How to Become a Healthcare Administrator

The heart of the medical industry lies in the hands of the healthcare administrator. These professionals can be nursing home administrators and healthcare executives or managers, and they generally lead other healthcare personnel to run an effective medical facility or department while adhering to relevant laws and regulations. As the healthcare system is continually undergoing technological updates and reform, healthcare administrators must stay up to date with the latest advances in technology, and any changes to state or federal policies.

Healthcare administrators may take on more generalist or specialist roles where they might manage the medical record keeping practices of their facility or department. Other key responsibilities include recruiting and educating staff about updated policies and procedures. Healthcare executives also focus on quality control, analyze data for strategic planning, and may deal with legal claims and financial aspects of their facility.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2016) the median annual salary for medical and health services managers was $96,540. In fact, employment within this sector is expected to grow about 20 percent from 2016 to 2026, due to the aging baby-boomer population and a general demand in healthcare services as people continue to be active as they get older. This rate of employment growth is faster than the average for most occupations.

In order to begin the journey into healthcare administration, a bachelor’s degree in health sciences or a related field is common. Prospective healthcare executives may develop their work experience as an administrative assistant or a related position within a medical office. In order to become a healthcare executive, employers are coming to prefer (and in some cases, require) a master of healthcare administration (MHA), or a related field that focuses on management, medical terminology, human resources, law and ethics, and health information systems.

Some universities also offer an executive master’s of healthcare administration, which usually requires one to have mid-senior level experience in clinical management prior to enrolling. Master’s programs generally take up to two years and may include an internship, residency, and/or a post-graduate fellowship.

There are also specializations within a master of healthcare administration program that one might pursue, such as health information technology, financial administration, operations management, policy and systems analysis and marketing, and quality of care and patient advocacy.

In addition to general healthcare administrators, it is common for nursing home administrators to have experience as a registered nurse. While requirements may vary by state, generally all or most states require Nursing Home Administrators and Assisted Living Administrators to be licensed. The American College of Health Care Administrators offers the CNHA (Nursing Home Administrator Certification) and CALA (Assisted Living Administrator Certification). The National Association of Long Term Care Administrator Boards provides licensing examinations based on one’s respective state.

Additionally, healthcare administrators can invest in their career by applying for certifications from various organizations. These include:

Certifications may require education and experience, and essentially help healthcare executives stand out amongst other healthcare leaders and connect leaders to a prestigious network for ongoing support.

Read on to learn how to become a healthcare administrator, including step-by-step details on college admissions, general coursework, and certifications and licensing.

Healthcare Administration Careers

A healthcare administrator’s mission is to create a bridge between the healthcare system and healthcare providers to inspire change and action, as well as to help realize potential opportunities that can improve healthcare delivery and access for all. See below for a few outlined careers within healthcare administration.

  • Nursing Home Administrator/Assisted Living Administrator – Manage administrative and clinical matters within the nursing facility, and supervise personnel training, recruitment, medical supply stock, and financial resources
  • Clinic Administrator – Supervise hiring decisions, train staff, manage clinic schedule, facilitate meetings, implement medical policies, oversee billing department, and assist with the development of marketing campaigns
  • Insurance Underwriter – Review and analyze insurance applications and financial data, serving as the bridge between the insurance company and the healthcare system
  • Health Information Manager – Enhance the quality of care by managing secure data and organizing medical records, work with information technology (IT) assistants to research and develop programs that comply with federal regulations for securing electronic medical information

Steps to Becoming a Healthcare Administrator

While there are many ways to begin one’s journey towards becoming a healthcare administrator, here is an example of how to proceed:

Step 1: Graduate from high school (or complete the GED test) and earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree (2-4 years).

Generally, in order to acquire an entry-level position in healthcare administration, a bachelor’s of science in health sciences with a concentration in healthcare administration (or a related field) is helpful and desired by most employers. Analytical skills are highly desirable since prospective healthcare administrators will want to demonstrate their keen eye for detail and the ability to translate policies and protocols, while supervising and educating staff. Volunteering with a local medical clinic or nursing facility is also advised to get a glimpse of the future as a healthcare administrator.

General requirements to apply for a bachelor’s degree are:

  • High school transcripts or GED
  • Statement of purpose
  • Application and fee
  • SAT or ACT scores
  • Letter(s) of recommendation

Aside from general education requirement, some general coursework may include:

  • Healthcare strategic management and policy
  • Healthcare delivery systems
  • Human resource management
  • Ethical and legal considerations of healthcare
  • Healthcare marketing
  • Quality improvement in healthcare
  • Healthcare computer systems and electronic records
  • Foundations for healthcare vocabularies

Step 2: Work professionally within healthcare administration and decide on a specialty (1-5 years).

Successful potential healthcare administrators need to demonstrate their technical skills, such as the ability to use coding and medical terminology. Since healthcare managers are the leaders of a medical facility, interpersonal and leadership skills are essential for even entry-level healthcare administration positions. Once an entry-level position has been acquired, the opportunity to decide which department within the healthcare facility to specialize in may become more apparent.

Working with a medical group practice for one to five years can allow one to gain essential work experience and a commitment to taking up leadership at a medical facility. In addition, as a mid-level employee, one may acquire a healthcare executive position by eventually earning certification in healthcare administration and/or applying to a master of health administration program.

To apply for certification, one must work in healthcare administration for a minimum of one year and demonstrate completed education credits, leadership skills, and membership to healthcare administration associations.

(Note: Order of steps 3 & 4 may be interchangeable)

Step 3: Apply for certification or state required license based on your concentration (1 year or more). By this stage, if one is planning a career in healthcare administration, making the investment to become a certified healthcare professional is encouraged, although not required. If one does not plan to attend graduate school, certification is a promising alternative. Since there are various credential and licensing boards, below is a general timeline for earning a Certified Healthcare Administrative Professional (cHAP) certification from the Association for Healthcare Administrative Professionals (AHCAP).

To apply for certification from AHCAP, the following criteria must be met:

  • Pay the application and exam fee: $225 for AHCAP members
  • Demonstrate competence in the following categories:
    • Education – must hold at least a high school diploma or GED
    • Professional experience – 50 percent of job duties must be dedicated to administration
    • Elective activities – hold membership in another professional organization

For more information regarding certification requirements, check out the AHCAP Candidate handbook.

Step 4: Complete a master of healthcare administration (MHA) program (2 years).

Joining a master’s program can set one apart from others in the industry and can lead to top-tier executive positions. Both online and on-site universities offer MHA programs and may require the following from applicants:

  • Application and fee
  • GRE or GMAT scores
  • Letters of recommendation
  • A personal statement that clearly demonstrates one’s commitment to leading the healthcare industry
  • Successful applicants should have at least a 3.0 undergraduate GPA
  • Resume or CV
  • Transcripts from former colleges/universities

Coursework may generally include:

  • Economics for policy, planning and development
  • Quality of care
  • Problems and issues in the healthcare
  • Strategic management of healthcare organizations
  • Information technology management systems in healthcare
  • Urban health policy
  • Financing and reimbursement
  • Six Sigma quality resources for healthcare

Step 5. Become a certified healthcare professional and/or renew certifications (timelines vary). To remain up-to-date and in compliance with the changing policies and delivery of care, (re)certification in one’s specialty is recommended.

A Certified Healthcare Administrative Professional (cHAP) certification from the Association for Healthcare Administrative Professionals (AHCAP) will need to be renewed every three years. Recertification criteria includes demonstration of continuing education, leadership, and electives. The recertification fee is $100 for AHCAP members.

Review the AHCAP handbook for more recertification information.