “adverse community environments” were all unpacked and evaluated.

Attendees had a number of questions for Blackstock. One person asked: “How do we create change even if we’re not at the top of the ladder at our organization?” Many participants were curious about Blackstock’s experience with opinion writing as a form of activism. Last year, she wrote a widely shared op-ed in which she called upon academic medical centers, including the one she had recently left, to “recognize and rectify the historical and current impact of racism on the health care workforce.” Blackstock encouraged members of the class to consider channeling their own critiques and experiences into op-eds, and provided practical tips she used to get started.

Course participant Dr. Mark Sendak took that advice to heart. Sendak, a clinical data scientist at the Duke Institute for Health Innovation, co-authored an op-ed about the need to compensate community organizations for their efforts to ensure vaccination equity. The piece was published two weeks after the class on the political news website The Hill. In a tweet about the op-ed, Sendak credited Blackstock, Ranney and Jha as his inspiration.

Creating a community of practice

Alison Wilcox, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Western New York, found the Brown course while searching for crisis management training that would allow her to synthesize her work over the past year not only as a CEO, but as a member of the parent organization’s national COVID-19 task force. The session that made the greatest impact involved applying harm reduction principles to business operations during the pandemic, she said.

“It helped me think about how the Girl Scouts organization can meet the needs of our members, in terms of offering in-person meet-ups, while also being as safe as possible,” Wilcox said. “As we plan for summer and think about camp, we’re really deeply thinking through risk-mitigation strategies.”

Another important lesson, she added: “Being a strong business doesn’t simply mean that you’re able to go back to normal after a crisis. It also really matters how your organization helps its people recover from the trauma we’ve all been through. That was something that really stood out to me.”

Wilcox said she appreciated how the course structure of guest presentations, breakout discussions and supplemental work outside of class strengthened the learning experience.

“This past week at our national committee meeting, I was sharing some of my takeaways,” Wilcox said. “The course really lifted me up. I feel calmer and better able to lead us through the next — and hopefully last — phase of the pandemic.”

Ranney said that while the course provided relevant information and helped participants develop critical thinking skills about acute public health pandemics, the most important thing it accomplished was to create a community of practice: “These are leaders who have been trying to figure out these big challenges on their own,” she said. “We provided them with the connections that they may have been lacking in the pandemic.”

For course participant Mary Harrison, interim health director of the Choctaw Health Center in Mississippi, the opportunity to share with and learn from other leaders was invaluable. 

“In our breakout rooms, we were able to have the kind of open conversations about the challenges of the pandemic that we might not feel comfortable having with others in our organizations,” Harrison said.  “I feel optimistic that our community and our bond will exist beyond this course.”

Jha and Prasad noted that while faculty across campus have implemented a wide range of innovative approaches to remote and hybrid courses during the COVID-19 pandemic, the course offered a new model for bringing Brown’s world-class education to new communities of learners in a short-duration format — a model that University academic leaders plan to build on in the future.

“With the Pandemic Problem-Solving course, we were trying to meet the moment and address a real educational need with a flexible, high-quality educational model,” Jha said. “It went incredibly well, and I feel like this could be the beginning of something really powerful and long-lasting.”