What is a Healthcare MBA Program?

Graduate education in healthcare management offers students many more choices than in the past. MBA degrees in healthcare provide a range of benefits for professionals with experience in the industry as well as those new to the sector.

An organization may encourage a healthcare professional with a background in science, medicine, engineering, or information technology to assume a managerial role at some point. A healthcare MBA can expedite that transition by providing management skills ideally matched with the healthcare industry and can help professionals build upon years or decades of experience to develop specialized expertise.

For those new to the healthcare field, a healthcare MBA can help them quickly secure one of the many management jobs created each day within healthcare organizations. A strong business background combined with knowledge and skills matched to the healthcare industry competitively positions these graduates.

Such matching skills enable healthcare MBA graduates to carry out managerial responsibilities within a broad range of healthcare systems, medical centers, hospitals or hospital networks, clinics, rehabilitation centers, or public health organizations.

This guide presents the benefits of an MBA program with a healthcare emphasis and contrasts them with an increasingly competitive alternative: specialized master’s degree programs in healthcare management.

The Value of a Healthcare MBA

Traditionally, the most versatile and flexible curriculum option for prospective students planning a career in healthcare management is an MBA program with a healthcare management focus. Like all MBA programs, healthcare MBAs teach business management fundamentals while challenging students to think strategically.

Students first explore key business concepts in “core” courses that focus on marketing, accounting, business ethics, finance, statistics, project management, and other business administration disciplines. Typically, only minor differences exist in these standardized core courses, which bear relevance to a broad range of industries and sectors, especially among AACSB-accredited business schools.

Upon satisfying core requirements, healthcare MBA students then take courses that specifically focus on management in healthcare settings. These programs are organized into majors, fields of concentration, specializations, or electives. These courses typically examine topics, such as managed care, clinical management, healthcare information systems, and healthcare regulatory compliance. They can vary widely from one school to another.

The online healthcare MBA at George Washington University is a great example of the common classes involved in a healthcare MBA program. GW offers students a wide range of course options that they can align with their professional goals. These include 12 hours of healthcare-focused electives in public health and health sciences from other schools at the university. Topics include patient safety systems, the clinical research industry, and epidemiology.

Students may also complete one of seven certificates designed by the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences, which are offered in health care quality, integrative medicine, clinical research, and other subjects. The school’s requirements include two courses on global trade along with a healthcare management foundations course.

Here are a few other examples of top healthcare MBA programs:

The Growing Popularity of Specialized Master’s Programs

Because of recent changes in graduate education, MBA programs are suddenly facing competition. These days, prospective students can also take advantage of a specialized master’s degree program. These programs are often designated as business master’s degrees or non-MBA degrees and positioned as MBA degree alternatives. For more on this point, prospective students may be interested in reading BSchools’ guide: MBA vs. Other Master’s Programs.

Master’s degrees in management are not new. Their history includes master’s degrees in accounting that date back to the 1940s at the University of Texas and in leadership dating back to the 1950s at Stanford University. What is new is the explosive growth that such programs have experienced during the past decade, and especially in the last three years.

“Among the adaptations forced upon business schools by 21st-century realities, the rise of specialty master’s programs is likely eclipsed in scale only by that of online education,” wrote Ethan Baron in Poets & Quants. He reported that half of the top 25 business schools introduced new specialized master’s degree programs between 2013 and 2015. Furthermore, Fortune points out that “many schools now offer part-time and specialized programs in accounting and finance, which students are increasingly choosing over a traditional MBA.”

Moreover, the Graduate Management Admission Council reported key statistics supporting this trend. According to GMAC, one in four potential business students considered business master’s programs in 2016. “Fueled by growing candidate demand, non-MBA business master’s programs continue to proliferate,” reported GMAC.

Furthermore, applicants who only considered specialized master’s programs increased from 15 percent in 2009 to 23 percent in 2016. That’s more than a 50 percent surge. Moreover, GMAC’s latest data reveals that almost half of all prospective students now consider both MBAs and specialized master’s programs. In fact, 38 percent of the prospective applicants prefer a specialized master’s program over an MBA.

One of the most succinct explanations of this trend appeared in the Wall Street Journal:

Students saddled with heftier college debt have become more reluctant to leave their jobs for two years to pursue one of the nation’s most expensive degrees, school administrators say. That has spurred schools to offer a flurry of specialized master’s programs that take less time to complete or offer greater flexibility for working professionals.

Another aspect of this trend comprises the extent to which university divisions have started offering these alternatives to MBA programs outside of business schools. This trend encompasses healthcare management programs offered by medical schools and schools of public health marketed to prospective students as preparation or substitutes for MBA degrees, like the two examples at Johns Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania cited below.

Healthcare MBAs vs. Specialized Master’s Programs

Several characteristics distinguish specialized master’s programs from MBA programs, and many non-MBA healthcare management programs also display these features. First, most non-MBA degrees take substantially less time to complete, with many requiring a year or less full-time.

Second, although exceptions exist among some specialized master’s degrees like the Johns Hopkins Healthcare Safety program, in general, specialized master’s programs are pre-experience degrees. That means these programs do not call for multiple years of work experience that many MBA programs require. Because of this, specialized master’s programs tend to attract a younger demographic than MBA programs—often 24 years old or younger—although some non-MBA programs target mid-career professionals.

Third, coursework in the non-MBA programs tends to emphasize technical or quantitative skills that are not necessarily enhanced by work experience, instead of “soft skills” like leadership. Not surprisingly, Eric Johnson, dean of the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University, explained to Poets & Quants that “we don’t see these programs as sort of ‘MBA-lite.’ They really are much closer to undergraduate programs on steroids.”

The aspirations of these non-MBA students also differ from those of MBA students. Specialized master’s students usually seek technical and industry-focused skills that they can market to employers offering early- or mid-career jobs. By contrast, students seek much more general managerial and leadership skills and capabilities from MBA programs that will serve them during the duration of their careers. In general, specialized master’s graduates will need to return to MBA or executive MBA programs later on to develop the latter capabilities.

Despite these differences, similarities between these two programs exist. Like MBA students, specialized master’s students also benefit from connections with a university’s alumni network. Many non-MBA students who move into to higher-ranked graduate schools benefit from associations with university brands that are more powerful than their undergraduate degrees. In addition, non-MBA programs in healthcare also benefit from career services like access to interviews and jobs through a career placement center that may offer industry-specific contacts within the hidden job market and among alumni.

Specialized Master’s Programs in Healthcare Management

Non-MBA programs in healthcare management may offer some of the MBA program benefits listed above, and business school faculty may teach many of the courses in specialized master’s in healthcare programs. However, the curriculum differs significantly from MBA programs. The following excerpt from a document obtained from the University of Arizona describes how the programs differ:

The business of healthcare delivery is becoming increasingly complex with providers (e.g., hospitals, clinics, treatment facilities) facing pressures to cut costs, increase patient outcomes, and coordinate across a continuum of care. While health policy used to be the traditional background of healthcare leaders, increasingly leaders are finding the need for formal business training.

Unfortunately, most of the top healthcare management training has been provided through public health colleges rather than business schools. These programs tend to have a heavy emphasis on health policy, with a relatively small sampling of business topics.

Traditional MBA programs provide excellent business training, but the degree is highly technical and beyond the time constraints of many healthcare service providers (e.g., doctors and nurses) who are advancing into leadership positions.

Consider the master’s degree in patient safety and healthcare quality at Johns Hopkins University. This curriculum focuses on preventing patient harm by designing safer systems and measuring safety and quality. Outside of two statistics classes and one change leadership course, the curriculum looks nothing like what one might expect from competing business school programs. Introductory topics begin with public health and patient safety science, then follow two epidemiology courses and three quality and safety classes involving case studies, measurement, and evaluation.

As another example, the master’s degree in healthcare innovation at the University of Pennsylvania focuses on three areas related to healthcare delivery innovation: health policy, behavioral economics, and operations management. Unlike business school core courses, the core courses include topics on the American healthcare system, evaluating health policy and programs, healthcare operations, and innovations in health economics.

Here are a few other examples of specialized master’s degree programs in healthcare management:

Careers and Compensation Comparisons

The TransparentCareer employment database reports average compensation of $153,498 for MBA healthcare graduates. That’s about $50,000 less than the top earnings paid to MBA grads by management consulting firms and some technology and internet companies.

However, the quality of life and work-life balance ratings for this industry more than offset these lower compensation packages. “The overall happiness score comes in at an incredible 8.4 of 10, one of the highest of any industry in our database of over 3,500 MBA employers worldwide,” notes TransparentCareer. The company also points out that high impact of work and company culture ratings drive this satisfaction trend.

By contrast, healthcare master’s graduates’ salaries mirror those of specialized master’s graduates in other management disciplines, as reported by Fortune. They earn far more than those with only undergraduate degrees—but nowhere near the earnings of the healthcare MBA graduates.

For example, according to a recent survey by Payscale, the U.S. national median salary among certified professionals for a quality manager amounted to just under $90,000—less than 80 percent of a newly-minted healthcare MBAs salary—with director-level salaries almost at $100,000.

Above all, prospective graduate students choosing between healthcare MBA programs and specialized master’s degrees in healthcare must consider whether they need the broader capabilities applicable to the wider variety of industries, careers and job functions that an MBA can provide. MBA degrees in healthcare offer much more power and flexibility in the job market because they train students in strategic analysis, concepts, and tools that benefit a wide variety of industries beyond healthcare.

By contrast, many of the specialized master’s programs in healthcare management appear to focus exclusively on the healthcare industry and may not offer benefits that transfer to other sectors. Many of these non-MBA programs also tend to train graduates in relatively technical, specialist roles having little to do with business strategy, leadership, or general management.

One approach might be to consider whether one might work or seek employment in industries besides healthcare in the next 40 years. From there, one can then determine the optimal steps that would meet this kind of strategic career objective.

For more research and analysis on important topics relevant to those planning careers in healthcare management, check out the MBA in Healthcare Management guide.

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark
Writer

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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