An MHA’s Guide to Earning Your Master of Health Administration Degree

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The master of healthcare administration (MHA) degree provides professionals with the credentials and educational background for roles in healthcare leadership, across all types of health-related organizations.

From shifting payer relationships and constrained healthcare delivery access to implementing new technology, healthcare is one of the most dynamic fields that continues to require qualified leaders to shape its transformation.

This article will explain the process of obtaining an MHA degree to jumpstart a career in healthcare leadership by outlining the essentials, from admissions through graduation.

Many graduate school programs offering MHA degree programs are housed within a school of public health. The field of healthcare administration is closely aligned with the study of public health; however, the focus is on leadership, healthcare delivery, business fundamentals, and facilitating quality outcomes.

Programs generally prefer applicants with some amount of professional experience but some accept candidates with little to no experience in the field. Prior coursework in quantitative analysis, statistics, microeconomics, and communications will help build a successful foundation for a prospective MHA student.

If unsure about which MHA program to select, look beyond the national rankings and marketing. A candidate could perform informational interviews of program alumni and current second-year students. This is an informal way to learn more about expectations and core features of a program that may not be advertised on the MHA program’s website. A quick search on professional networking sites, such as LinkedIn, will garner a list of possible resources for informational interviews.

Admissions, Application Materials, and MHA Program Requirements

The application process for the school of your choice may be facilitated by a centralized application service or through the individual school’s website. Research all programs of interest and plan accordingly, as centralized application services can allow for a more streamlined process if you have several applications to submit.

Many programs utilize SOPHAS, the centralized application service for public health, developed by the Association of Schools & Programs of Public Health (ASPPH). SOPHAS is a web-based service that allows prospective students to apply to multiple programs within one application.

Another example of a centralized application service is the Healthcare Administration, Management, & Policy Centralized Application System (HAMPCAS), which is facilitated by the Association of University Programs in Health Administration (AUPHA).

Other programs such as the MHA@GW hybrid program (online and on-campus) at The George Washington University have applicants request further information directly, while other programs’ applications are facilitated through their university admissions department.

The requirements for MHA programs vary but typically include having a related baccalaureate degree, standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement of interest. Most frequently, the following requirements are needed to apply to an MHA program:

  • Baccalaureate or higher degree from an accredited college or university, in a subject related to health sciences or business
  • Cumulative undergraduate GPA of 3.00 or higher
  • Official undergraduate transcripts
  • Statement of purpose or objective
  • Resume or C.V.
  • Required entrance exams, although more MHA programs are waiving or not requiring the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)
  • Letters of recommendation (two or three) from academic and/or professional references

The statement of purpose or objective is the critical document that serves as a cover letter to an application, providing background on the applicant’s career goals, purpose in pursuing an MHA degree with a particular institution, and commitment to the field. This document should be error-free, as grammar and punctuation will distract the reviewer from the qualifications of a candidate.

Other programs including the executive MHA require applicants to be currently employed in the healthcare field, with two or three years of prior full-time experience.

International applicants, along with those who have completed a post-secondary degree in a country outside of the U.S. and Canada, and applicants who are not native English-speaking have additional requirements to meet prior to applying. This often includes an external evaluation of academic credentials (e.g., World Education Services [WES] ICAP) and proof of English proficiency (e.g., Test of English as a Foreign Language [TOEFL]).

After submitting an application, it typically will be a few weeks or months before a response is issued. This will allow for a full review of the application, documents, and logistics of any outstanding scores or transcripts to reach the review panel.

If selected to move forward, an applicant may interview with the MHA program leadership, meeting with faculty and department chairs, and at times, current students. This group will determine if the candidate is a good fit for admission into the program, both academically and in career aspirations.

Completing the MHA Program: What is the Process?

Once admitted into the program, learning begins with coursework designed to teach students core competencies in healthcare management, organizational theory, health policy, data and statistical analysis, financial management, quality and patient safety, managerial epidemiology, among other areas. Due to the number of credits the program requires, usually 35 to 65, a timeline can be constructed to determine the length in months to completion of the degree.

Sample curriculum for a full-time residential student includes:

Fall Semester, Year 1

  • Financial Management Foundations for Healthcare & Public Health
  • Professional Development Seminar
  • Microeconomics Applied to Health
  • Health Management Information Systems
  • Intro to US Healthcare Delivery Systems 1
  • Quality Assessment & Managing Patient Safety

Spring Semester, Year 1

  • Principles of Statistical Reasoning
  • Applications & Issues in Financial Management of Health Care Organizations
  • Professional Development Seminar
  • Human Resource Management for Healthcare and Public Health Professionals
  • Intro to US Healthcare Delivery Systems 2
  • Managerial Epidemiology
  • Health Insurance: Financing Health Care

Fall Semester, Year 2

  • Quantitative Methods in Health Care
  • Management Residency Report & Presentation
  • Health Law and Ethics
  • Marketing Health Care & Business Planning
  • Cost Effectiveness Analysis
  • Electives

Spring Semester, Year 2

  • Organization Studies: Theory/Applications in Healthcare
  • Master’s Essay Oral Presentation and Submission
  • Strategic Management of Health Services Organizations & Health Policy (Capstone)
  • Essentials of Public Health
  • Electives

Professors are both academic professionals and experienced healthcare administrators, providing an array of relevant perspectives. Teaching methods can range from lectures and readings initially in earlier courses, to interactive, team-based learning in the final year.

The MHA Residency: Selecting a Practical Experience

MHA programs require the completion of didactic courses along with an administrative residency, also called an internship or practicum. This practical experience is supervised by a respected professional leader at a healthcare organization, is approximately 400 to 600 hours of on-site fieldwork, and is completed in the second or final year of the degree plan, according to the student’s status. A full-time student would complete their practicum prior to their last semester of didactic coursework, and a part-time student would aim to do so in their last year.

In researching the residency or practica available to students, it is important to recall the specific goal of obtaining the MHA degree. Prioritizing which healthcare settings and functional areas would be most useful for applying learned skills and methods will be best for selecting which residencies on which to focus an application. Location is also an important factor to consider if moving to another metropolitan area is desired.

Practica are both paid and unpaid positions at healthcare organizations and are often project-based. Ultimately, the practicum will facilitate the student’s development of post-graduate plans and career goals, based on the specific experience they obtain in the residency.

Projects can be selected based on business need, and often include:

  • Helping a functional senior leader in the organization, supporting large initiatives
  • Performing operational analysis on hospital emergency room throughput
  • Reviewing data on comorbidities or social determinants of health within a chronic care population
  • Assisting with performance improvement initiatives at a cancer center
  • Fulfilling interim duties to a manager at a clinic or within a department of a hospital

Final Steps: Capstone Course & Master’s Essay

To conclude the MHA program requirements, generally, an “integrated learning experience” or capstone course and a master’s essay (or thesis) will close out the final semester. The goal of these activities is to allow the student to reflect on prior learning and apply specific knowledge and skills during or in follow-up to a culminating experience.

The integrated learning experience or capstone course is usually two or two credits, while the master’s essay can be spread over multiple semesters. The master’s essay is designed to distill the student’s practicum or residency into a high-quality written product, with areas demonstrating analytical ability and technical capacity gained from the didactic portion of their education.

Often, capstone courses are at their core group projects, with a consultancy style. The projects selected are aimed at strategic challenges within complex healthcare environments and could be modeled after case study scenarios or opportunities within local organizations.

MHA Graduation and Beyond

The healthcare field continues to demand new talent willing to stretch the limits on resourcefulness and advancement to achieve common goals. By earning an MHA degree with the steps outlined in this article, students will be prepared to achieve these goals through leadership roles in healthcare organizations and physician groups.

In a matter of two to three years of both formal education and hands-on field experience, graduating with an MHA degree will provide invaluable skill sets in management, data analytics, and operating performance—all of which are required to succeed in today’s healthcare environment.

Ashley Oates, MHA, CPH
Ashley Oates, MHA, CPH

Ashley Oates is a regional operations leader for the Oncology Service Line of Sutter Health, responsible for cancer data services and select supportive care programs across nine hospitals. She leads tumor site-specific governance groups to drive quality, access, and financial performance.

Ashley received a master of health administration (MHA) degree from the University of Pittsburgh and is Certified in Public Health (CPH). Ms. Oates serves as a board member for Keaton’s Childhood Cancer Alliance and is a member of the American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE).

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