These days, you need a master's degree to move up the administrative ranks in most healthcare facilities. But choosing from the many types of graduate programs, including the MHA, MBA, MPH, MPA and MSN, can be confusing. Here's a look at this higher-education alphabet soup:
Master's of Health Administration (MHA)
The MHA is the most common master's degree held by healthcare executives. In an MHA program, the focus is on operating a healthcare facility. Most of your coursework would be tailored exclusively to healthcare, including management and supervision strategies, conflict resolution, business development and planning, and marketing. Most MHA students come from healthcare backgrounds.
Master's of Business Administration (MBA)
The MBA is also popular with healthcare administrators, especially those MBA programs that offer multiple healthcare-related electives. Generally, MBA coursework would be light on healthcare and heavy on business, including microeconomics, macroeconomics, strategic planning and human resources. Classes would most likely include a mix of students from diverse backgrounds in finance, consulting, manufacturing and other industries.
Master's of Public Health (MPH)
The MPH degree is generally not administrative in focus, but some MPH programs offer concentrations in health services administration. In a typical MPH program, the focus is more on epidemiology, environmental health and global public health issues, like HIV and domestic violence, than on management techniques. Many MPH graduates end up working in public health agencies, but they also work in research, community service, and health policy and education. Students in an MPH program would include a mix of clinicians and nonclinicians in all different career stages.
Master's in Public Administration (MPA)
The MPA is uncommon among healthcare professionals, although there are some MPA programs that offer health-specific curricula. Generally, people enrolled in MPA programs will pursue careers in public service, entering or advancing through the management ranks at local, state or federal governmental agencies. This program would include everyone from police officers to bureaucrats.
Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
RNs who want to advance in their clinical practice or who want to become nurse managers frequently attain MSNs. An MSN student who chooses the administrative route will learn about budgeting, management, organizational development and healthcare economics. All of the students in a standard MSN program would be nurses. However, several schools nationwide have launched combined MSN/MBA programs in which nurses take some classes with mainstream MBA students.
Preparing for Your Administrative Career
"Regardless of which master's degree you pursue, you can enjoy a top-notch education and go on to build a successful healthcare management career," says Thomas Dolan, PhD, president and CEO of the American College of Healthcare Executives. "Just make sure your program is accredited by the [Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education] and combines both business and healthcare knowledge."
"Very few employers will argue about what your master's degree is in," says Susan Odegaard Turner, PhD, founder of healthcare consultancy Turner Healthcare Associates. However, previous healthcare industry experience is becoming increasingly important. To land many healthcare management jobs, you need more than just a relevant master's degree. "You need some firsthand knowledge of the daily grind in a hospital or healthcare facility," Turner says.