Specialists Wanted: In-Demand Skills for Healthcare Administrators

Healthcare is the biggest industry in the United States. While the number of physicians has grown in tandem with the growth in population since the 1970s, the number of healthcare administrators has risen by 3,200 percent in the same timeframe, and that number is still set to grow further. Due to an aging population and the increased business complexity of delivering healthcare services, the need for healthcare administrators is projected to increase by 20 percent in the decade preceding 2026.

Healthcare facilities have a large number of moving parts—finance, staffing, technology, compliance—and being a healthcare administrator often necessitates being a jack of all trades. As the industry continues to innovate, the complexities of each area of healthcare administration have grown. The need for specialists, rather than generalists, also has increased.

While most healthcare administrators have at least a cursory understanding of the various sub-disciplines within the industry, more and more specialized educational options and career opportunities are presenting themselves. Those with a thorough mastery of the most in-demand skills will find themselves best prepared to tackle the growing needs of the fastest growing industry in the country.

Read on to get a snapshot of the top in-demand skills for healthcare administrators.

Gerontology

There are more than 50 million seniors in the U.S., and that number will rise sharply as the Baby Boomer generation moves into retirement. While modern medicine is helping people live longer than ever before, it is not necessarily helping them live healthier, according to a report from the International Longevity Center.

If the segment of the population aged 85 years and up grows as forecasted—doubling in the next 30 years—the need for nursing homes and assisted living facilities will grow in parallel, as will the need for administrators who are well-versed in dealing with the issues of gerontology.

As defined by the Academy for Gerontology in Higher Education (AGHE), gerontology is the study of aging. While a field like geriatrics examines the issues of health and disease later in life, gerontology focuses on the physical, mental, and social changes that occur with aging.

Through a multidisciplinary approach, gerontology seeks to improve the quality of life and promote the well-being of people as they age—with attention paid to the individual, the family, and the community. An administrator with a thorough understanding of gerontology is an important asset for a nursing home or assisted living facility and its residents.

To boost this skill, one may turn to a master of public health administration (MHA) with a sub-specialization in a gerontology-related area. The MHA program at Maryville University, for example, offers a sub-specialization in senior services, wherein students take courses in gerontology and elder care facility management alongside the core curriculum.

An alternative to the specialized MHA is to pursue a specialized master’s degree in gerontology. The University of Southern California offers master’s programs in gerontology and aging services management. These are somewhat inverted forms of the MHA—the primary focus here is on gerontology, and the healthcare administration aspect is explored through electives.

Nursing home administrators—and some assisted living administrators—need to be state-licensed to practice. Although the requirements vary from state to state, board exams typically include questions that test for competency in gerontology. Details can be found through the National Association of Long Term Care Administrator Boards (NAB).

Separately, the American College of Health Care Administrators (ACHCA) offers certifications for both nursing home administrators and assisted living administrators. While not mandatory to practice, these certifications similarly test for competency in gerontology and can serve as forms of professional distinction.

Regulatory Affairs

For an industry where the stakes are life and death, it should come as no surprise that healthcare regulations are some of the most complex and voluminous. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) introduced some 10,000 pages of legislation, and while not all of those are necessarily pertinent, knowing what does and does not matter is a learned skill. With medical facilities being tasked to keep in compliance with a dynamic set of regulations that are only set to change further, the need for administrators with skills in regulatory affairs will likely increase in perpetuity.

Within healthcare administration, the field of regulatory affairs applies to healthcare law, internal policy, and overall compliance. Consultants, administrators, policy analysts, and even healthcare informatics professionals need an understanding of the application of regulatory affairs skills in their sub-disciplines. Medical facilities, insurance companies, and public health agencies all employ regulatory affairs specialists. Whether ensuring their departments are abiding by compliance procedures or advocating for changes to the regulations themselves, regulatory affairs make up a critical part of a healthcare administration professional’s skill set.

Some MHA programs offer a specialization in health policy and administration, such as the one at Pennsylvania State University. Students in this type of program benefit from the core curriculum of an MHA as well as specialized courses in health law, information systems, strategic development, and human resource management—all with a focus on applying these skills within the current regulatory landscape.

A more focused academic option is a master’s in health law and policy, such as the one at Hofstra University, which offers an in-depth education in law and policy governing all areas of healthcare and is on par with a law school in intensity and granularity.

A third alternative is a master’s of public health (MPH) with a specialization in health policy management, such as the program at the University of California, Berkeley, which maintains a core focus on public health delivery while emphasizing the impact of policy and regulations on the field.

Health Informatics

Healthcare is going increasingly digital. Electronic health records have gone mainstream, and further digitization of a medical facility’s operations can reduce costs, improve patient experiences, and ensure compliance with regulations.

All of this digitization results in an enormous amount of data, which can inform smarter staffing decisions and streamlined finances in a medical facility on a micro level. On a macro level, it can help move healthcare away from being a purely transaction-based industry and toward one that considers and impacts the holistic health of entire populations. Knowing how to collect, interpret, analyze, and secure that data efficiently is one of the most in-demand skills in healthcare administration.

Health informatics is the use of technology and data to improve the health of patients and the quality of care for those patients. Most healthcare administrators have at least a cursory knowledge of informatics; however, a more focused specialization is in-demand.

Medical facilities, insurance companies, and healthcare consultancies all employ informatics specialists, and managers increasingly are tasked with having a thorough understanding of health informatics and the broader role it plays.

One way to gain health informatics skills is to pair an MHA with a specialization in data management or informatics, such as the programs at Maryville University and Saint Joseph’s University, respectively. These MHA programs pair core healthcare administration classes with a focus on data collection, analysis, securitization, and application.

An alternative educational pathway is to pursue a master’s degree in health informatics (MSHI) or health information management (MSHIM). While similar, the former deals primarily with using technology to improve healthcare and patient outcomes, while the latter deals with using technology to store, retrieve, and secure patient data. In both cases, health informatics is not the elective or specialization—it’s the primary focus.

While it is not mandatory, a variety of continuing education and professional certifications in healthcare informatics is available through both the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) and the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA).

Patient Safety & Healthcare Quality

Of all the influential trends affecting healthcare delivery and administration, few have as much of a tangible connection to the served population as the switch from a fee-for-service model to a value-based model of healthcare. The outgoing model pays healthcare providers based on the complexity and quantity of services and doesn’t prioritize quality, efficiency, or accountability.

By rewarding the mere delivery of services as opposed to the value of services, a gap in patient safety and healthcare quality has emerged. To reduce that gap, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has expanded performance-based programs, and policymakers are increasingly shifting toward more efficient, lower-cost systems that emphasize quality and safety.

To usher the healthcare industry through this transformation, skills in patient safety and healthcare quality are in high demand. The Health Care Transformation Task Force (HCTTF)—an alliance of providers and insurers that includes big players like Aetna and Blue Cross—has committed itself to converting three-quarters of their contracts to value-based systems as early as 2020.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) have set a goal that half of their fee-for-service models would transition to value-based programs. With directives being set in such a top-down fashion, skills in patient safety and healthcare quality will continue to be in-demand across a wide variety of healthcare settings.

While the core curriculum of most MHA programs offers at least a tangential exploration of patient safety and healthcare quality, more dedicated options exist. A master’s in patient safety and healthcare quality (PSHQ), such as the one at Johns Hopkins University, explores the methods of implementing a value-based model of care that improves patient outcomes and reduces preventable harm.

Other programs, such as the master of science in patient safety leadership at the University of Illinois, focus on strategies for transitioning to value-based systems and making process improvements within existing organizations, through a strategic and managerial approach.

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