Irene Papanicolas: healthy collaboration


Dr. Irene Papanicolas


Dr. Irene Papanicolas hasn’t always wanted to become an academic – her parents are academics, and she decided to find her individual path, and to become a policy worker. But sometimes you don’t choose a career, but rather the career chooses you. After finishing her PhD, she found employment as a researcher, realised quickly that she both liked and excelled at that sort of work and found she had accidentally become an academic anyway. Teaching is very much a natural part of being a full academic:

“I find teaching is a great way of talking about the areas that I am interested in, researching it with other people.”

For Irene, learning and research are never purely solitary activities; community and collaboration – being with and learning with others – are essential to being a scholar. Irene is quite the LSE product, having been with us for ten years. She came as a PhD student in 2006, and has since become a fixture in LSE Health and Social Care, one of our many Research Centres; as well as in the wider department of Social Policy.

She first approached LTI to devise distance revision when she became Programme Director for the MSc Health Economics, Policy and Management. This is an executive programme which demands a lot of concentrated effort from students in very short time frames.  She was looking to technology to bridge some of the learning gaps that can emerge in the long periods that executive students are away from the LSE. During conversations about the opportunities of educational technologies, brainstorming on how to innovate her programme, she struck on using online peer evaluation tools to foster group belonging and to change the pressure of exam only final assessment.

Irene’s academic focus is on comparisons of health system performance, health system coverage, performance based payment systems. That string of nouns makes her field sound cold and unexciting, but it isn’t one bit. One of her recent articles examines the perception of access to health care in 29 European countries. While many of these countries declare that they provide universal health care, for some groups the reality is quite different, due to perceived barriers to that access. In the context of using a health service, perceived barriers are quite as real as actual barriers. If an 18 year old woman does not know she has access to contraception and sexual health information and so on, in reality she lacks this access and is incontrovertibly disadvantaged, if not at risk.  Irene’s work lets health care providers know “which of their constituents feel there are barriers to accessing care, and provides some indication of the factors that may prohibit those individuals from benefiting from progress towards universal health coverage.”

Irene recently abandoned us for Harvard for a year, to take up a Harkness Fellowship, a placement organised and awarded by the Commonwealth Fund. The Fund brings together international scholars and practitioners of health policy together for a year to collaborate on international research projects. Irene will be looking at readmissions in hospitals, to better understand how readmission penalties have been implemented across systems, comparing international and national implementations. It is the kind of research that Irene has been wanting to do for a while and she’s particularly excited about learning from international peers but she promises to come back, because, she admits she will miss her LSE people, the good people she needs both for her general well-being and her work:

“I’ll miss the people that I usually go to to say or ask ‘does this make any sense, is this a good idea, would this make a good paper?’ – that can be really important!”

What Irene did/ does:

Group work can help foster a sense of community and enables learning from and with each other; invaluable experience for work in the health sector.  Changing summative assessment from 100% final exam to include case study work group avoids strategic exam learning. Peer evaluation, especially of individual contributions to team work alleviates worries about ‘free-riding’:

  • Break up cohorts into teams which will explore the health care systems of allocated countries and submit a final report.

  • Using an online automated tool that facilitates peer moderated marking of group work (webPA) to make each team learn from the other teams and learn to evaluate other team’s work.

  • Irene later switched to TeamMates, a similar online tool, which allows to rate teams AND individuals, so that students within one team could be able to rate each others’ contributions. Concern by some students that some team members don’t pull their weight and are carried by the rest of the team, might be counteracted with this solution.

Be inspired

If you have your own ideas or have been inspired to re-evaluate your teaching practice, get in touch with your departmental advisor or email



Interview & Words by Sonja Grussendorf Photo & Video by Aperio Films (year)