Executive Master’s Degrees in Healthcare Administration
Jobs in healthcare administration can be pretty thrilling. You’re making decisions that will impact people’s lives and their well-being, splashes in a larger pond that will ripple out to effect their families, co-workers, friends, and the community that surrounds them. It’s a career path that come with a lot of responsibility and a little bit of tragedy, but also a constant hope: hope that you have, and hope that you give.
It’s easy to lose yourself for a few years even in the lower ranks of healthcare management, absorbed in the fast-paced, always-on world of medicine. It’s a world that is already stretched to capacity; the American College of Physicians has been warning American policymakers and healthcare executives for many years now that the country will be short of primary care providers – to the tune of almost 50,000 professionals by 2030. That’s in the middle of the biggest increases in healthcare demand in a century, as the long-predicted bump of Baby Boomers begins to retire… both leaving many vacancies in healthcare professions and driving up demand in the system as age-related illnesses befall them at ever-increasing rates.
So if you have been busy while you were working your way up the healthcare management ladder after earning your bachelor’s degree, it’s perfectly understandable. Or perhaps you’ve been working in a clinical field, but realized you have the talent to take on senior management roles. At some point, you’re going to find yourself at the top rung of where your current education will carry you. And you’re going to start wishing you had gone on for a master’s degree in healthcare administration.
That’s the point that catches a lot of managers in a trap; with high-stress job demands, a career that you can’t afford to take two years off from, and often families, mortgages, and other real-world commitments, it can be hard to carve out the time to go get the education you need to advance to the next level of healthcare leadership—and get your hands on the big paychecks that comes with it.
That’s where executive master’s degrees come in. Designed exactly for people in your position, they can get you the right training to advance your career to the next level, without putting a kink in your current career plans.
What Exactly is an Executive Master of Healthcare Administration (EMHA)?
An executive MHA is really just a regular MHA degree dressed up in a different format. Your degree will be called a Master in Health Administration and you’ll come away from the program with the same skills and knowledge that any MHA graduate will have, and hiring committees will give you the same respect and offer you the same salaries as anyone else with a master’s degree in the field.
The real difference is in how you progress through the classes. An executive format degree starts with the assumption that students are already absorbed in a career with significant responsibilities and don’t have a lot of spare time for studying. So everything about the program is put together to make it more convenient for busy, working professionals just like you to participate:
Executive programs are also typically cohort-based, running their entire course sequence in lockstep, with the same set of students taking the same classes in the same order. You aren’t offered the option of switching up your schedule or taking any electives, but the trade-off is that you get everything you need in a very compressed schedule.
The Curriculum and Coursework You’ll Find in an Executive MHA Program
Because EMHA programs are aimed at professionals who already have a certain amount of experience in the field, their curriculum differs somewhat from the traditional MHA degree. Many EMHAs skip an internship course, or allow you to substitute experience from your current job, for example. But you can still expect to drill down on the various subjects that really help a professional manager in the field stand out from the pack.
Health Care Organizations and Systems – The U.S. healthcare system is a unique blend of both public and private services, each with distinctive organizational needs and characteristics. You’ll study how modern healthcare organizations are put together and why they operate the way they do. You’ll learn about cutting-edge management tools like Six Sigma and lean operations, as well as about the high-tech information systems that enable modern business efficiency, including big data analytics and electronic health record systems.
Health Policy, Laws, and Regulatory Requirements – Much of what influences the structure of healthcare organizations comes from government policies and the laws and regulations that flow from them. Future healthcare leaders don’t have the luxury of ignoring the political and policy-making process; the industry has been in flux for years after the passage of the Affordable Care Act and subsequent efforts to repeal it, each poised to unleash a tidal wave of regulatory change with it. So you’ll study not just the current laws and regulations that govern healthcare and insurance providers, but also the mechanisms for influencing future laws and policies.
Quality Assessment and Patient Safety – The objective of healthcare systems is good health. As an individual caregiver, or perhaps even as a department head, this might have been easy enough for you to measure on the basis of your personal, day-to-day experience. As a senior executive, you’ll have to learn how to take broader measures into account and to use health informatics and internal protocols to develop transparency into patient safety and quality outcomes in your organization. These courses will give you the perspective and the tools required to do it.
Health Economics and Finance – As part of a $3.4 trillion industry, senior healthcare executives spend a lot of the average day thinking hard about money: how to collect it, how to spend it, how to save it. You’ll learn how the economics of the entire industry support patient care and how the financial plumbing runs through every part of a healthcare organization, from reimbursement to supplier contracts to cutting paychecks to the janitorial staff.
Strategic Planning and Marketing – Finally, one of the key differences between a line manager and a top executive in healthcare is the matter of vision. You’ll be expected to see the big picture, to understand how your services fit into the overall pattern of the industry, and how to plan for both the unexpected—the next pandemic, perhaps—and things like the long-predicted crashing wave of Baby Boomer patients coming down on the entire industry. You’ll learn how to position your organization as the preferred choice and to reach your target market through long-term strategic planning and outreach.
EMHA Capstone Project – Maybe, but Maybe Not
Some EMHA programs also forgo the traditional thesis or capstone project that comes with a typical MHA degree, allowing students to apply and demonstrate their grasp of the core concepts of the program through experiential portfolios of their real-world management achievements.
A good number of executive programs appreciate that you’ve been out in the trenches solving real problems in the real world for a lot of years. These programs tend to view the exercise of going through a final project where you devise solutions to a pressing issue in health administration just so you can present to a panel as a bit of a hoop jump.
Some EMHA curriculum developers see the capstone project as a valuable way to work through a problem and test new theories to see how well they could work while you’re still in a controlled and supportive environment. This might have you working independently on your own project, but just as often it will involve a collaborative effort with classmates in your cohort, addressing critical issues like keeping staff safe during deadly infectious disease outbreaks, how to avoid mistakes from the past like the ones that led to EPP shortages, or how to manage mass vaccine deployment to both hospital staff and the public. It’s all about tackling the real challenges that have been rearing up in healthcare, and getting out in front of the ones that could be around the corner. These final projects are designed to bring together the various aspects of your education to give you a chance to practice and demonstrate your leadership capabilities and problem-solving skills on a realistic challenge that mirrors what you will face in the real world.
The Importance of Specialty Accreditation for Executive MHA Degrees
The concept of general institutional accreditation is one of the keys to the success of the American system of higher education. Almost every university in the country has been evaluated by one of the seven region-specific agencies recognized by the Department of Education for their expertise in looking at the academic and administrative capabilities on offer, and after that lengthy evaluation, just about every one of them received their stamp of approval. So most students don’t have to spend much time worrying about the basic quality of their college education.
But when you are getting into a highly technical, involved field like healthcare administration, you need something more than just institution-level accreditation. You need to get another level of assurance, which means looking for programs that hold a specialty accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education (CAHME).
A specialty accreditation goes deeper into the particulars of the field in question, and deals specifically with the curriculum and instructors that are part of the education being offered in that field. That means CAHME literally sends out evaluators to the campuses where healthcare administration programs are offered to review administrative and teaching practices, along with the specific curriculum included in the healthcare administration master’s programs on offer there. They understand the modern demands of real-world healthcare systems and ensure that every aspect of an MHA program is aligned with what the job requires.
What Do You Need to Qualify for Acceptance to an Executive MHA Program?
It can be difficult to get into any kind of MHA program, but executive MHA degrees have even higher requirements.
Like standard MHA programs, you’ll have to meet a number of requirements that go toward verifying your experience, your current education, and your commitment to the field, including:
Executive MHA programs usually tack on another requirement, which is relevant work experience. Because they skip over some of the rudimentary managerial training from normal MHA degrees, they want to see that you have the right kind of healthcare background to make sure you already got that kind of experience on the job. Typically, five or more years is required. In many cases, a clinical background is also accepted, since many EMHA candidates are practicing nurses or other healthcare provider making the switch to management career tracks.
How Much Does an Executive MHA Degree Cost?
Although executive MHA programs tend to be shorter and more streamlined than traditional MHAs, that doesn’t necessarily translate into big cost savings.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of 2017, the typical tuition rate for any type of master’s degree worked out to $11,097 per year at a public institution, or $22,913 at a private university.
Executive MHAs can be found for as little as $10,000, but it’s more typical to find programs that are between $30,000 and $80,000. Some of them split the cost out into per-credit rates, but because of the cohort-based nature of the programs where the same group of students moves through the same courses at the same pace, universities more often just price EMHAs at one set rate for the entire program.
Should You Consider Online Executive MHA Programs?
At one point, this was a real question… online programs were new and untested, and traditional evening and weekend programs were the dominant option.
But today, it’s actually more common to find online degree programs than on-campus options, especially at the executive level. Online learning has evolved to the point where it is easily as effective as traditional classroom-based instruction, and the kind of flexibility it brings to the table is invaluable for students who are trying to hold down their current job and deal with the kind of real-life obligations that mid-level executives often have.
Asynchronous classes that give you the ability to time-shift your studies to a midnight session at the kitchen table, or during your lunch break, instead of having to miss your kid’s soccer game for an evening class, is a killer feature that comes standard in online master’s programs. Not having to make a long commute to get to class – even if it’s just on the weekends, as was typical of pre-pandemic executive programs – is a real bonus too.
Some online programs still offer some intensive in-person meetings, but they tend to be once or twice over the course of the program rather than weekly, a much lower bar to clear. You get all the benefits of interacting with your fellow students and instructors in person, while still maintaining a flexible class schedule for the bulk of the program.
The Career Options for Executive MHA Graduates
Your executive MHA isn’t going to look any different to hiring organizations than a standard MHA, so you’re going to be fully qualified for all the various types of careers that any masters-educated health administrator can pursue. That may include titles such as:
Maybe you’re already eyeing an advancement opportunity in your current position with a hospital or managed care organization, or maybe you want to get out of the direct patient care business altogether. Earning a mid-career master’s can help you do either, opening doors to executive positions in everything from providers to big medical equipment suppliers, to insurance companies, to government and policy advocacy groups. Each of those can have impacts on your salary prospects, but all of them are driving big demand for talented master’s graduates… according to consultancy Deloitte, the healthcare industry overall is set to expand at a 5 percent rate annually through 2023, creating 4 million new jobs along the way. That’s a lot of faculty to manage, and it will take some very skilled execs to pull it off.
Your background alone will give you one big leg up on most applicants in the candidate pool. Since EHMAs are aimed squarely at more experienced senior managers and clinicians, you are likely to have more real-world expertise under your belt than other new MHA grads. And if that happens to be clinical expertise, it’s going to open up senior management jobs that could include titles like chief medical officer or chief nursing officer that general administrators simply aren’t qualified for.
Expected Salary Ranges for Executive MHA Graduates
All that additional expertise opens up the high end of the salary ranges for medical administrators almost immediately.
A 2019 Crain survey published in Modern Healthcare identified the following base salary rates for executives working in healthcare systems nationwide:
Obviously, the size of the organization also has a big influence on your base pay. So does the annual revenue stream. And the two together can make for some big differences in jobs with the same titles:
And all those numbers are only going up; Modern Healthcare found that those base numbers had increased by more than six percent year-over-year from 2018 already. And at the very top of the stack, in some areas, such as Chicago, that number jumped by an amazing 37 percent in 2017 alone, awarding some CEOs as much as $11.7 million in take-home pay.
Resources for Executive Master of Healthcare Administration Students
At this point in your career you already know that no one climbs to the top of the management ladder in healthcare alone. You’ll need to be supported by the right team, the right mentors, and the right peers throughout your journey to success.
So it makes a lot of sense to get familiar with the various organizations and resources you can draw on for knowledge and support throughout your studies, and further, as you enter the workforce and meet new challenges on the job. These organizations offer networking opportunities, continuing education resources, mentorship, and a chance to influence the industry yourself through participation in policy-making and lobbying efforts.