Danielle McPherson, who describes herself as “a whole nerd,” earned her doctor of business administration degree on December 19, achieving a personal milestone and, at the same time, breaking an institutional barrier at WashU Olin: She became the first African American at the school to earn the DBA and the first to earn a doctoral degree in finance.
Students interested in applying their terminal business degree to work in industry—as opposed to academia—typically pursue the DBA rather than a PhD. And African Americans tend to be extremely underrepresented among doctoral students in general. In 2018, for example, 5.5% of doctoral recipients in the United States were Black or African American, according to a December 2019 survey by the National Science Foundation. By contrast, 52% were white.
Dr. McPherson is director of managed care contracting and payer relations at Mercy Health and focused her dissertation on a related topic, “Social Determinants of Health: Impact on Health Outcomes and Hospital Profitability,” which she discusses in the Q&A below.
Were you aware when you began your doctorate that you were treading new ground for WashU Olin?
I had no idea. It was not in the forefront of my mind. However, I did understand that I was now part of a small group of people pursuing a doctoral degree and if I finished, that group would be a lot smaller. I was just excited about starting a new journey in finance (I am literally a whole nerd).
Why did you decide to get your doctorate at Olin? How do you intend to apply it?
I knew I wanted a doctoral degree because it would allow me to take my passion for research, finance and problem solving and apply it professionally in the field that I am in. I also knew how important it was to obtain that level of a degree from a well-respected, nationally ranked, reputable institution. And I needed to be able to go to school and work. That literally narrowed my choice down to one school … Washington University in St. Louis’s Olin Business School.
Can you tell us a little about your dissertation? What drew you to the topic and what did you conclude?
I was drawn to this topic because I have always been fascinated with how social determinants can influence a person’s well-being.
I am also equally as fascinated with our healthcare system and how it is supported financially. I have a unique perspective on this topic because I have been a patient—I’m a 10-year Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma survivor—and had to rely on the healthcare system. It worked for me because I had insurance and was financially secure, but others who were not in my financial situation with the same illness were not as fortunate.
I have worked for a large healthcare insurer and understand how difficult it is to maneuver through trying to provide services and access to members at low cost, but also having a responsibility to stakeholders and shareholders to be profitable.
I work for a large healthcare system (Mercy) and it is constantly faced with balancing both ends of the healthcare spectrum. My research explores the extent to which social determinants of health directly impact health outcomes and whether improvements in those social determinants would yield improvements in hospital profitability.
I conclude that hospital profitability improves if social determinants of health are addressed.
What does it say that you’re the first African American to earn a doctorate in finance here—and the first to earn a doctorate in business administration?
It says that Olin and the higher education system has come a long way, and has a long way to go. All disciplines in academia and in corporate America should understand the importance of representation and how much it matters.
Diversity is the backbone of this country and it must be reflected in every classroom and every boardroom. I am happy to be part of herstory (that’s not a typo 😊). I will be happier when our elite education institutions no longer have “firsts.”
How did you land in your role at Mercy Health? Where do you see yourself going?
I was drawn to my current job as director of managed care contracting and payer relations at Mercy Health because it is a perfect mix of finance, operations and game theory. I absolutely love problem-solving and quantifying solutions. In the future, I hope to continue working in a capacity that will allow me the opportunity to solve complex business or policy issues in the area of corporate strategy, finance and healthcare.