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What Does a Healthcare Administrator Do?

As anybody in health administration knows, it can be a hard field to tell people about without coming across like you lack the basic social awareness to know when to stop talking about yourself. You simply can’t cover it all in a line or two.

Aside from making it tricky to describe at backyard barbeques, it’s even more complicated to do the job description justice when trying to talk about it more globally since it’s not just one job, but hundreds, with all kinds of titles, ranging from health educator to policy director to nursing department manager, working in dozens of different types of healthcare environments, from major regional insurance companies to big-city medical centers to small-town walk-in clinics. There are even, believe it or not, jobs for healthcare administrators at healthcare administrators… a type of business that offers third-party administration of benefits for employers with self-funded corporate health plans.

But if it’s a hard job to describe, it’s also one that is hard to give up once you’re in it. Managers in other businesses often have to invent ways to motivate their staff. Sales contests, market dominance, made-up productivity benchmarks. But healthcare is different. Even if it’s not always life and death, it is, at least, always about the health and happiness of people.

As often as you find yourself mired in compliance issues and budgets in any of these roles, you’ll also find yourself drawn back to the real differences your work will make in the world. And all of it is equally a part of what health administrators do.

What You Do as a Healthcare Administrator Depends Entirely on Where You Work

The kind of variety that exists in healthcare management roles means that you can almost always find a job that is the perfect fit for your skills and interests, whether it’s working closely with clinicians on life and death patient decisions or crunching numbers in a complex hospital budget process.

There might be a lot of differences in administrative positions, but also a few things they all have in common. You’ll face the same kinds of categorical challenges in every healthcare administration job… but the financial management tasks of an urgent care clinic coordinator with a daily patient census of 20 versus a regional healthcare system manager overseeing 11 hospitals treating 8 million patients a year are going to seem night and day different, even though they are technically all just numbers on a spreadsheet.

The finer points of your job, the major features that will factor into your day-to-day experiences, decision-making, and interactions, will in large part come down to the setting in which you are working.

The Association of University Programs in Health Administration breaks down the major employment sectors open to healthcare administrators into four areas:

Providers – These are the organizations that most people think of when they think of healthcare administration jobs… hospitals, clinics, physician’s offices, long-term care facilities and rehab centers. Anywhere that clinicians are delivering direct patient care falls into this group, which, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2019, accounts for the largest single sector of healthcare admin employment, with almost a quarter of all admins working in general medical and surgical hospitals. Most executive roles in these organizations go to healthcare administrators, such as:

  • Records supervisor
  • Director of risk management
  • Director of patient safety
  • Facility administrator

Suppliers – Supplier organizations account for another large chunk of jobs, with companies in the pharmaceutical industry, healthcare devices, technology, consulting, outsourcing, and education all falling into this group. Jobs with these organizations involve research and development, testing, and outreach. They staff roles including:

  • Instructor
  • Product manager
  • Program analyst
  • Client outreach coordinator

Insurance Organizations – BLS shows nearly 8,000 healthcare administrator jobs in the finance and insurance industry for 2019, fueled by explosive growth that international consulting firm Deloitte pegged to a nearly 66 percent jump in net income for the health insurance industry from 2018. Insurers make hard healthcare decisions under the eye of industry regulators, providers, and anxious patients every day. The individuals who are responsible for those decisions are healthcare administrators, with titles like:

  • Utilization manager
  • Quality improvement coordinator
  • Client manager
  • Strategic planner

Policy and Regulatory Organizations – Finally, there are the regulators themselves, and the outside organizations who work hard to guide and influence them… government agencies that oversee healthcare services, like the CDC (Centers of Disease Control) and FDA (Food and Drug Administration), public insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare, and health-oriented non-profits, like the American Heart Association. Jobs can include:

  • Community healthcare organizer
  • Health planner
  • Policy analyst
  • Program director

But those are just titles on a page. Like any kind of job, what you actually end up doing will depend a lot on the organization you are working for and the people you are working with. Within each of the industries above, there is plenty of room for specializations that will shape those experiences.

Administrative Specializations Mirror Medical Specializations

In the medical world, specialization usually refers to a medical specialization… cardiology, oncology, emergency medicine, and all kinds of surgical, pharmaceutical, and other various intervention and treatment modalities.

Healthcare administration falls into those same categories to some extent, with an administrator who works, say, for a thriving dermatology practice likely to find themselves qualified for higher level managerial work in skin condition treatment centers and departments for the rest of their career.  While you always have the option to shift to other kinds of managerial work—and many do—it’s like any kind of work: your particular experience in the twists and turns of a defined practice area is much of what gives you value to employers.

You get to know the individual billing codes and how they have to be documented, how to evaluate clinicians within the specialty, the little quirks of treatment and supply that can come up. It’s knowledge that tends to reinforce itself, and keep you climbing the ladder in the same general area even as you shift from employer to employer.

Administrators Have a Few Specialties of Their Own Too

But there are additional specializations that are exclusively administrative, demanding every bit the kind of intensive study and skill that medical specialists put into developing a specialized body of knowledge. Your daily tasks could be almost completely different in each of them.

Human Resources – Healthcare is an intensely human effort, and with ongoing staffing shortages that threaten to leave the country short as many as 45,000 much-needed primary care providers by 2030, recruiting and keeping staff takes healthcare admins with a very human touch. That’s particularly true as they simultaneously deal with overwhelming stress in an overworked workforce, one made even more fragile by post-COVID-19 PTSD, affecting 30 percent or more of providers. That means developing retention and recruiting programs, visiting nursing and medical schools to build relationships, and meeting with other executives and staff from around the organization to keep providers happy and healthy.

Health Policy – Your work in this field will involve a lot of research and discussion, investigating current healthcare policy and regulation, statistics, and gathering data and opinions from the public and providers alike. You’ll probably spend a lot of time drafting proposals or pitching ideas in meetings with regulators and executives, or working with clinicians to bring their ideas to the powers that be.

Health Informatics – Although interacting with computers and information systems is certainly a big part of what healthcare informatics administrators do, the more important part of the job is actually working with people. Informatics managers are usually the ones charged with taking all the numbers the quants down in the basement come up with and translate them into meaningful information for other executives and clinicians. You’ll probably spend a lot of time in meetings as well as at your desk crunching data and wrangling algorithms.

Logistics and Equipment – Ordering supplies, tracking shipments, and forecasting need are the bread and butter of logistics administrators, but the job can come with some surprising excitement as well. As the COVID-19 epidemic rapidly depleted stockpiles of personal protective equipment around the United States, hospital supply admins suddenly found themselves to be the most important people in the organization, working around the clock and engaging in cloak-and-dagger exploits like meeting mask suppliers in dark parking lots and confronting FBI agents over equipment seizures, as happened with a surprising degree of frequency in the early days of the pandemic.

Healthcare Marketing – Just because healthcare is a service everyone needs doesn’t mean everyone will get it at the same place. Hospitals, equipment manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, and insurers all rely on marketing to pitch their services to prospective clients. It’s not Mad Men, but you can expect to spend a lot of time in this specialty conducting patient surveys, looking at industry trends, and working with copywriters, illustrators, and other creatives to deliver compelling stories and marketing materials to support your company’s services.

Just as importantly, the administrative and the medical specializations can be combined into a sort of mega-specialty. Work as a radiology lab supervisor can be just a different, and unique, as being a molecular diagnostics lab supervisor, so you may end up specializing not just in radiology, but specifically in radiology lab work.

You don’t necessarily have to specialize at all, however. There are many admin positions that take the same general skillset, and involve roughly the same kinds of daily tasks regardless of the field in which you are serving.

From Compliance to Finance, and HR to PR, Administrators Manage the Entire Business of Healthcare

Most healthcare administrators work a typical 40 hour week, although those hours may not be 9-to-5; the medical system operates around the clock, and important decisions are made at all hours of the day. It all depends on your specialization and employment sector. Hospital and care facility administrators can get calls anytime of the day or night. That’s not usually a feature in non-profit advocacy roles or in regulatory agencies, however.

There are some common threads in all of these roles, no matter what sector, and no matter what specialization, and those are the very things you will find that your education in healthcare administration has prepared you for.

Financial management – Whether it’s balancing the books on your nursing department’s tongue depressor expenditures or managing a $200 million construction project building a new hospital facility from the ground up, keeping careful records of finances and keeping budgets on track is a core competency of healthcare administrators at every level. You’ll spend plenty of time staring at Excel spreadsheets, but with the cost of healthcare skyrocketing in the United States, that’s also your chance to shave off a little bit off the $10,345 the average American pays for healthcare services each year.

You’ll probably provide important inputs and feedback when it comes time to put those budgets together. And you may well be called on to defend them to your own superiors when cutbacks come calling.

HR Management – Even if you are not an HR specialist, you can expect to perform a lot of the nuts and bolts work of managing staff every day. Whether it’s making sure the group birthday card for the receptionist made the rounds to get every signature or dealing with inappropriate jokes from the X-ray technician, you will have to draw deep on your empathy and legal knowledge to handle every sort of interpersonal issue on the job.

You’ll also spend a lot of time observing. You’re going to be responsible for ranking and evaluating your staff, dividing up a fixed pie of salary and bonus money among them, and making calls about who gets promoted and who gets laid off should that time come. You’re going to need to get to know your team as individuals. All their little tics, what they like, what they hate, where their boundaries are, what kind of work they have a genius for, and what other things maybe they can’t be trusted with. When crunch time comes, you know how to make the right assignments and push hard enough, but not too hard, to get the job done for your patients and your organization.

You’ll also probably be responsible for either developing or assigning training for your staff. Healthcare is constantly evolving, and continuing education requirements are a part and parcel of licensing. Whether you are tracking clinician’s paperwork or keeping your office staff up to speed, training is the way it gets done.

Communications and Public Relations – Human resources administrators are the faces of their teams, their departments, and at the highest levels for their entire organization. Whether you are talking to members of the public, healthcare regulators, politicians, or just your own staff, you will be spending time using the communication skills you learned in school. Clarity, precision, and concision are all valuable, but so is listening. Successful healthcare administrators spend a lot of time listening to people, a simple thing that feeds your knowledge and compassion and ultimately makes you a better manager and a better communicator.

Regulatory Compliance – The other thing about those tongue depressors you are tracking the cost of is that, believe it or not, they are a regulated Class I medical device. As such, they must comply with the FDA’s 2013 Unique Device Identifier rule as well as other health and safety requirements, and, like everything in your domain as administrator, you’re expected to know about all those rules and make sure your team and facility are fully in compliance. There are thousands of such rules, often specific to different practice areas, and it’s your responsibility to keep yourself and your staff inside the lines with each of them.

With HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, now the law of the land, a sea change in privacy and medical record keeping has come to dominate healthcare management concerns. You don’t want to be the administrator who has to fire or suspend 20 staff for accessing Britney Spears’ medical records. That means being crystal clear and offering training and counseling to your team regularly on the importance and the meaning of healthcare regulations.

Supplies and Equipment – Modern medicine takes modern equipment. Healthcare administrators spend a lot of time evaluating the systems and supplies it takes for the teams to perform their functions, whether that’s newer and better computers for data processing and electronic records, high-tech mobile ultrasound machines, or, as became clear to the entire country during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, things as basic as masks and visors.

With full-scale breakdowns at the federal level in PPE procurement and distribution, healthcare administrators across the country stepped up to become the unheralded heroes of the hour, scouring warehouses for stock and putting together their own deals on the fly to get their staff the protective equipment they needed. In some cases, administrators also became inventors, as at the University of Wisconsin, where healthcare staff worked with the university’s engineering team to use 3D printing to create adapters to connect PAPR blowers with an incompatible type of hood received from emergency stockpiles.

Even post-pandemic, however, keeping inventories and coordinating with suppliers by phone, e-mail, or face-to-face to make sure your team gets what they need, when they need it, is an important part of every administration job.

Admins Marshal the Talents and Strengths of Everyone in the Organization

Something no healthcare administrator can get away from is spending a lot of time in meetings. Sometimes those are quick stand-up gatherings with the team at the start of a shift to get everyone on the same page, and sometimes they can be mule-hour marathons with superiors and other department heads to make important strategic decisions for the organization.

Running a meeting is a valuable skill to acquire for admins, and it’s one that you will put to use frequently. Meetings happen almost every day for the average administrator. You’ll spend them taking notes, offering your own views, and sometimes giving direction or settling disputes.

More importantly, administrators spend much of their time in meetings building consensus. While decisions ultimately come down to you as a manager, every good manager uses the collective wisdom and knowledge of their team to develop collective buy-in and develop solutions that leverage the diverse kinds of expertise that both clinical and administrative staff can bring to the table.

That also makes every manager a bit of a salesperson, even if you’re not working in healthcare marketing. You’ll spend your time figuring out the interests and motivations of your team, your customers, and other departments before putting it all to good use delivering pitches and presentations.

Healthcare Administrators Clean Up All the Messes

People who aren’t in management sometimes don’t understand just how much of the job is simply straightening out things that shouldn’t be messed up in the first place. Crossed wires, missed connections, miscommunications… these are human things that happen every day in every level of a business. Who has to sort them out? That’s right… the buck stops with the admin. Someone forgot to order more tongue depressors? That’s on you. Better get on the phone and put in a rush order. Payroll records don’t match the time sheets? You’re the one who gets to play detective and figure out where the screw-up was made, and talk to those demons over in HR to get it sorted out.

This is where healthcare admins can make some of their greatest contributions, however. You have the power and the opportunity to solve problems that are holding back your staff or impacting patient care and satisfaction. Sure, a lot of times these will be annoyances or inconveniences. But every once in a while, you’ll be the one that makes the big save by getting a priority transplant request through the system, or figuring out a way to process an insurance billing claim so an expensive procedure will be covered for a desperate patient. It could even be something as simple as arranging to have a shift covered for one of your team members so they can get to their kid’s school play.

When you were sitting in class learning about management theory and organizational development, what you were really learning about was how to do this: taking the inevitable problems and tangles created by any business and straightening them out so your staff can do what they are paid to do.

Working Your Way Up The Ladder Through Line Positions

Although healthcare administration is in essence a managerial role, it’s pretty rare to start off your career with actual supervisory responsibility. Instead, most healthcare administrators start off working in line positions in the industry, learning the job at the coal-face before working their way up into posts with more responsibility.

These jobs place the day-to-day work of healthcare administration in your hands. The actual, functional parts that keep the system working:

  • Answering phones and scheduling patient appointments
  • Filing, organizing, and maintaining medical records
  • Billing
  • Conducting audits and equipment inventories
  • Drafting and enforcing operating policy and procedures

The exact tasks and positions will depend greatly on your level of education as you enter the industry, which can run the gamut from a front-desk job for someone with an associate’s degree to a managed care analyst with a master’s degree crunching numbers on contracts and service fulfillment. But whatever level you start at, earning experience in the area you eventually hope to manage is a necessity before getting promoted.

In some cases, you may carve out a lucrative and fulfilling career without ever actually managing other people. There are a lot of jobs in the regulatory sector that have considerable power and responsibility but no direct supervisory role, such as working in compliance or auditing. Similarly, finance positions might keep you working hands-on with spreadsheets and reports, crunching numbers every day but not necessarily with a staff beneath you. And informatics admin careers can move you up the ladder with bigger paychecks and more responsibility, but involve more work with computers than people.

Healthcare Administrators Are Constantly Looking Ahead

For all the elementary day-to-day tasks outlined above, something running through each of them is one of the most important functions you will fill: planning for the future.

That’s right… it’s the vision thing. Probably the thing that drew you into healthcare in the first place. No one enters this industry without some kind of intention to do good and to make lives better. You can lose it on those days when you are mired in going through the fine print of insurance policy and billing restrictions, or dealing with yet another critical RN position to be filled, or fielding unrealistic budget proposals.

But part of your mind should always be ticking on what it means to be a healthcare administrator, and how you can use your position to make healthcare more accessible and more effective.

Healthcare Managers Make and Execute Plans for Tomorrow

This is a topic that gets a lot of coverage in healthcare administration degree programs. Organizational development and strategic planning require a number of steps that you will probably perform at least in some part every single day on the job (and probably also while you are standing in the shower at home, or even drifting off to sleep at night):

Absorb Facts and Data – Earlier we noted the importance of the managerial role as an observer. That fills some immediate needs for information that you act on in operational and HR actions, but it’s also a constant process of assessing the overall situation and being aware of what factors are important to your staff and your patients. You may not always realize when you are seeing something important until months later, but you know to always keep your eyes open.

Assess and investigate options – A lot of your time as a manager will be looking at your options. You’ll spend plenty of hours combing the internet, looking at technology, policies, and what other, similar, healthcare organizations are up to. But you’ll also probably kick ideas around with your peers and your staff, and attend conferences and workshops that present new ideas in your field of expertise.

Experiment – You’ll also develop your own ideas and try them out. Maybe it will be small things, like changing up an intake procedure or cutting down on some paperwork. You’ll get feedback from staff and patients and take it all in and weigh it against the alternatives.

Plan – Creating and writing up plans and procedures is a big part of the job for most healthcare managers. You have to craft documentation and processes that can be easily understood and implemented, and that just takes a lot of sit-down time that you will spend thinking, drafting, and revising memos and policy paperwork. Frequently, you’ll bounce these around through your organization for feedback and comments, which will lead to more  revisions.

Communicate – Once you’ve devised your plan, built up the procedures and Powerpoints and forms that are needed to describe and run it, you’ll have to sell it. Managers have to be evangelists, not just giving orders to implement their ideas, but also convincing staff, other managers, and even customers and patients, to get behind the plan. You’ll spend plenty of time talking, describing, and explaining as well as listening to questions and thinking up new ways to reach out and convince people.

Execute – Communication is part of your execution of those plans, but it’s just the first part. You’ll bring other managerial skills to bear along the way, assessing results, listening to feedback, and keeping everything on track as your plans hit the inevitable unforeseen difficulties along the way.

The Importance of Continuing Education in Healthcare Administration

Although it’s not a daily task, you’ll find yourself involved in continuing education for yourself just like those you will arrange for your staff. Just as the technical and clinical skills in healthcare environments evolve and have to be kept up-to-date, so do those in the administrative environment.

That means undergoing continuing education activities like:

In addition to keeping up with current industry trends for your own sake and for the benefit of your staff and patient population, you’ll also find that continuing education is a requirement to maintain many of the professional certifications that are aimed at healthcare administrators. Those can include:

So some part of your job will also involve studying for and earning those certifications and keeping them current.

And for many medical administrators, a continuing education will involve additional college education as well. You may have entered the field with only an associate’s degree under your belt, but you’ll find that your horizons will expand if you move up to a bachelor’s, earn a master’s someday, and maybe, as you reach the top tiers of the field, even consider a doctorate in healthcare administration. Although not strictly a part of your daily tasks, studying for and taking classes in the field will certainly improve your performance at any level.

For Healthcare Administrators, What They Give Is As Important As What They Do

What does a healthcare administrator do? Well, if you’ve made it this far, you get the picture… it’s the same sort of mouse-clicking, paper-shuffling, shoulder-patting kind of daily tasks that any kind of manager in any business in the world performs.

But it’s also much more than that, because of the enormous stakes and emotions in play. You’ll be meeting a lot of people on the worst days of their lives. And you’re one of the people that can help make that awful day a little less awful, even if doing so just means making a phone call or sending an email.

And if that’s not satisfying enough, you’ll also run into many people on what could be the best day of their lives. You’ll meet new parents welcoming children into the world, patients on death’s doorstep who are saved by an operation your team performs or a device your company manufactures. And you’ll work with a lot of the finest people on the planet: healthcare professionals who have dedicated years of their lives to develop the expertise and skills to help patients in need.

When you look at it that way, what you really do every day as a healthcare administrator is help. And that’s as much a calling as it is a job.

Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.~Dalai Lama

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