What Is Patient Access Services Administration?
For hundreds of years, healthcare in America has mostly been a matter of showing up at a hospital or local doctor’s office and taking your medicine.
You were seen when the doctor had time to see you, you accepted their diagnosis and treatment options, and you paid what you were told for the service. Medical professionals might have a local reputation for good or bad service, but it didn’t matter a lot… they were the experts and usually the only option.
But the American consumer has become more savvy and has better access to information than at any point in history right now. Their expectations for smooth service have been polished by decades of marketing and a society that aims to deliver instant gratification. The customer is always right… even when the customer is terribly sick or injured.
Suddenly, it has started to matter how well a healthcare organization maintains its relationships with patients. Healthcare has gotten expensive… in 1960, the average American shelled out about $146 a year for healthcare. In October of 2019, that number was more than $10,300. And it is expected to rise by another $5,000 by 2023.
When you are paying that much, you have every expectation of getting top-notch service, right from the moment you pick up the phone to schedule an appointment all the way through the point where you pay your bill. That means every touch point in the healthcare system is an important one.
The new term for this array of customer relations and outreach is patient access services. It reaches across departments and functions in the healthcare organization to give patients more insight, agency, and closer relationships with their health and wellness services.
For managers taking charge of any element of this new array of access services, it means having an understanding of the entire spectrum of patient-contact functions across the organization, including:
As hospitals in the post-COVID world face enormous financial pressures, to the tune of $50 billion per month in losses according to the American Hospital Association (AHA), their competition for patients and the revenue-generating elective and non-emergency procedures that keep hospitals profitable will only intensify. And patient access managers will have to step up to meet the challenge.
What Are The Education Requirements to Become a Patient Access Services Manager?
The education it takes to become an effective patient access services executive are unique; they span the entire spectrum of administrative and outreach functions at a modern healthcare facility, and on top of that the job requires the ability to strike a balance between customer service – giving patients everything they expect – and operational effectiveness – allocating faculty and other resources efficiently.
The kind of topics you’ll need to understand, and the classes you’ll likely take to learn them, in order to shine in patient access services include:
Information Technology – Electronic Health Records (EHR) have become a common feature in modern healthcare systems, and they are usually owned and maintained by the patient services department. Unfortunately, nearly 70 percent of them are imprecise in some way—and patient services also gets to deal with angry patients trying to fix those issues. You need a strong command of IT and medical informatics to keep these systems humming. You get that training in classes like:
Customer Service and Communications – There are a lot of stresses involved for patients coming in for treatment; financial considerations, health scares, the unfamiliar setting of a hospital. You have to deal with all of the emotions that come along with those stresses and understand how to assist people with empathy and certainty to address their needs. You’ll learn this in classes like:
Insurance and Billing – The high costs of healthcare and the complexity of the modern American insurance system result in a lot of stress for both patients and providers. Patient access is the place where all that comes together in billing and reimbursement. You’ll need a keen understanding of your system’s Charge Description Master (CDM), the comprehensive list of your hospital’s billable items and services, and how that is translated into actual reimbursement rates negotiated by contract with various insurers. Add to that your need to understand the essential aspects of documentation and coding to keep claims from getting rejected, and you’ll need a full series of classes covering everything involved in invoicing for healthcare services. Classes that will help you out here will include:
Outreach and Marketing – Patient access services are the face of the organization to customers, so you need to have skills in marketing your services and developing relationships with both patients and partner organizations. Classes that develop these skills include:
General Business and Strategy – While keeping your finger on the pulse of patient and provider considerations is key, patient services are also in the business of staying in business… you need a solid command of essential operational skills that are needed in any industry to keep the lights on and cash flow positive. Course will include:
Considering the Degree Options for Patient Access Services Management Jobs
Now that you know what kind of subjects you need to study, what are the degree options for getting that education?
There are jobs to be had in patient services organizations for individuals with every level of education, from a basic high school diploma to fly the front desk, up to a master’s or even a doctorate for the executive director of services at a major multi-hospital healthcare system.
It’s generally understood, though, that the career-focused long haulers in all areas of healthcare administration aim for master’s degrees, whether that means earning an MHA (Master of Healthcare Administration), MSHA (MS in Health Administrations), or an MBA with a Health Management focus. Some don’t stop till they get to a terminal degree, namely the practice-focused DHA (Doctor of Health Administration).
But even as you get started at the undergraduate level, you can think of it as a kind of continuum, where it’s always possible to jump up to the next level with the right experience and initiative to earn another degree.
Undergraduate Degrees in Health Administration Lay the Groundwork for Careers in Patient Access Services
As a practical matter, you aren’t going to be hired into any kind of management role without at least a bachelor’s degree. Those four-year programs form the bedrock of American higher education, and come with not only the coursework you need in medical administration matters, but also with the kind of broad-spectrum liberal arts education that will make you a better communicator, problem-solver, and critical-thinker… exactly the mix of general talents you need to succeed in patient services.
An associate degree, however, can offer you a step toward that bachelor’s, and can offer you an entry point into the ground-level services that you could be managing later. It’s not difficult at all to get a receptionist position with an associate, or to become an administrative medical assistant, or work as a billing clerk. Even if that isn’t your end goal, jobs like that give you valuable insights into how things work at the most fundamental level. An associates can also be used as a transfer degree, counting toward the first two years of your bachelor’s if you check with the colleges involved and make sure there is an agreement in place to cover that.
Some community colleges offer a short bundle of courses in patient access services designed to prep students with the basics of front desk, billing, and customer service skills required at the entry level in the profession. These are not typically transferable and so they don’t represent a foundation for further education, but can help you get your foot in the door for entry-level positions.
Master’s and Even Doctorates Are Often the Big Goal for Career-Minded Patient Access Services Administrators
For the most high-level positions, you’ll eventually need a master’s degree or doctorate. Each of those can take from two to three years, and offer some of the most in-depth studies you can get in the field. At both the master’s and doctorate level, you can expect to take on significant individual and original research, developing your own ideas and philosophies, and packing them into a capstone project, thesis, or dissertation that you’ll have to defend against some of the brightest professors on campus. It’s a challenge, but it’s also a qualification for senior executive roles with big-time paychecks and system-wide responsibilities.
Online Programs Have Become the Safest Choice for Everyone in Healthcare, Even Non-Clinicians like Patient Access Service Managers
You’ll find top quality schools these days offering online degree options at every level, with even the most established traditional on-campus programs getting in on remote curriculum delivery as a purely practical matter in the wake of the pandemic. While this kind of format was once seen as second chair to traditional programs, COVID-19 and the fast pace of technological change have actually made online degrees a preferred option for many health administration students.
That’s because the high-speed internet and high-quality learning management systems used today can offer you an experience that is every bit as good as any classroom-based course. And with any asynchronous courses that might be built into the program, you get all that while still being able to enjoy the freedom to study at whatever time is convenient for you, not just when a classroom and professor happen to be scheduled.
You also have the advantage of doing so from any location in the world where your laptop can snag some WIFI, which isn’t just a plus for avoiding traffic, but also opens up a whole new array of possible schools to attend… when you don’t have to think about relocating, why not consider that dream school on the other side of the country best?
Some programs offer a hybrid approach that combines the best of both worlds, delivering most coursework online, but offering a few on-campus meetings for courses that simply work better in-person… labs or symposiums. These are often scheduled in intensive week or weekends, however, which still minimize your need to travel to the campus.
Specialty Accreditation in Health Administration Programs
In a highly specific field like healthcare administration, it’s worth your time to be on the lookout for programs that hold a specialty accreditation in the subject. These are offered by Department of Education-recognized non-profit organizations that have recognized expertise and the kind of experience it takes to evaluate programs in their areas. There are two you will find in the healthcare administration field:
Even though CAHME only accredits master’s degree programs, if you are considering a bachelor’s at the same school, you can often count on seeing some of the same instructors and the same resources that are used in the master’s program.
AUPHA does not technically offer accreditation; they certify participating bachelor’s programs using the same sort of paperwork review and self-reporting as full accreditation does. The primary difference between the two is that there is no follow-up site visit by AUPHA to verify the facilities and self-reporting, so the standards may be slightly lower. Nonetheless, it offers a step above the basic general accreditation that most colleges already hold.
You may also consider programs that are accredited by NAHAM, the National Association of Healthcare Access Management. Although NAHAM is not recognized by the DoE, it does work with a handful of community colleges nationwide to ensure that curriculum standards line up with the current expectations of the patient access professional community.
If you’re aiming for an MBA with a concentration in healthcare management or health services administration, then you’ll be looking for programs accredited by one of the three specialty accreditors that specialize in business program accreditation:
Certification Options for Patient Access Services Managers
One advantage of taking a NAHAM-accredited program is that it establishes your eligibility to sit for one of the two professional certifications that the organization offers in patient access. Those certifications are:
Certified Healthcare Access Associate (CHAA)
Certified Healthcare Access Manager (CHAM)
Earning these certifications offers potential employers a validation of your skills in the field and verifies your professionalism and knowledge in the most up-to-date practices.
Professional certification should not be confused with patient access specialist certificates, or other training programs, which may be offered as credit or non-credit course bundles from colleges or private training organizations.
Job Outlook and Salary Prospects for Patient Access Services Administrators
You’ll find a wide range of roles in patient access services administration considering all the many different types of service being delivered. Naturally, these will tend to be more specialized and distributed in larger organizations, whereas at smaller hospitals, a single position might oversee all the different aspects of patient access services.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2019 the average medical and health services manager made $100,980 per year. The demand for the position is the most eye-popping statistic, however; BLS forecasts a tremendous 32 percent increase in demand between 2019 and 2029, much faster than the average rate of growth.
Naturally, salaries also vary according to your education and experience. According to Robert Half’s 2020 Administrative Salary Guide, typical patient access service manager salaries generally fell within this range:
Of course, with such major demand, you can also expect salaries to continue to increase rapidly in all these roles. According to a 2019 survey by Modern Health Executive, executive salaries jumped by 6.5 percent between 2018 and 2019 alone.
At the top of the patient access services spectrum, there is serious money to be made in healthcare systems. Modern Health Executive tracked these salaries for some of those positions in the same survey:
It’s a growing field, making it very reasonable to expect to find a job and climb through the ranks with the right education and the right attitude. And the satisfaction that comes with helping smooth over complications for patients who are having some of the worst moments of their lives is a kind of compensation that money can’t compete with.
Resources for Future Patient Access Services Managers
As a relatively new and still-evolving aspect of modern healthcare management, patient access services aren’t really something you can figure out and master on your own. You’ll need to keep up with current developments, and probably have a lot of questions you will need to have answered along the way.
So networking and continuing education are all important aspects of your climb into the executive ranks. These organizations can offer the resources and mentors to help you along the way: