Alumni Spotlight: Christopher Nolan (MPA-HPAM 2013)

Christopher Nolan_

"I was able to see how social and health policy are essentially interchangeable," writes Christopher Nolan (MPA-HPAM 2013), who serves as Director of Anchor Initiatives, Community Health Improvement at BJC HealthCare. His recent work includes community impact investments that provide individuals that may have faced predatory lending or have lower credit scores, with access to lower rate auto loans—a measure that benefits a person's daily activities and community as well as social health. 

What motivated you to attend the Wagner School of Public Service and pursue its Health Policy and Management program?

From a young age, I was always interested in community service and working to make a positive impact in the world. From volunteering for a family friend’s nonprofit as a child, to leading my community service club in high school—service has routinely been a part of my life. My undergraduate program at NYU’s Gallatin School focused on human rights and social policy, and given my experience with nonprofits during undergrad, I knew I wanted to enter public service for my career. It wasn’t until I took two Wagner policy classes and had some challenging experiences with the health system when caring for my now late mother, that I knew the Health Policy and Management (HPAM) track was right for me. I saw an opportunity to make a difference. Through the Intro to Public Policy core class and my LGBTQ+ Health Policy course, I was able to see how social and health policy are essentially interchangeable. Not to mention, I had also been living it—having watched my mom rely on both Medicare and Medicaid for much of my life. These experiences, and the core values of the Wagner School, are why I chose HPAM and I haven’t looked back.

Reflecting on your experience at Wagner, how did your program impact your understanding of the health field?

My NYU Wagner experience is exactly why I am now working in the community health improvement / health equity space. Uniquely situated in the School of Public Service, our program provides the education to not just learn the management and finance acumen to help lead a health system, but also to think about how government, policy, and social service impact the health of the community. The entire Wagner curriculum makes you think about how fields of study connect, and how we must think about our efforts broadly, no matter which track we were in—PNP, MUP, or HPAM. I was constantly surrounded by students with different experiences, interests, and passions, and this certainly made an impact in how I think about and approach health care. NYU Wagner instilled in me that we must look at health the way that the World Health Organization views it: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” I also recognized, in a school of public service, that healthcare must serve not just the individual, but the greater community.

How did your experiences at NYU Wagner prepare you for your current work at BJC HealthCare? Any initiatives you can share with us?

I believe that my experience at NYU Wagner prepared me for my current role as Director of Anchor Initiatives, Community Health Improvement at BJC HealthCare because it taught me to think outside the box and recognize connections. At Wagner, you have the opportunity to interact with people who are passionate about making a difference and are approaching public service from various different fields and lenses. I believe that our cross disciplinary study uniquely qualified me for where I am today. I am working at the intersection of health and social care—with a particular focus on financial health and wellbeing and community development. We are looking at the root causes of health inequities and that includes many social factors such as unemployment, lack of access to healthy food, and lack of access to transportation. We are acknowledging that these conditions often lead to worse health outcomes.

One recent initiative I am especially proud of is BJC HealthCare’s community impact investing work. We are looking at how we can leverage our finances to make a positive, local impact. We recently invested in Justine PETERSEN, a local community development financial institution, to expand their new Drive program. The Drive program provides individuals that may have faced predatory lending or have lower credit scores, with access to lower rate auto loans. This puts money back into people’s pockets and allows them to access basic life necessities. Access to a car allows individuals to access healthcare and groceries, pick up and drop off their kids, and go to work. These basics of daily life have a tremendous impact on health and overall wellbeing for individuals and families.

Any new trends or policy concerns in healthcare that have caught your interest? Hopes for the future of health?

A growing trend in healthcare that both interests me and gives me hope for the future is the growth of the community health worker field. Community Health Workers (CHWs) are trusted messengers who come directly from a community and learn skill sets to make a positive impact on health and wellbeing where they live. I am certainly biased, as I previously helped develop and lead a CHW program and taught in a CHW certificate program, but I firmly and passionately believe that the CHW role is a critical component to helping achieve health equity for all. During the COVID-19 pandemic we saw community health workers become a major part of how care was provided. From testing and contact tracing to vaccine outreach/education and connecting individuals to social services—CHWs are trusted members of a community and know how to help. They help bridge the divide between communities that have a historic distrust in the healthcare system and serve as connectors to community resources for those lacking access to services and support. I hope that this trend only continues to grow, as I believe CHWs can help improve the health of individuals and communities they serve.