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MPA Degree and Other Public Administration Programs

When the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) passed in 2010, it created a vast sea change in the scope and execution of American healthcare. Like the Medicare and Medicaid provisions included in the Social Security Act of 1965, ACA created major structural revisions in the medical and insurance industries through government-mandated coverages, preventive care, caps on individual healthcare expenditure, and subsidies for low-income patients. It offered a guarantee that every American would have access to healthcare services, and provided a gateway to better lives for millions.

The CDC reported that the percentage of uninsured Americans dropped by nearly half between 2010 and 2016 after the law came into effect. By some estimates, including those released by the Obama Whitehouse at the time, as many as 50,000 deaths were estimated to have been prevented by 2014 as a result of the additional coverage mandates.

That represents a huge victory for healthcare advocates, providers, and patients alike.

But the passage of the ACA represented a decades-long political fight, one that had little to do with health, wellness, or even financial considerations, but everything to do with public policy and visions of America. The actual health benefits and outcomes were clear from the start. Finding a way to get them written into the law was the real challenge.

It was a victory for experts in public health policy, who had the training, the knowledge, the acumen, and the heart to keep fighting for improvements. In some cases, they had been pushing those policies for decades. Some specific ideas that made it into ACA, like the individual mandate, are traceable to policies suggested as far back as 1989.

That’s the kind of perseverance that is both required and incredibly rewarding for public policy healthcare professionals. But wins come from across the spectrum of the modern healthcare system. Healthcare public policy analysts, advocates, and administrators are influential in every domain of healthcare including technology, law, research and education.

If you have a strong sense of social responsibility, want to make a difference in healthcare, and are willing to tackle the tough issues facing our nation’s healthcare system, public policy work may be a perfect fit for you. Healthcare is a universal need, and impacts every aspect of life and community in the United States… public policy analysis and implementation is a way for you to make this a better, safer, happier country for everyone.

Public Administration Job Description: A Career that Can Shape the Lives of Millions

As a professional in healthcare public policy, you will be analyzing current policy and researching ways healthcare can be improved through changes in that policy.

Because policy governs so much of what happens in the healthcare world, you can find this happening at any level.

You could be examining the healthcare options within your rural community, looking at ways to reverse the trend of hospital closures that have been reducing access to care for millions of Americans outside urban areas in states that have refused Medicaid expansion … You might research the latest trends in pharmaceutical pricing for a corporation, studying how government policy buoys drug pricing levels based on their own determinations of how clinically significant a drug might be … Or lobbying on behalf of a health advocacy group to increase research funding for HIV/AIDS, cancer treatments, or nutrition disparities.

Work in any of these areas can have profound effects on the future of medical treatment and well-being for millions of people around the country or even the world.

That range of possibilities means you can find jobs in almost any healthcare sector and with governments, non-profits, and for-profit corporations. All of them recognize that a deep understanding of policy standards and processes can be key to advancing their interests; all are interested in the brightest and best trained policy professionals.

Research is a large and key part of healthcare policy work. That includes research both in the formal sense by creating surveys and experiments to uncover trends and facts in health and health services, and in the more general sense by reading up on existing articles and reports to understand what science has already revealed. You can’t formulate your own plans without understanding the landscape they’ll have to fit into.

So you can expect to do a lot of reading, conduct a lot of interviews, and take a lot of meetings in any public policy career. That can mean sitting down with a governor, with doctors and healthcare administrators, or with regular citizens of any socioeconomic class.

You’ll also spend a lot of time writing, crafting your policy proposals in well-supported and well-argued whitepapers and articles. Finely honed critical-thinking and reasoning skills are a must. You’ll have to be able to understand dense legal writing, and in some cases, help craft laws and regulations that implement your proposals. And there is no healthcare service that doesn’t come with an associated cost, either in materials, time, or salaries… you’ll get good at numbers and have the gridlines of Excel spreadsheets burned into the back of your retina after a few years on the job.

MPA and Other Graduate Degree Programs Provide a Path Into Healthcare Public Policy Careers

No one graduates high school with all those advanced skills, and even earning a four-year bachelor’s degree won’t equip you with the knowledge and abilities you’ll need to land a healthcare policy position.

While you can start out in the lower rungs of the field with a bachelor’s in health administration or public health, a long-term career will generally require at least a master’s degree – A Master of Public Administration is the obvious choice, but a master’s in health administration or public health could also lay the groundwork. Additionally, if you are looking to join the ranks of the most influential thinkers and activists in the field, a PhD in health policy could be a path to high-ranking positions in government or at prestigious think-tanks.

Experience working in healthcare as a nurse, doctor or administrator can go a long way in preparing you for the job as well. In addition to your personal education and experience, a good public health policy analyst must be well-versed in current events and upcoming developments in both health sciences and the demographics of patient populations. Healthcare public policy graduate programs and doctoral programs can help you blend your experience with an advanced education to make the most of all that knowledge.

What Are the Admissions Requirements for Healthcare Policy Degree Programs?

Admissions requirements vary from school to school, with the most consistent being solid performance during your undergraduate years and a track record demonstrating your commitment to the field of healthcare. That can come through professional experience, independent study, or even volunteering in community health programs or other social justice initiatives.

To get into a graduate program, you’ll often need to come up with recommendations from people who have seen you do what you do best, and many admissions committees require a statement or essay outlining your personal perspective on the field and what you hope to achieve with your degree.

Some programs will also require that you take the GRE (Graduate Record Exam) or GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) exams and meet certain minimum scores.

Similarly, minimum GPA requirements on your undergraduate degree are common. Depending on the type of program you are applying for, you may need either a particular undergraduate degree in a related field or a certain amount of professional experience… for example, nursing programs with public policy concentrations may require that you hold a bachelor’s in nursing.

What is an MPA Degree? You Have a Lot of Degree Options, Even Beyond Strictly Health Policy

The specific curriculum you’ll tackle can vary from program to program—in fact, those differences are important ways that these high-end degrees distinguish themselves. So you’ll be looking for unique coursework that illuminates the kind of healthcare policy problems you are interested in finding solutions for.

Many advanced health policy degrees aren’t even in health policy specifically, but rather majors that offer concentrations or focus areas in healthcare policy. Examples include:

  • Master in Public Administration in Health Care Policy
  • Master of Public Health – Focus in Health Policy and Administration
  • PhD in Public Policy and Administration – Healthcare focus
  • Master of Health Administration in Health Management and Policy
  • PhD in Mental Health Policy and Practice
  • Masters in Nursing – Health Policy Concentration
  • Master of Business Administration in Health Care Policy and Management

Health Policy Programs Offer General and Focus-Specific Curriculum

And even if you do enroll in a full-on health policy master’s program, you will find that it, too, will offer concentrations in various sub-specializations that will tilt the curriculum toward topics like health finance or international health policy.

But still, there are some common subjects that most advanced degrees in the field include, such as:

  • Comparative Health Systems
  • Healthcare Economics
  • Financing Healthcare
  • Healthcare Policy and the Political System
  • Ethical and Legal Issues in Healthcare
  • Research Seminar in Healthcare Policy
  • Health Services Organization and Delivery
  • Health Services Behavior
  • Health Disparities
  • Quality Improvement in Healthcare

These all help inform your general understanding of the field, while tying together the threads of your experiences and what you learned in your undergraduate studies.

The Thesis You Develop Represents the Biggest Part of Your Program

The focus of your program, however, will be in your thesis or dissertation topic. These 60 to 200 page papers represent unique research and effort that you will select personally, with input from your advisor, and that you will put together over the course of your studies. The end result should be a publishable paper that will stand the test of inquiry and investigation by a committee of experts, serving as a validation of your progress and abilities by the time you graduate.

Should You Consider an Online Degree Program in Public Administration?

Probably! More and more degrees of all types are offered online today, and with advanced degrees, the student body is more likely to be older and have professional and personal commitments that make it a challenge to pick up, relocate, and knuckle down for two or more years of graduate studies.

Online options offer the opportunity for you to keep your current home, stay in your existing job, and go to your kid’s soccer games while shifting your homework and study time to a time and place that is most convenient for you. Asynchronous courses are streamed when and where you have time for them; as long as you are meeting your assignment deadlines, no one cares when you get it done.

At the same time, new technologies make it easier than ever to stay plugged in to your cohort and instructors. Chatrooms, email, online learning management systems—they’ve all been honed to offer a near-classroom experience.

Some programs continue to require some element of on campus participation, typically through a handful of carefully scheduled visits over the course of the program. It offers in-person connections and delivers the best of both worlds for combining flexibility with personal interaction for learning.

The Importance of Accreditation in MPA and Other Healthcare Policy Degree Programs

Accreditation is the process that every American university worthy of the name goes through to validate its scholastic and administrative qualities through rigorous evaluation by an unbiased third-party organization. Those accrediting bodies themselves are validated by a chain of expertise leading all the way back to the Department of Education and an independent body known as the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

That sort of general, institution-level accreditation is just the first step when it comes to highly specialized degrees, however. In the case of healthcare, and indeed within the spectrum of different healthcare fields, specialty accreditors take a closer and more careful look at schools and degree programs. With their specialized knowledge, they can evaluate the qualities that separate a solid program in, say, public health, from a mediocre effort that doesn’t meet the standards of the field today.

Because you can come into healthcare policy work from a wide variety of different types of degrees, there are many different specialty accreditors that you may need to consider:

The Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration, known as the NASPAA is the accreditation agency that deals specifically with evaluating schools and individual graduate programs in public policy and affairs. If you opt for a Master of Public Administration or other similar policy-focused master’s, it’s a wise idea to select one from the 2020-21 Roster of Accredited Programs. NASPAA-accredited programs are built around rigorous, peer-reviewed curriculum standards and deliver the most focused graduate education in the field, widely recognized in government and non-profit policy circles for integrity and a strong connection to the issues of the day.

Both bachelor’s and graduate programs in public health can hold accreditation from the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH), while the Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education (CAHME) accredits a select few master’s programs in health administration with a focus in health policy.

The two agencies that accredit MSN and DNP programs serve as more than just strictly accrediting bodies, also developing policy in their own right that influence licensing laws and practice privileges for nurses. The national certifying organizations that grant exam-based credentials to nurse practitioners and clinical nurse specialists require candidates to be graduates of programs accredited by one of these two agencies. All this is to say that, master’s and higher programs in nursing really need to be accredited by one of these two organizations, while in other fields accreditation is more a bonus than a strict requirement:

Public Administration Salary and Job Outlook

To be an effective public policy analyst or other public administration professional you must have a passion for community, an understanding of business and markets, and above all, an ability to wrap your head around the enormously complex facets of the modern, technology-driven healthcare and insurance system.

You’re going to have to count that passion as part of your paycheck. Public policy work is a kind of public service. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that government and non-profit policy positions for health services managers pay pretty well even though that type of work is not traditionally known for particularly high salaries, though they are known for excellent benefits. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, medical and health services managers working in government, where they most certainly perform work related to public policy, earned a median salary of $111,520 in 2019.

And many prominent public health policy wonks wear more than one hat. Working as a consultant with a variety of different clients can pad your income outside of your day job. Many public policy experts work in education, especially those with PhDs, but are also active participants in policy development processes at non-profits and corporations, and will pull down additional paychecks outside of their primary job.

For the same reasons it is difficult to pin down salary data for healthcare policy jobs, it’s not easy to forecast job growth specific to the role. But public policy is an evergreen area of employment… in good times or bad, there are policy prescriptions to be made, and government and industry will always be analyzing the current state of affairs and looking for improvements to make.

You can also draw some confidence from the overall rate of growth of the healthcare industry. Medical and health services manager positions overall are projected to grow at a staggering 32 percent between 2019 and 2029 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And Deloitte, a top consulting firm, who happens to also employ many healthcare policy analysts, forecasts that the overall healthcare market will grow as much as five percent per year through at least 2023.

Growth comes with growing pains, and resolving those pains are what public healthcare policy is all about. The future for policy analysts and planners is a bright one, and the contributions they make will shape generations.

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