Every academic field has a peak to be climbed for the most educated and most accomplished practitioners. In healthcare administration, that height is a doctorate degree in healthcare administration.

The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is widely known and respected in healthcare practice as the degree held by the academics and researchers we all look to for guidance, and who we depend on to lead the industry into the future. And it is an industry that is very much in need of that leadership, facing challenges that have been mounting for a long time now, but which still have no clear solutions.

The hopes of the healthcare industry and the country lie with professionals who have the experience and the education to innovate and optimize and lead… graduates of the nation’s healthcare administration PhD programs.

How Healthcare Administrators with PhDs Fit into the American Healthcare System

It was nearly 15 years ago that the American College of Physicians (ACP) warned of an imminent collapse of primary care coverage in the country due to a shortage of providers. Their counterparts at the American Association of Colleges of Nursing have done the same… twice, in the past ten years. These are doctors and advanced practice nurses who take a decade or more to train, and the pipeline has remained inadequate to fully meet the need today, let alone the expected demand in the years ahead.

By 2030, ACP studies show that the country will be short by about 45,000 primary care providers, demand driven by the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which brought almost 40 million new beneficiaries into insurance coverage, alongside the slow but still-rising tidal wave of the Baby Boom generation coming into their retirement years—years in which the demand for healthcare services only ramps up. Around 10,000 Boomers hit Medicaid eligibility every day, and by that 2030 mark, over 20 percent of the population will be counted among the senior citizen population.

And there are more services, and more expenses associated with those services, available to them than ever.

American healthcare costs have increased dramatically in the past decades, amounting to $3.6 trillion in spending in fiscal year 2018 alone, or around $11,000 per person, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. New technologies that run the gamut from 3-D printing for bone replacement to new pharmacological treatments for cancers, infections, and age-old killers like diabetes and cholesterol are coming out all the time… with hefty price tags attached.

Who makes the decisions about what patients get which treatments, and how to keep prices under control? Who deals with the staffing shortages, and makes the hard decisions about when to close and when to consolidate hospitals and clinics? With 171 rural hospital closures since 2005 and 12 more in 2020 alone, as reported by the National Rural Health Association, who will find a solution to this troubling trend?

Much of the intellectual heavy-lifting falls to healthcare administrators with doctorates, all of whom have certainly been in the field long enough to understand the pressures on the system, and who are uniquely qualified to draw on that experience and combine it with the global perspective they gain from exploring these issues at the doctoral level.

What is the Difference Between a PhD and a DHA?

In some sense, there are two peaks to choose from in the healthcare administration field: the primary choice of doctoral degrees in healthcare administration comes down to picking either a PhD or a DHA (Doctor of Healthcare Administration).

Although the subjects and material you will study will be similar in both, there is a real difference in the focus of the two types of degrees.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) – PhD students are steeped in research and theory. Their education is focused on pushing the boundaries in healthcare administration from the scientific and investigative perspective, exploring options and conducting both thought experiments, and actual experiments, to develop hard evidence for the best solutions. They are most often destined for teaching and research-oriented positions in the field.

Doctor of Healthcare Administration (DHA) – A DHA is considered an applied doctorate, which means that students are expected to develop a more practical range of expertise, using available evidence to build immediate solutions to real-world problems in healthcare. They are typically expected to fill active executive roles in the field.

Because healthcare is a field that combines education with practice at almost every level, you will find a lot of crossover between the positions open to professionals who hold either a PhD or DHA. It’s not unusual for a PhD researcher at a teaching hospital to also hold a major executive position in the organization, or a DHA who serves as a professor at a highly respected university. But if you plan to specialize in research and theoretical work rather than nuts and bolts operational considerations in healthcare administration, the PhD is a clear choice.

An Advanced Curriculum In Healthcare Administration Behind Every PhD

Healthcare is a broad field that has only become more intensively specialized over the years. Education in the field has followed suit, and you’ll find that many health administration doctorate programs offer a variety of concentrations including those in academics, policy development, public health, high-level management, informatics, and research. You’ll find them under a wide variety of titles, sometimes with an emphasis on the business aspects of the field, and others with an emphasis on clinical care:

  • PhD in Health Services – Healthcare Administration specialization
  • Executive Doctoral Program in Health Leadership (DrPH)
  • PhD in Administration/Business Administration – Health Services concentration
  • PhD in Health Policy and Administration
  • PhD in Health Policy and Management
  • PhD in Health Care Management and Economics
  • EdD in Organizational Leadership with Healthcare Administration emphasis
  • DM in Healthcare Management and Leadership

You can also find specialty-specific healthcare administration PhDs, such as in Nursing Healthcare Administration. These are usually tailored to clinicians and other professional providers who are coming up into executive leadership positions from the operational side of health services. By the same token, you’ll find that healthcare administration PhDs are offered by a number of different university departments, from public health to nursing to business.

Curriculum Components of a PhD in Healthcare Administration

What you study in a doctoral program shapes the views you develop and the expertise that you will build by the time you graduate. Unlike lower-echelon university degrees, a PhD is primarily a voyage of discovery driven by the candidate themself: you. Although you’ll find a set of required courses in every PhD program, unique to the subject it focuses on, you’ll also find that you have a wide latitude to open up investigations into your own personal interests and pursue your own objectives, in concert with your professors and advisers.

The core studies will vary depending on the type of PhD program you enroll in. In general, however, you can expect courses in subjects such as:

  • Health Economics
  • Comparative Health Policy
  • Legal and Regulatory Challenges in Healthcare
  • Health Informatics
  • Ethical Considerations
  • Research Methods

Some programs will allow you to pass over some of these courses if you have recently earned a master’s in the field and have taken those subjects recently; this is most common at universities which offer both master’s and PhD programs.

Specializations in Healthcare Administration PhD Programs

The real meat of your program will come from the concentration you select. In some programs, this is less formal; the expression of your selected course of study as outlined by your advisors and your chosen dissertation topic.

In many, however, you’ll have a number of options that will set you on a particular path in healthcare admin research and study. You’ll find specializations like:

  • Community Health
  • Public Health Policy
  • Leadership
  • Education

Each of these will have specific coursework that takes you deep into the current issues and challenges of healthcare administration in those particular areas in America today.

Online PhD Programs in Healthcare Administration

If it’s been a while since you earned your bachelor’s or master’s degree, it might come as a bit of a surprise to find that many, if not most, doctoral programs have moved largely online these days. The general state of high-speed internet and the technological savvy of individual students has made it an easy choice, and one particularly suited to the modern world.

Not all of them are specifically labeled as online; you will see more that are described as hybrid or low-residency programs, but it boils down to the same thing—you may only have to appear physically on campus a handful of times during your studies. At the same time, even programs that are described as online are rarely online-only; almost all PhD studies require an in-person symposium or other face-to-face research and collaborative work at several stages during your studies.

The primarily remote format holds many advantages for the typical PhD candidate, however.

  • Avoid having to relocate
  • Continue your current job and career path
  • Keep personal and professional obligations

Specialty Accreditation Considerations When Considering a Healthcare Administration PhD Program

If you have already earned a master’s degree in healthcare administration, you might have started off your search for a PhD programs at CAHME, the Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education. That’s the organization that offers specialty accreditation for graduate healthcare administration and management degrees, and you probably trusted their judgement and evolution of your master’s program.

Unfortunately, CAHME does not evaluate doctoral programs. However, you can look for schools that have earned a CAHME accreditation for master’s level studies in the field as a proxy for the quality of the PhD degree—chances are, they will share many of the same professors, professional resources, and curriculum concepts.

There are, however, PhD programs in the field that are offered by schools that do not offer a master’s, so you’ll have to investigate those programs separately, judging their value and quality by reputation and outcomes.

The Dissertation Forms The Core of Your Healthcare Administration PhD Studies

The pillar around which all your studies will revolve is your doctoral dissertation. A technical paper that will run to six or so chapters and hundreds of pages, it will describe your own individual research, thinking, and reasoning about a subject of importance within the field that you agree upon with your dissertation advisor and committee. You’ll likely pick this topic fairly early on during your PhD education, and much of your coursework will be built around investigating it and answering the question you set out. Up to a full year of the program will primarily be dedicated to dissertation research and writing.

Once completed, you’ll defend it and the ideas you have developed in front of the committee. Expect to be challenged, and expect to work closely with your advisor to craft a publication-worthy piece of writing by the end of the process.

Because you select your dissertation topic, it offers a way to carefully customize your PhD program to give you the kind of education and expertise you think will benefit you the most after graduation. It can shape the entire remainder of your career, and if your contributions are groundbreaking enough, it can actually play some small role in advancing the field of healthcare administration itself.

Admission Requirements for Doctoral Programs in Healthcare Administration

There are as many variations on admission requirements for PhD healthcare admin programs as there are programs themselves. Something they all have in common, however, is a desire to pick out the top candidates with the best chances for success, both in graduating from the program itself, and for enhancing its reputation through excellence in the field after graduation.

In general, you’ll find that every school looks at certain aspects of your background and uses different criteria, and weights for that criteria, in assessing those qualifications:

Experience and Education – Some programs accept candidates only after they have worked in healthcare in a professional capacity for some period of time. In other cases, they may accept a master’s degree in a related field, with a certain average GPA, as qualification enough. And still other programs will look at your professional experience in the field in combination with your level of education to decide whether or not you are a good fit.

Knowledge – Many schools require that you take and pass either a GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) or GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) with certain minimum scores in order to gain admission. These may also be waived for certain candidates depending on their professional background, however. In particular, programs that cater to clinicians shifting to management studies may be more open to counting professional experience in your favor.

Ambition and Dedication – Many admissions committees will require that you write out an essay describing yourself and your intentions for applying to the program to weigh your motivation. They may also ask for letters of recommendation from peers, colleagues, or supervisors. And if you get far enough in the process, you will likely have to sit for an interview to discuss yourself and your background in person.

Healthcare Administration PhD Program Costs

The cost of the average doctoral program in the United States has been skyrocketing over the past two decades. In 2000, the average annual cost of a PhD across all types of universities was roughly $12,000 per year; by 2018, it was knocking on the door of $19,000.

Depending on whether you opt for a public or private university, and whether you are eligible for in-state tuition or out-of-state, that means your typical three-year healthcare administration PhD could set you back anywhere from $20,000 to $60,000, or even more at top-flight private universities.

There are often additional fees and charges that come from various university services, such as technology and lab costs. And while private universities often charge a much higher per-credit tuition rate, you are sometimes purchasing a reputation and the networking opportunities that come with such programs.

Top Jobs and Compensation for PhD Graduates in Healthcare Administration

PhD graduates are typically oriented toward entering positions in research or education, which often means aiming for tenure-track university professorships. Academia is known for many things, but high salaries are not one of them; the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the 2019 median salary for postsecondary educators was $79,540 per year. Medical scientists, a similar occupation that overlaps somewhat with the more research-focused roles in healthcare administration, had a slightly higher median at $88,790 per year.

There’s a silver lining to an education-oriented career in healthcare today, however, which is that the industry as a whole is growing like gangbusters. Also according to BLS, healthcare is due to add 2.4 million jobs by 2029, a 15 percent growth rate over 2019. Each of those 2.4 million people are going to need a college education of some sort to get into such a technical and complex field, and that means big-time demand for college instructors to help them get there.

It’s also the case that PhDs in healthcare administration are not relegated strictly to teaching and research roles; the industry is one that blends teaching, research, and practice at many levels. So you might equally expect to combine your educational position with a high-level administration role at a teaching hospital or university-run medical system.

The salary prospects there are not only spectacularly high, but also rapidly increasing. Although not quite to par with the ranks of privately held healthcare CEOs, top executives at non-profit healthcare systems at the University of Chicago, Rush University, Loyola, and Northshore Medicine all made over $1 million in salary in 2017. In some cases, that represented a 45 percent bump over the prior year compensation levels.

Naturally, these numbers vary a lot based on the size and revenue of the organization. In the same role, pay varied between $602,700 at organizations with revenues over $1 billion annually all the way down to $215,100 at organizations with revenues below $50 million.

Resources for Executive Healthcare Administrators

Doctoral students and post-docs are a collegial bunch, and you’ll find that much of your success in the field will depend on your professional connections. You’ll engage in joint research projects, collaborative studies, pen papers with them, and provide and receive references for jobs. That means networking and staying involved with the community is a must, and you’ll do it through organizations such as these:

  • Association for Healthcare Administrative Professionals: Dedicated to the professionals who support the nation’s top healthcare leaders, this organization provides leadership opportunities through work on committees and groups in order to strengthen the delivery of healthcare.
  • American Association of Healthcare Administrative Management: AAHAM represents a broad base of healthcare professionals, providing information, education, and advocacy in the fields of reimbursement, admitting and registration, data management, medical records, patient relations, and so on.
  • American College of Healthcare Executives: This international organization of executive healthcare leaders advances professionalism and expertise in the field of healthcare management. Members receive the latest research and education and receive policy updates at the annual Congress on Healthcare Leadership.
  • American Health Information Management Association: Members of AHIMA receive the latest updates on topics such as privacy and security, coding, electronic health records, reimbursement, and compliance, as well as professional development and networking opportunities.
  • Healthcare Financial Management Association: This member-based organization supports individuals and organizations by providing education and development opportunities, deciphering the complexities of American healthcare financial practices to build more stable and effective organizations.
  • The National Association of Healthcare Access Management: This organization provides educational programming and networking opportunities for healthcare professionals involved with the management of patient access services like scheduling, registration, insurance processing, and other patient-facing assistance.
  • Health Resources and Services Administration: This agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) supports the training of health professionals and distribution of provider care to geographically isolated, economically or medically vulnerable areas.

The sooner you get involved, the better!

Health Administration Schools
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