Home Careers in Critical and Acute Care Administration

Careers in Critical and Acute Care Administration

It’s hard to think of a medical field that more closely aligns with what the popular idea of medicine is than critical and acute care. Working with the sickest patients and dealing with the most immediate needs, these are the wards where the monitors are beeping and doctors and nurses are thinking fast when lives are on the line.

It’s nothing to brag about, but nearly half of all healthcare services in the country are initiated via hospital emergency departments. The American healthcare system has devalued primary care and preventative treatment to the point that most patients wait until they can’t wait any longer to deal with medical issues… by definition, until they become an emergency.

Anyone who worked in medicine in 2020 has the images etched in their brain forever: overflowing ICUs, crowded emergency rooms, patient beds lining halls and even wedged into cafeterias and gift shops. And outside many of those hospitals, the awful consequence of overflowing the acute care system of the country: freezer trucks, lined up in loading bays and on the streets, holding the bodies of COVID-19 victims that the system couldn’t save.

That tragedy might have been discouraging to some people both in and out of the medical field, but for others, it lit a fire. The heroic measures that healthcare professionals took on through the pandemic showed the mettle that American doctors and nurses are made of. And it demonstrated how much they deserve leadership that is worthy of that commitment.

A career in healthcare administration in critical or acute care is one way for you to step up to the plate to look out for them as they deal with both the next crisis and the day-to-day challenges of American healthcare. It’s a field that is due for some big changes in the coming decades, and a management position in critical or acute care will allow you to lead the way.

Managing the Staff and Resources that Save the Lives of The Most At-Risk Patients

Acute care offers intensive but short-term treatment for medical conditions, everything from treating broken legs to trauma victims. Critical care is needed when those conditions are so life-threatening or emergent as to require comprehensive treatments and constant monitoring for changes.

These are the parts of the healthcare system where the drama happens. The accident victim rushed in who may or may not keep her leg; the confused elderly patient who didn’t monitor his blood glucose closely enough and has gone into hypoglycemia; the mystery patient who presents with what appears to be a mental condition at first glance, but turns out to have anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis.

The healthcare services required to detect and treat these kinds of conditions need very different and very specialized medical professionals to deliver quickly and effectively, but at the administrative level, they are very similar: managers working in the ED, ICU, NICU, and med/surg units handle the staffing, supply, and coordination required by their healthcare teams to give patient’s the best chance of survival and recovery.

That means taking on common healthcare management tasks such as:

  • Drawing up duty schedules balancing staff capabilities against scheduling requests
  • Conducting inventory and ordering and managing supplies, often including controlled substances
  • Drawing up policies, distributing memos, and evaluating core practices with respect to ethics, science, and current medical best-practices
  • Coordinating with other hospitals, departments, and outside agencies such as Public Health and Emergency Medical Services
  • Dealing with patients and their families in traumatic and stressful situations, communicating diagnoses and treatment options

A Path to Acute and Critical Care Management Often Begins With Clinical Training

The close integration of needs on the medical side of the unit with the administrative duties mean that, in critical care, most administrators are also clinicians. In fact, for many specialized units, admins may be required to hold specialist certifications relevant to the duties out on the floor.

Acute care administration is often more general and does not always require clinical training and experience.

For both positions, however, an ability to quickly assess and evaluate situations, make life and death decisions, and to communicate clearly under stress are all must-haves.

Because care in these units is around-the-clock, managers may have to hold down shifts at any time of the day or night, or be on-call during off-duty hours in case of emergency. In fact, most hospitals with these facilities are part of larger regional healthcare systems and are expected to absorb casualties from large-scale incidents. You have to be prepared for anything in this line of work… and that starts with the right education.

It’s a given that you will need at least a master’s level of education when you are working at this level in the hospital system. Many clinicians, obviously, will hold doctorates. But the clinical education you get in those programs doesn’t have a direct application to the administrative side of the business. For that, you’ll need to branch out to get training somewhere along the way that is specific to healthcare management.

Advanced Clinical Degrees With a Side of Leadership and Management

One way to do that is to earn your advanced clinical degree with a specialization in leadership or healthcare management.

For nurses, this has long been an option though MSN (Master of Science in Nursing) or DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice) programs that offer concentration option in nursing leadership or healthcare management. These programs are available whether you have been a practicing RN for decades or are fresh to the profession, through bridge programs that launch you directly from your BSN to an MSN. While most of the MSN curriculum will focus on nursing or an advanced practice nursing area like anesthesia or ob/gyn, a leadership concentration will add on courses in:

  • Organizational theory
  • Healthcare systems and policy
  • Business and finance in healthcare
  • Business communications
  • Human resource management in healthcare settings

For doctors, the long trek to becoming an MD doesn’t have many straightforward options for getting leadership and management training. Many medical schools now offer scholarly concentration areas in medical degrees, which may offer management-adjacent training in areas such as ethics or health systems and policy, but do not generally reflect the kind of leadership and managerial training as is available to RNs.

Post-Master’s Certificate in Healthcare Administration

Another option equally accessible to all clinicians is earning a post-master’s certificate in healthcare administration. Many schools that offer master’s degrees in healthcare administration also deliver much of the same core content in a certificate program, aimed expressly at clinicians who already have master’s degrees or higher, but need the subject-specific training in finance, leadership, and the business side of healthcare without diving back into a full two-year master’s degree.

These certificates can be completed in about half the time as a master’s, but have almost all the same courses that you would find in subject-specific areas as a full MHA. They often skip the capstone course requirement and may not offer the array of concentration options that you would find in a full MHA program, however.

Dual Master’s Degrees Combining Clinical With Administration or Business Training

Finally, for those with an iron will and a thirst for knowledge can double down during their initial schooling in healthcare by selecting dual degree options. For those in nursing, this is typically a dual MSN/MHA or MSN/MBA for training in acute and critical care administration. For doctors, many medical schools offer dual MD/MBA or MD/MHA degrees in conjunction with colleges of business or health at the same university.

These are complex and intensive programs that are carefully designed to weave together the full set of training and skills that you would get if you pursued both master’s degrees separately. For doctors, dual degrees can take six years or more, scheduled to fit into the intricate cycle American physician training. However, at only one year more than medical school traditionally takes, it still shaves a year off of pursuing those master’s separately.

You may also choose to pursue a DHA, or doctor of healthcare administration degree, the ultimate level of study in the field. This option is probably more likely for those who intend a career path at a major hospital or large healthcare system, and probably after years of actual practice rather than just starting out.

Should I Consider Online Options for Acute and Critical Care Administration?

Online degrees and certificate programs should definitely be on your radar as you are looking to expand your education into healthcare management for acute and critical care roles. Almost everyone who gets to this stage in their career has built up a certain lifestyle along the way… professional commitments, friends, family, kids. It can be really difficult to tear yourself away from all that to attend a traditional degree program, and even harder if the best program happens to be at a school that isn’t even in your area.

Online options take most of those factors right out of the equation and allow you to attend the program of your choice without sacrificing your current position or lifestyle. With the ability to participate from anywhere in the country, you can stay near family or your current job without penalty; with asynchronous classes, delivered at any time of the day or night, you can get your schoolwork done on lunch breaks or while you are sitting at your kid’s soccer practice, moving around the time and place however best fits into your busy life.

With modern online learning management systems and teaching tools, the quality of these courses is every bit the equal of their on-campus alternatives. And with programs that combine clinical and administrative care, you’ll find a hybrid approach is taken, mixing hands on and remote learning, offering you the best options for each type of course while retaining the flexibility that lets you get on with life as you get on with your education.

Salary and Career Prospects in Acute and Critical Care Administration

Since you’re probably already in the healthcare system, no one needs to tell you how critical staffing has become—or how important qualified administrators are in that process.

The Association of American Medical Colleges predicts a shortage of between 54,100 and 139,000 physicians in all areas of practice by 2033. In nursing, the American Nursing Association reports that there will be more open and unfilled nursing positions by 2022 than any other single profession in the nation. It’s been a problem that has been brewing for a long time, and it’s one that affects specialty care units the most. Critical care has historically attracted the youngest slice of the nursing workforce, but that workforce is aging out of those jobs without enough replacements coming in to those roles—the decline of RNs under 30 makes critical care jobs among the hardest to fill.

That was all true even before COVID-19 hit, leaving as many as 20 percent of clinical frontline providers—the exact people you find working in critical and acute care positions—with clinical or sub-clinical PTSD symptoms.

Because administrators are largely drawn from these same pools of professionals, they are facing the same shortages. But for job-seekers in this area, that’s a boon—massive demand will lead to many openings and high salaries.

How many openings? Well, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 32 percent growth rate for medical and health services managers overall in the country between 2019 and 2029,one of the fastest growing professions in the country. Around 30 percent of those positions are found in general medical and surgical hospitals, which are the largest provider of acute care services.

How much money? That’s more difficult to estimate. In general, medical and health services managers make into six figures, but the majority of those roles don’t also require clinical skills. Similarly, most clinicians can expect a salaries in the $150,00 to $200,000 range, but those don’t account for additional managerial skills.

Modern Healthcare conducted a survey in 2019 that did offer some hints about the additional salary levels that administrative clinical leaders might expect when working in acute and critical care management roles. Those include:

  • Chief nursing officer – $208,800
  • Operations – $197,600

Even better, the survey found that even then, salaries were increasing for healthcare executives by 6.5 percent year over year. The future is likely to include even higher increases.

Although it’s a long path to become an acute or critical care manager, it’s one of those rare jobs where the financial compensation is matched or even overshadowed by the emotional rewards. The outcomes are often faster and more definitive than other parts of medical practice, and American medicine is enormously successful at acute care treatment… most patients that come into a hospital here leave again better than when they arrived. That’s something that is more satisfying than any amount of money you might make.