What Are the Best Graduate Degrees for Rising Leaders in Healthcare?


Many people rising through in the ranks of healthcare management have considered the potential value of obtaining an advanced degree to gain an edge and propel their career to the next level. Perhaps they aim to pivot to a more specialized role in a preferred sub-sector.

Traditionally, the master of health administration (MHA) and the master of public health (MPH) are the two most frequently chosen degrees due to the highly specialized nature of the coursework.

In comparison, a master of business administration (MBA) is often perceived as less targeted and therefore less immediately applicable to the healthcare field.

Let us briefly touch upon these three types of degrees and their content focus before discussing the unique benefits of earning an MBA as a healthcare leader.

Master of Health Administration (MHA) Degree

A master of health administration (MHA) degree program is designed to prepare a person for a management and leadership role within a hospital or healthcare organization.

Some core classes might include hospital operations, financial management in healthcare systems, healthcare laws and regulation, human resource management, and medical ethics, among others. Many hospital presidents and leaders at the executive level in a healthcare system earned this degree earlier in their careers.

MHA programs are accredited by the Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education (CAHME).

Master of Public Health (MPH) Degree

While quite similar to the MHA with a healthcare content focus, the master of public health (MPH) program shifts somewhat from the hands-on management aspects toward a more macroeconomic exploration of health outcomes in populations. (Note that this is different from a master of science in public health [MSPH] degree, which is primarily an academic degree designed to prepare one for teaching or for continuing into a PhD program.)

Coursework for the MPH covers topics such as biostatistics, health communication and education, health policy and administration, and environmental health. Many who earn this degree find work in governmental organizations that develop and disseminate public policy. They may pursue a healthcare career path with an academic research component, or work at a non-for-profit teaching hospital.

Some physicians tend to pursue this degree post-fellowship to gain an edge in an academic healthcare institution with traditional tenure paths that require teaching and/or research publications to progress in status.

Master of Business Administration (MBA) Degree

A master of business administration (MBA) degree is generalized to be relevant to all different types of businesses. Common curricula cover areas such as business law, strategic operations, accounting, entrepreneurship, and change management, just to name a few.

Some MBA programs offer a concentration in healthcare or healthcare management, but even with such a concentration, the program coursework will not cover in the same degree of detail the specifics of managing within the healthcare setting as the MHA; nor will it dive as deeply into public policy development and dissemination as the MPH will.

MBA programs can be accredited by multiple associations, the most common in the U.S. being the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) or the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP). There are fully online and mostly or fully asynchronous MBA programs that are accredited by the AACSB or ACBSP, which can offer students who are also working full-time some valuable flexibility.

A Transforming Healthcare Industry is Changing the Game

Which of these three advanced degrees is the best fit for a career in healthcare leadership?

Upon first blush, it’s easy to see why the MHA and the MPH are so frequently chosen over the MBA. But as anyone working in healthcare over the past few years already knows, there is a remarkable transformation taking place in the industry.

Admittedly, some of these changes were partially underway prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. There has been a lot of discussion (and some isolated movements) toward population outcomes-based reimbursements, the consolidation of large healthcare systems and the patient populations under their care, and slow but steady growth of technology incorporation via telemedicine and wearable devices. That said, the pace at which these changes are taking place has far exceeded most predictions from the past.

The disruption cannot be defined solely by the unexpected leap in pace; the rules of the game itself are being entirely redesigned. New players with novel business concepts and nimble operations are streaming into the market to not only meet more discerning consumer demand but also help shape it with more customized patient experiences and eye-catching technology.

New technologies are expanding opportunity and liability at the same time, as biometric data can now stream into a practice around the clock.

Demand for trained providers of all levels exceeds supply, and this shortage only worsens as experienced medical professionals are exiting the field faster than ever, due in large part to record levels of burnout stemming from working on the front lines through the pandemic.

Consumer expectations, too, are changing along with all of this, in areas of service standards, access, coordinated care, and cost awareness.

And let us not forget the laws and regulations that are struggling to keep up. They still apply to every medical provider from the smallest private clinics to the largest healthcare systems.

This might all sound more like a novel tech start-up than it does the traditional healthcare industry, but this is the new reality of care provision—and providers and facilities have no choice but to adapt if they wish to survive.

Given this transformative environment, it is time to reconsider the value that an MBA can bring to the table, with its strong focus on innovative practices, change management, entrepreneurship, and its highly generalizable applicability to a career in the healthcare industry of the future.

The Rising Value of the Healthcare MBA

The Covid-19 pandemic most visibly and immediately crippled the industry by way of demand surges outpacing supply capacities for critical care facilities, ventilation devices, and ICU-trained medical personnel. What society had historically regarded as generally non-lethal inefficiencies of limited scope were revealed to be pervasive systemic failures throughout the system, which created a situation that can only be described as catastrophic beyond measure in terms of human suffering, loss of life, and missed opportunity for earlier intervention.

The healthcare industry must never again remain so complacent, with improvement moving at a snail’s pace. Let us explore some particularly interesting areas of change already underway and the terrific potential yet to come.

Change #1: The Consolidation of Medical Specialties

Since chronic disease management is where around 86 percent of spending currently goes, with little to show for it by way of healthy populations, this area is ripe for innovative strategies that streamline while also moving the needle on better outcomes.

We are likely to see a consolidation of chronic disease specialties into a more generalized ‘ongoing health and wellness’ type of specialization, with team-based approaches for care provision that reduce the redundancy of communications and contain operating costs on a per-patient basis.

Change #2: Care Team Replacing the Traditional Physician-Patient Encounter

Care team approaches aim to improve the bottom line by relying less on traditional physician-patient clinical encounters. They shift more time burden onto AI-assisted screening and triaging protocols that match the patient with the appropriate level of trained provider needed to achieve the desired health outcome effectively and safely, in both the short and long term.

In other words, there’s expected to be frequent interaction with nurses and less with physicians, more relationship-building, and increased strategic coaching type activities within those interactions.

This more cost-effective use of provider resources allows efforts to be redirected toward care provision strategies that are scalable to meet the needs of a large population but also customizable for the individual patient to achieve their specific health goals. It allows for a more accurate matchup between patient need and care provision supply.

Change #3: Technology Integration at Every Level

The future of healthcare relies heavily on a multitude of technologies. Areas of impact range from the use of tools that model optimal staffing ratios for disease-cluster-specific patient populations, to evidence-based algorithms that quickly and accurately triage patients and assign them to the right level of provider on a care team at the appropriate frequency.

Incoming data from patient devices is filtered through rulesets with appropriate thresholds set to alert providers of acute abnormalities. Over time, they predict long-term health trends and identify areas of intervention to improve outcomes.

The largest databases have the capability for the introduction of self-learning algorithms that continuously refine their calculations with every piece of new data that comes in. They continuously capture, flag, and store biometric information from connected patient devices, improving in real time. Personal device inputs will be aggregated with other data points, including patient-reported outcomes, provider diagnoses and relevant notes, and patient history and preferences.

Patient preference will tie in closely with nuanced nudge strategy interventions that aim to facilitate behavior change by the patient themselves, both reducing burden on provider groups and improving health outcomes, as well as enhancing the patient perception of the role they play in managing their own health.

Change #4: Data Privacy and Sharing

There is an inherent risk in the capture, standardization, sharing, utilization, and manipulation of health data using basic or more complex self-learning algorithms. This can stem from unexpected data loss, mismanagement, or even cyber theft. It can emerge from the algorithms themselves, which despite a careful design based on expert consensus and best medical practices, could inadvertently demonstrate some type of bias, or calculate a directive that could cause harm to an individual if not caught by an eagle-eyed overseeing provider.

What is the ideal balance of provider-level oversight that still provides cost savings from decision automation driving interventions that doesn’t subject patients to excessive preventable harm? There is no one-size-fits-all approach that works for all specialties and all provider groups. The equation is indeed a complex one to figure out.

A new language will emerge to better handle discussions on the appropriate trade-offs as there is a substantial medical ethics component that must remain at the forefront. Datasets may only function if their contents can be accessible to clinicians, care team staff, programmers, researchers, and information technology specialists. There is also a need for clear regulation and best practices regarding access management that do not stifle innovation.

Earning a Healthcare MBA: Creating Strategically Agile Leaders

The areas we have briefly explored are but a few of the many that are transforming the industry from historical models of the past. The patient is transforming into an educated buyer who expects increasingly higher levels of service quality, convenience, and speedy access to care. More out-of-pocket costs have turned patients into price-conscious and cost-knowledgeable shoppers, and with telemedicine knocking down geographical barriers, they have more options from which to choose than ever before.

New medical staff structures, technologies, data utilization practices, and the associated risks therefrom will require fundamentally new strategies to be formed and adopted by healthcare leadership, at a rapid pace.

Indeed, the generalized applicability of the MBA degree can help healthcare leaders develop skills in strategic business agility, preparing them to navigate this transforming industry and lead their companies to not just survive but to thrive in a new world.

If you are considering pursuing an advanced degree to enhance your career trajectory within healthcare, it is worth strongly considering the benefits of the MBA degree.

Elizabeth Bradford Kneeland, MBA
Elizabeth Bradford Kneeland, MBA

Elizabeth Kneeland is a telemedicine and sleep medicine innovator living in Philadelphia. As the director for Crozer Health System sleep labs, she oversees the process, staff, and technology required to diagnosis a wide range of sleep disorders. Her career focus has straddled novel operational and financial modeling, and traditional academic research, providing her with a unique perspective in programmatic development and care optimization strategy.

Kneeland built the first for-profit telemedicine program for the University of Pennsylvania Health System in 2015. She also has helped build and scale sleep medicine startups in the U.S., as well as in China and Taiwan. She has co-authored publications in peer-reviewed journals on topics ranging from device validation to clinician-level educational interventions and has been an invited speaker at medical conferences throughout the U.S., China, and Taiwan.

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