Guide to College Majors in Healthcare Administration
--Dr. Thomas Fuller
What Is Healthcare Administration?
When thinking about a career in healthcare, images of doctors or nurses might be the first to come to mind. But there are hundreds of different healthcare careers, from the people who administer the healing to the people who administer the industry. Doctors and nurses cannot function on their own, and many people work behind the scenes in rewarding jobs at all levels of responsibility and pay.
Like any good business, healthcare needs quality managers to maintain a smoothly running organization. They plan and supervise the delivery of services by doctors, nurses, and technicians. And they can work in small health clinics or major medical centers. Each operation needs someone to track trends in an ever-changing industry and to keep the business on the cutting edge. Healthcare administrators play an important role in keeping the community healthy.
Healthcare administrators take on leadership titles such as:
- Hospital administrator
- Department or division director
- Company president
- Chief executive officer
- Chief financial officer
Many professionals begin their careers in this field with just a bachelor's degree, working while earning an advanced degree and moving into management. Sometimes administrators might be specialists in charge of a particular type of department or generalists who oversee entire facilities.
An estimated 100,000 people today work in healthcare administration. This constantly evolving profession will always be growing and will always need qualified employees -- now more than ever, as aging baby boomers place greater demands on our healthcare system. Administrators make decisions that improve the efficiency of the organization, coordinate activities, and manage relationships with other healthcare providers and the community.
What Do Healthcare Administrators Do?
Healthcare administration covers such a broad area that it can be difficult to describe the field. What administrators do depends on the type and size of facility at which they are working. Large facilities, such as medical centers, have several layers of administrators, with one officer at the top responsible for setting the direction and making the final decisions. That person typically reports to a board of directors. Small facilities more typically require generalists to oversee all aspects of the operation.
At a large facility, assistant administrators oversee certain areas or activities of the healthcare operation. Someone might direct nursing activities, personnel, quality assurance, finance, or other areas. Administrators at large facilities are more likely to establish the procedures and policies of the organization in consultation with physicians, and are charged with implementing those policies. Typically, these professionals handle financial decisions and answer to the chief executive officer.
Small facilities are often set up and run by doctors who control the decisions but hire administrators to carry out the day-to-day operations. Here, administrators are less specialized and more hands-on in their approach. They focus more on the business aspects such as personnel, finance, staffing, and facility operations.
Some small facilities are specialty clinics. A group of dentists, chiropractors, dermatologists or other specialists organize and hire staffers to oversee the business side of the operation while they handle the medical decisions. Clinical directors of businesses like these often have a background in a particular specialty, such as physical therapy. They create objectives and implement policies. They hire and evaluate personnel, and coordinate the activities of the clinic.
Administrators earn competitive salaries, but must sometimes tolerate unusual work schedules. Many healthcare services, such as hospitals and clinics, operate around the clock. This means that administrators are on call whenever problems arise. Along with handling budget and staffing matters, administrators must attend numerous meetings. Depending on the size of the organization, administrators may be required to travel extensively to meet with board members, oversee other facilities, or attend industry conventions.
As with other management positions, healthcare administrators must supervise people, solve problems, and make critical decisions quickly. Your success as a healthcare administrator will depend on your ability to get along with people. You will have regular contact with patients, community members, physicians, nurses, vendors, trustees, and organizational staff. Always strive to develop your skills in working with people, negotiation, and analyzing information.
Managers in the healthcare sector have varying responsibilities, qualifications, salary range, and work hours. Entry-level administrative positions include marketing assistants, operating assistants, project consultants and managers, health provider representatives, and accountants. Mid-level positions include marketing directors, department managers, case managers, managers of ancillary services such as laboratory and radiology departments, and ambulatory care managers, contract negotiators, and controllers. Senior-level positions include chief executive officers, chief operating officers, chief financial officers, senior vice presidents and vice presidents for various sections and services.
Healthcare Administration: A Booming Industry
There's never been a better time to join the healthcare industry. Half of the 20 U.S. occupations projected to grow the fastest over the next few years are in the health services fields. Employment in healthcare administration is expected to grow fastest in practitioners' offices and in services for home healthcare. During the next decade, about 3.5 million new jobs are projected in health services (that's about 16 percent of all new jobs total). This is higher than any other industry. Hospitals constitute just 2 percent of healthcare operations, yet they employ more than 40 percent of healthcare workers. The majority of other jobs are in the practices of individual healthcare practitioners or small groups of practitioners. In addition, healthcare jobs are expected to increase faster than the population during that same time, as the older population increases and improved technology advances life expectancies.
Career Education in Healthcare Administration
High school students can get a jump on a career in healthcare administration by loading up on courses in English, math, and social studies, with a couple of years' worth of science. Some background in a foreign language, particularly Spanish, could prove helpful as well. The basic college curriculum in healthcare administration covers management theory, concepts, and skills, and an overview of the health care industry. These programs are designed to teach students leadership, financial management, economics, law, organizational behavior, quantitative analysis methods, and planning.
When evaluating candidates for entry-level management positions, employers look for appropriate education, work experience, communication skills, general management skills, leadership skills, business planning skills, quantitative skills, fit with organizational objectives, and character. Students are encouraged to look for volunteer or internship positions with healthcare providers to supplement their coursework.
Do You Need an Advanced Degree to be a Healthcare Administrator?
For most entry-level positions in healthcare administration, a bachelor's degree is all that is needed. Anyone hoping to move into a higher-level (and higher-paying) position might need a master's degree for a career boost. Because programs vary from college to college, it is best to investigate as many as possible. Some offer specialty programs, some provide more of a broad introduction to the profession. Be sure to consider your own career goals in choosing a school.
Online Degrees in Healthcare Administration
More and more healthcare managers and administrators are choosing online degrees in healthcare administration, especially at the master's level. Since they require little to no clinical practice, these programs are ideal for online study, especially for working healthcare professionals who are ready to move up the career ladder. Though bachelor's degrees are available online, master's degrees are more common and are often designed for professionals already working in the field, who can apply their newfound knowledge directly to their current jobs.
Bachelor's Degrees in Healthcare Administration
Bachelor's degree programs are designed to provide an understanding of the general concepts in healthcare administration and the analytical tools necessary to succeed within the structure of healthcare administration. Some of the skills developed here are financial management, statistical and economic analysis in decision-making, legal and ethical concepts, structure of healthcare organizations, and understanding health concerns within a community.
Master's Degrees in Healthcare Administration
A master's degree will prepare you for a senior-level administrative position. Master's degrees are especially helpful for people working in health-provider jobs who want to move into management. A bachelor's degree is required and good grades are important. Some programs are tailored specifically for the practitioner who wants to obtain management skills.
Schools have different names for their master's programs in healthcare and many offer different concentrations. So look around and consider what best suits your needs. For those who want to focus specifically on financial and business analysis, the healthcare management MBA would be the way to go. Skills developed in this program are in high demand at all levels of healthcare administration and will serve as a definite positive toward career advancement.
PhD Degrees in Healthcare Administration
A PhD or Doctor of Health Administration degree will allow you to pursue critical studies of advanced problems in healthcare administration. Typically, PhD holders research, teach, and write about high-level policy-related and medical topics throughout the field. Advancement to senior-level positions usually comes with a master's degree and a significant level of accomplishment, so a PhD is rarely required. But if you want to effect change in the healthcare administration field on a broad level, a PhD can provide the necessary background.
Planning for a Career in Healthcare Administration
All healthcare administrators should show leadership potential, including the ability to achieve results and complete projects. Entry-level administrators should have strong analytical and computer skills, good writing and communication skills, and demonstrated teamwork ability. Those involved on the financial end certainly should be adept in corporate accounting procedures and in developing financial reports and budgets. Entry-level marketing assistants and operating assistants typically work 40 to 50 hours per week.
Professionals moving into mid-level administrative positions should be knowledgeable about company, management, and clinical operations, especially medical managers. Candidates should possess a solid financial background, including knowledge of capital and operational budgets. A broad understanding of systems management and strategic achievement is also helpful. Because of a heavy emphasis on decision-making and management functions, mid-level administrators should have strong analytical, team-building, and communication skills. A mid-level healthcare administrator can expect to work 45 to 55 hours a week.
A master's degree and 10 years of management experience are basic requirements for senior-level administrators. These jobs involve strategy building and experience with positioning products and services in the marketplace. Senior-level executives are usually charged with strategic planning, raising capital, and following insurance and reimbursement regulations. They need a broad understanding of systems management and the effect of market and environmental changes on the organization. Bonuses and stock options are often part of an executive compensation package. However, senior-level executives often work 70 or more hours each week.
What Can You Do With a College Degree in Healthcare Administration?
A career in healthcare administration presents you with an opportunity to make a significant contribution to the health of the citizens in your community. Options for healthcare executives have never been more diverse. You might accept leadership roles in provider services such as hospitals, physician group practices, nursing homes and home health agencies; in insurance companies and HMOs; or for companies that sell the supplies and equipment for healthcare providers.
Some of the specialized areas for entry- and mid-level administrators are in finance, government relations, human resources, information systems, marketing, medical staff relations, patient care services, and planning and development. Graduates may choose to work for local, state and federal agencies or with private foundations such as the Red Cross or the American Hospital Association. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics divides the healthcare industry into nine segments:
Hospitals. Most hospitals provide a complete range of medical care, ranging from diagnostic services to surgery. However, some hospitals specialize in treatment of the mentally ill, cancer patients, or children. The vast array of services requires constant attention to efficiency and quality care. So hospitals employ many mid-level administrators to oversee specific areas.
Nursing and residential care facilities. Nursing care and convalescent facilities provide around-the-clock personal and nursing care primarily to the elderly and those with limited ability to care for themselves. Some facilities specialize in other assisted-living needs such as alcohol and drug rehabilitation centers, group homes, and halfway houses.
Physicians' offices. Physicians can work privately, align themselves with a group or hospital, or work in some combination of the two. About a third of healthcare businesses fall into this category. Working with a group allows physicians to share administrative expenses, reduce overhead costs, and provide backup services. Some physicians even work as salaried employees of a group.
Dentists' offices. Similarly to physicians, dentists can work alone or in groups. Dentists' offices account for about 20 percent of healthcare businesses. As more people live longer lives with their natural teeth intact, experts expect a boom in the demand for dental services.
Home healthcare services. For patients who do not need constant attention, or choose not to live in a nursing home, many organizations provide in-home services. Nurses or other health practitioners can be sent to a person's home as needed or on regularly scheduled visits. Because of constant improvements in home health services, this is one of the fastest-growing segments of the industry, and it needs good administrators to assure efficient operation. This segment will continue to grow as hospitals look to cut costs by treating people on an outpatient basis.
Offices of other health practitioners. This segment of the industry includes chiropractors, optometrists, podiatrists, occupational and physical therapists, psychologists, audiologists, speech-language pathologists, dietitians, and other health practitioners. This segment includes alternative medicine practitioners, such as acupuncturists, homeopaths, hypnotherapists, and naturopaths. Frequently, various practitioners will ally themselves to operate more effectively as a group.
Outpatient care centers. Kidney dialysis centers, outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers, health maintenance organization medical centers, and freestanding ambulatory surgical and emergency centers are parts of this segment.
Other ambulatory healthcare services. This small but vital segment includes ambulance services, blood and organ banks, and other healthcare services such as pacemaker monitoring services and smoking cessation programs.
Medical and diagnostic laboratories. These laboratories provide analytic or diagnostic services to medical professionals or directly to patients following a physician's prescription. The labs analyze blood, take X-rays or scans, and perform other clinical tests. It is the smallest segment of the industry in terms of total jobs.
Certification, Licensure and Associations
No certification is required for most administrative positions. However, if you want to be a healthcare administrator in a nursing home, you will need to obtain a bachelor's degree, pass an exam, and complete a period of supervised practice to obtain the license. Continuing education courses will also be required to maintain that license.
For information regarding local opportunities in healthcare, contact:
- American College of Healthcare Executives
- American Hospital Association / American Society for Healthcare Human Resources Administration
For information on specific health-related occupations, contact:
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