How to Become a Health Care Administrator
Health care administrators have wide-ranging influence within the world of medicine. The leadership that these professionals provide sets the future course not only for the facilities they manage but also for the health care system as a whole.
Managing a health care facility today is the close equivalent to managing an entire city. It’s a dynamic environment of specialized groups that have both direct and indirect relationships with one another, and at times, competing interests. To lead such an organization requires careful budgeting, tough decision-making, and above all else, the ability to maintain the respect and cooperation of diverse interest groups that are sometimes adversely affected by an administrator’s decisions. Within this environment, a health care administrator is responsible for establishing health care standards, making strategic policy decisions and implementing the personnel management procedures necessary to support his vision. In addition to the internal leadership they provide, health care administrators are leaders within the greater community as well. They partner with other health care organizations, comply with government regulations, advocate and testify on behalf of health care policies, and maintain campuses that are significant to communities.
Although the professional titles of health care administrators vary according to their place of employment, the significance of the work they accomplish—and the interdisciplinary skillset required to do so—is universal. Healthcare administrators have the challenge and opportunity to deliver high quality health care within an appealing work environment while contributing positively to the greater community at large. There are few positions within the health care arena as exciting, versatile and rewarding as that of the health care administrator—who has the opportunity to lead, inspire and enact policies of far-reaching consequence.
About 40 percent of health care administrators work within hospitals. Other employment settings include physicians’ offices, small or large group medical practices, long-term nursing care facilities, home health care agencies, and outpatient clinics or centers. Within these settings, they manage whole facilities or a specific department. Most health care administrators work full-time business hours, but those responsible for 24-hour facilities should expect to work on an urgent or emergent basis during off hours including weekends, nights or holidays.
A bachelor’s degree (four years) is the typical entry-level preparation needed for health care administration jobs. Some employers, however, will promote from within or hire other professionals with related experience (such as nurses) who are ideal for an administrative role because of their direct health care knowledge. For high-level executive positions, a graduate education (two to three years) is usually the starting point. This means attaining a MBA, or a different type of master’s degree, or a doctorate in health administration. Subspecialties are often available, especially in graduate programs. These include long-term care administration, health care services, or health information management. Prospective health care administrators should look for educational programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education. An accredited program has successfully gone through a process that ensures accountability and a commitment to quality improvement.
Some educational programs, especially graduate programs in health care administration, have real-world internships as part of the curriculum. Students often spend time in an ancillary or assistant role under the mentorship of a health administrator, or participate in a special project designed to benefit a facility or health care practice. When starting out on the job, health care administrators are trained by either the outgoing employee or directed by a higher-level executive in the organization. Because of their managerial role, however, health care administrators are expected to be independent in their job fairly quickly.
Licensing and/or Certification
In most areas of health care administration, a license is not needed. One notable exception is for administrators of long-term care nursing facilities and some assisted living facilities. State license requirements vary state to state, but a licensing examination, proof of a bachelor’s degree, and successful completion of a training program are typical elements of the licensing process.
Certification is mostly an optional process, depending on a health care administrator’s role and professional goals. Certification is offered by professional associations such as the American College of Health Care Administrators (for long-term care/assisted living professionals) and the Professional Association of Health Care Office Management (for medical practice managers).
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Change is always in the air when it comes to the provision of health care. Healthcare administrators must be adept at adjusting to new developments in health care law, technology and policies. They need to be flexible, creative, analytical and organized in putting policy changes into practice. Healthcare administrators must be able to effectively communicate with people at all professional levels, specialties and roles. Part of doing this well is keeping abreast of what goes on in their department or facility, and knowing details of all employees’ daily responsibilities. Because they are leaders and often operate as the “face” of their organization, health care administrators must always maintain professionalism in demeanor and appearance.
Opportunities for Advancement
Healthcare administrators usually choose to move up the executive ladder. For instance, a manager of a department may become an executive in charge of multiple departments or an entire facility. If a health care administrator doesn't already have it, a graduate education is sometimes necessary for this kind of advancement. Experienced health care administrative professionals are also ideal for taking on consultant roles, becoming educators, or becoming policy makers in a public service or government capacity.
When calculating salaries, the Bureau of Labor Statistics lumps all health care administrators’ wages into one set of numbers, regardless of specific position. In 2010, the median annual wage for health care administrators was $84,270. The low end of the range, which would include administrators who work in an associate’s or assistant’s role, was about $51,280. At the high end, which includes executive and leadership positions, salaries were reported at over $144,880. Higher salaries are usually awarded to professionals with the most responsibility, and who oversee larger practices or facilities.
More employment opportunities are expected in the area of medical practice management than in other areas of health care administration because of the trends toward outpatient care and an overall increased demand for health care services. There is also expected to be an increase in the need for long-term care administrators because of aging baby boomers. Job growth for all health care administrators averages out to about 22 percent in the next decade, which is considered faster than average for all occupations.