UCL East: Professor Nora Colton, Director of UCL Global Business School for Health
Professor Nora Colton is changing the global conversation on healthcare, fuelled by personal life experience.
22 January 2024
Spearheading pioneering approaches to healthcare management at UCL’s Global Business School for Health, Professor Nora Colton draws on experience gained from her varied past. She’s held leading academic roles and undertaken research projects across the world. But the core of her motivation to transform healthcare lies in her childhood, and a very personal story.
Nora’s father died from Parkinson’s when she was just 12 years old. But before his passing, he had been keen to help further research into the disease. The family moved around the US as he took part in clinical trials and tested different drug therapies. Medical research became an area that Nora would forever be passionate about, inspired by her late father’s determination, and knowing what it means to lose a family member too soon, to a disease the world does not yet fully understand.
UCL’s Global Business School for Health (GBSH) is the first of its kind in the world, bringing the principles and practices of business management to the health and healthcare sector, and creating a new generation of forward-thinking health leaders. Launched during the pandemic, but now having transitioned to in-person teaching and research at our new UCL East campus in Stratford, the GBSH already draws upon the knowledge and expertise of around 150 top health executives and professionals to support its students and staff with mentoring and guest lecturers.
Nora is proud to be Director of the school. She says that while cutting-edge business approaches are fundamental to its teaching, its goals are very simple. “Really, it’s all about patients and populations,” she says. “About trying to improve lives and keep people healthy and happy. That’s powerful.”
While Nora may have seemed destined for a role like this from an early age, it in fact took time for her educational and career path to fully coalesce with her interest in healthcare. “When I got into Arizona State University, I realised I also had a real passion for statistics and economics,” she says. “And then through that I became interested in development and development economics.”
Nora’s research saw her focusing on issues faced in developing countries, particularly in the Middle East. But while the economic challenges were many and varied, Nora noted that health is always part of the story: “I worked in several low income countries,” she says. “And the lack of good governance, political systems and economic opportunities all led to poor health outcomes.”
In the early nineties, while completing a PhD at Oxford University, Nora got her first taste of teaching, something she continued while a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard. In 1993, this led to her becoming an assistant professor of International Economics at top liberal arts college Drew University in Madison, New Jersey – a role which also enabled her to continue her research in the Middle East.
In 2010, Nora and her husband decided to return to the UK, a move which saw her take up a role at the University of East London, where she went on to become Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic) in 2014.
It was at UEL that economics and healthcare became fully enmeshed in Nora’s worldview, as she recognised the need for more health professionals, and the need of students to find good jobs. “I sponsored the creation of the nursing programme, which was highly successful,” she explains. “At that point, I said ‘I really want to go into health’ – as an economist I could see the way things were moving.”
Against the advice of more cautious peers, Nora pivoted her career focus towards the topic she held dear from childhood, and after she completed an online Masters in Health Economics and Pharmacoeconomics, an opportunity arose at UCL’s Institute of Ophthalmology and Moorfields Eye Hospital.
“They were looking for someone with a business and management background as well as health,” she recalls I decided to apply because the opportunity to work at UCL in a health-related field was the perfect combination – I truly felt like with my background in economics and experience in higher education, I could make a contribution to the health sector.
We often talk about symptoms, but the root causes always lie in economic trade offs.”“
Nora was appointed Pro-Vice-Provost (Postgraduate Education) and Joint Director of Education at the Institute of Ophthalmology and Moorfields, and was soon invited to join the programme board working on setting up the GBSH, eventually being appointed as its first Director.
Nora is excited about the GBSH’s potential to disrupt the accepted norms of healthcare delivery and funding. She says: “There’s tension around the idea that health can be a business, or that business and management practices can inform healthcare. There’s the NHS on one side, the US system on the other, and everything else in the world in the middle. We need to recognise the virtues of all the approaches.”
Being located on UCL's new campus in east London is something Nora values highly. The area has one of the youngest, most diverse and fastest growing populations in the city, but is also an area hit hardest by inequalities in healthcare provision, both historically and during Covid. “I can’t imagine a better place for the school,” she says. “By connecting with the community and the local NHS Trusts, plus the Integrated Care System, we can test our thinking, and it can be a living laboratory. I also have such a soft spot for this part of London and the people who live here, so for me it couldn’t be better.”
She adds: “Sometimes you feel like your whole life is driving towards something, but you don’t know what it is until you get there. This school has to be that for me. It’s so important, and I believe it will be transformational.”
Image by John Moloney.