Healthcare MBA vs MHA Programs


Public health and health services comprise one of the largest industries in the United States, and also one of the fastest growing. To keep pace with a complex regulatory environment and a dynamic informatics landscape, healthcare systems need top talent to take on leadership roles. In order to qualify as top talent, one needs the rigorous educational training that goes with graduate level study. Those seeking advanced education in healthcare must choose their path early on, selecting either a master of healthcare administration (MHA) or a master of business administration (MBA) with a healthcare specialization.

A healthcare MBA is business-centric. Students first study a wide spectrum of business fundamentals (e.g., accounting, finance, marketing, management) to build a toolbox of skills that can be applied across various fields. A healthcare specialization adds a handful of healthcare-specific electives where students learn the language and mechanics of the industry while studying its intersections with the business world.

An MHA program, by contrast, dives deeply into healthcare administration. Many business-related classes still exist in these programs—healthcare is a business, after all—but there are no general education courses in an MHA. Each class in an MHA program relates to a specific facet of healthcare services and management, with detailed case studies and presentations pulled directly from the field.

While there is some overlap between the two types of programs, both in their content and in the types of people who choose to complete them, MHA and healthcare MBA programs represent two different priorities: healthcare MBA programs put business first, while MHA programs put healthcare at the forefront of everything.

Healthcare MBA MHA

What is it?

The MBA is a degree that provides an extensive overview of business fundamentals. The focus is on breadth, not depth. Core classes, which make up the bulk of most curriculums, explore the building blocks of the business world (e.g., accounting, finance, economics, marketing, management, strategy, information systems) and how they can be applied to any number of individual sectors. The healthcare concentration that some MBA programs offer may consist of a few elective courses in the subject, giving students just enough working knowledge to interface with healthcare systems. MHA programs dive into the merged worlds of business and healthcare. From the first class to the last, MHA programs integrate healthcare-specific projects, case studies, and instructional material. All courses contained in the curriculum directly focus on the individual aspects of the healthcare industry and their intersection with the business world. Along the way, students gain an understanding of the advanced business topics present in more traditional MBA programs, but the application of those topics to other industries is often outside the scope of MHA programs.

Who enrolls in this type of program?

Healthcare MBAs appeal to current healthcare workers and those with a functional knowledge of the healthcare sector who are looking for advanced education in business operations and theory that they can apply to not only their field, but also elsewhere. On the other end of the spectrum, healthcare MBAs also attract business professionals (e.g., entrepreneurs, consultants, insurance executives, accountants, etc.) who are seeking to interface with the healthcare industry in tangible and business-minded ways, but without committing the entirety of their career to the profession. MHA programs are for healthcare professionals seeking to advance their knowledge in the healthcare industry. Healthcare administrators, medical care analysts, or healthcare consultants—whether just beginning their careers or planning to advance into leadership and executive positions—look to MHA programs to keep pace with the changing regulatory landscape and unique operational facets of healthcare. No matter their background and history, MHA students are certain of their future: to become experts and leaders in the healthcare industry.

Admissions requirements

Admissions requirements for MBA programs vary from school to school, but common requests include:

  • A year or more of work experience
  • GMAT/GRE score
  • A competitive GPA (3.0 on a 4.0 scale)
  • A bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited college or university
  • A personal statement or essay(s)
  • Letter(s) of recommendation from academic or professional contexts

It’s important to note that no matter the stated requirements for admission, many universities take a holistic approach to evaluating candidates. For example: a weak GPA may be ballasted by strong letters of recommendation, or a GMAT score may be waived for an applicant with relevant work experience. In all instances, prospective students should contact a school advisor for further information.

Admissions requirements for MHA programs are similar to those for MBA programs except fewer MHA programs require GMAT or GRE scores. Work experience in the healthcare field is much preferred. Requirements vary from school to school, but a competitive candidate would possess the following:

  • A year or more of work in the healthcare field
  • A competitive GPA (3.0 on a 4.0 scale)
  • A bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited college or university
  • A personal statement and/or essay(s)
  • Letter(s) of recommendation from academic or professional contexts

Many MHA programs also take a holistic approach to evaluating candidates, and regardless of stated requirements, motivated candidates are encouraged to contact a school advisor for more information.

Time to completion

MBA programs typically take two to three years to complete. However, both accelerated and part-time options are often available, especially in online programs. Some schools boast of students graduating in as little as a year when taking a consistently heavy course load, while others appeal to the working professional, who can take up to six years to complete the program and thereby reduce stress on their day-to-day lives. MHA programs are often designed to be completed in two to three years. However, much like MBA programs, accelerated and decelerated options are usually available, with the specifics being school-dependent. A heavy course load could enable graduation in as little as 18 months, while a program paced for working professionals could allow up to five or six years to complete the program.

Typical coursework

Core MBA curriculums focus on business fundamentals. Courses in finance, economics, marketing, strategy, and management make up the bulk of one’s study. Healthcare specializations often come from a handful of elective classes on topics such as public health systems, population health management, healthcare risk management, or healthcare informatics. Coursework in an MHA program revolves around industry-specific classes such as healthcare law and ethics, healthcare information systems, leadership in health organizations, and managerial epidemiology, research, and statistics. Further topics include MBA-type classes specifically applied to the healthcare industry, such as healthcare finance, strategic marketing for healthcare organizations, and accounting for healthcare organizations.

On-campus programs

Online programs

The bottom line

Healthcare MBAs benefit those who want a broad business background coupled with a working understanding of its applications to the healthcare industry. MHA degrees benefit those who want a deep understanding of healthcare systems that can make them experts and leaders within this specialized industry.

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