International Partners In Health
Iceland's Disruptive Volcano Doesn't Stop Vice Dean Michael O'Connor from Presenting Capstone Executive MPH Course at Reykjavik University

On-site in Reykjavik

The Eyjafjallajökull volcano about to erupt

A waterfall in Reykjavik

Approximately two years ago, Iceland's major university, Reykjavik University, located in its capital city of Reykjavik, invited Dr. Michael O'Connor, NYUCD's Vice Dean for Administration & Finance, to visit in April 2010 for two non-consecutive weekends to present the prestigious capstone course in its inaugural, two-year, Executive MPH Program. Dr. O'Connor's topic was "Knowledge-Based Organizations." In addition to Reykjavik University faculty, two faculty members from Columbia University and two faculty members from the Mayo Clinic participated in the program, leading up to Dr. O'Connor's capstone course focusing on public health leadership, models of organizations, healthcare access, quality improvements, employment policy and compliance, patient rights, and electronic health information systems.

Dr. O'Connor, who earned his EdD at Columbia University, is an internationally recognized expert in human capital planning and forecasting, as well as in finance and leadership in public health education, the management of academic health centers, and employment policy. Prior to joining NYUCD, Dr. O'Connor had been Vice President and Senior Associate Dean for Organization & Development at the Columbia University Medical Center and Columbia University's Vice President & Senior Associate Dean for Budget & Finance, CFO.

Prior to holding those appointments, Dr. O'Connor had served for 23 years as the Vice Dean for Finance & Administration at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, where he led the growth and development of the Mailman School's operating budget from $3 million a year to $130 million over a period of 15 years—in other words, the perfect person to lead the first class enrolled in Reykjavik University's Executive MPH program. Under his tutelage, the students would be exposed to a pragmatic, knowledge-based approach to policy, management, and the operational challenges faced by senior health officials in the real world on a day-to-day basis.

The first of Dr. O'Connor's two weekend stints, from April 7 to April 11, went off without a hitch. Then came April 15, and the first major eruption since 1821 of Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which spewed a vast cloud of volcanic ash that drifted over most of western Europe and Scandinavia, transforming them into unprecedented no-fly zones. Finally, on April 19, following a five-day shutdown that left millions of travelers stranded, European officials acted to end the air paralysis caused by the volcanic eruption in Iceland, agreeing to let air traffic resume in designated "caution zones."

Ironically, throughout the eruption and its aftermath, in Reykjavik, 75 miles west of the volcano, the air had remained clear, the sea breezes clean, and life had gone on as normal. Indeed, while air traffic from Reykjavik had been curtailed for most of the week, flights to Reykjavik remained on schedule.

Dr. O'Connor was scheduled to return to Reykjavik on April 21 and was not concerned about getting there, as Reykjavik's airport remained open. But his return was problematic as new predictions of additional eruptions kept coming.

Ultimately, Dr. O'Connor decided to make the trip. He had an uneventful arrival in Reykjavik and once there, was able to secure a return fight on Saturday, April 25, from Reykjavik to Glasgow, Scotland, and then to New York.

"I am convinced that my family and friends and colleagues at NYUCD/NYUCN were more apprehensive about my decision to go forward with the trip than I was," said Dr. O'Connor. "I had made a commitment and was determined to see it through, though I did have concerns. Being in Reykjavik, quite near to the Eyjafjallajökull glacier, meant that the surrounding areas were alternately flooded by melting glacier water, or blanketed by ash, with no one certain about how that might affect the capital. However, I wouldn't have missed the teaching experience, which was wonderful, and interacting with the students and other Icelanders, who were exceedingly warm and friendly."

Among the 18 students in Dr. O'Connor's course were general physicians, surgeons, nurse practitioners, and proprietary owners of allied healthcare agencies.

Virtually all the participants enrolled in the Executive MPH Program had ambitions to become CEOs of hospital systems or high government health officials.

"Such ambitions are not unrealistic," said Dr. O'Connor, "when you consider how small and homogeneous Iceland is, as a stand-alone, independent country. The entire population of Iceland consists of 320,000 people in an area the size of Kentucky, with 60 percent of the population living in the small capital city of Reykjavik, a remote island, where most healthcare resources are government controlled and all educators and healthcare providers are unionized.

"On the plus side, this means that access to health care is very good. In fact, Iceland has a lower mortality rate than the US. The educational system is also very good—all students graduate high school by age 16 with a mastery of at least four languages—and all physicians are required to study abroad for at least one year, usually choosing the US, England, Sweden, Switzerland, or Ireland.

"On the downside, Iceland has difficulty retaining its professional class because other countries try to recruit those who are highly educated and because opportunity for professional growth and development is limited.

"For all these reasons," Dr. O'Connor explained, "the introduction of an Executive MPH Program at Iceland's major university met with a very enthusiastic response.

"The thing that impressed me most," said Dr. O'Connor, "was the high level of the students' knowledge, motivation, and commitment to mastering the issues, which are the same issues that we confront in the US, including the importance of public health to the overall health status of the country, health policy regulations and compliance, quality, access, patient rights, and electronic health record systems. Another similarity exists in terms of gender issues, and specifically, the issue of comparable pay for women doing the same jobs as men. Interestingly, the president of Iceland is a woman, who is thoroughly committed to equality. With a woman as president, and exciting new initiatives such as the Executive MPH program, Iceland's future, in terms of the development of its professional class, is promising. Let's just hope there are no more volcanoes blowing up for another 189 years."