Masters degrees for physicians in healthcare administration

May 4, 2020

Many doctors vying for jobs in healthcare administration and management think about whether additional formal education will make them more competitive as a candidate or will help them be successful in a new role. There are quite a few masters degrees for physicians who are in this situation to consider. It’s not always clear which type of degree is the most appropriate. 

This article covers the main purposes, similarities, and differences between the various masters-level degrees in healthcare management. 

Why pursue yet another degree for a career in healthcare administration? 

An important question to ask yourself before you delve too deeply into the different masters degrees for physicians is what – if anything – is the purpose of earning yet another degree. 

For some doctors, the time, expense, and effort could very well not be worth it. This is most likely to be true for those who already have leadership and management experience or have led or started a business in the past. 

For others, though, the benefit of a masters degree is clear. The exact advantages of pursuing one of these degrees depends on your personal situation, experience, and professional goals. The benefits might include: 

  • Increasing your marketability for healthcare administration positions 
  • Enhancing your skill set and knowledge needed for an administration role 
  • Strengthening your communication, leadership, and critical and strategic thinking skills in order to excel in healthcare administration 
  • Growing your professional network to identify career opportunities 

Overall differences between types of masters degrees for physicians 

Once you’re confident that a masters-level degree will help you accomplish your goals, then it’s time to consider the nitty gritty of the different degree programs available. In doing so, a few key points are worth noting: 

There is a lot of overlap between degree types. Graduate schools try to set themselves apart, and forming new degree-granting programs is a way for them to do this. As a result, the content and purpose of different degrees has signficant overlap. 

There is no single best masters degree for physicians. The degree and program you choose depends on many factors, most of which should be specific to you and what you hope to get out of your career. 

A recognizable degree can make a difference to employers. For doctors pursuing a masters degree primarily to improve their candidacy for healthcare administration positions, having a degree that is recognizable to recruiters and hiring managers can impact the extent to which that degree helps you land a job. 

Administration versus management masters degrees 

As you’ll see below, some degrees are in healthcare “administration” and some are in “management.” Some are actually in both. 

In certain contexts, there is a difference between administration and management. Administration is a higher-level, broader term concerned with the strategic direction of an organization. Management is more specific and refers to the direction of groups within that organization, including overseeing training, managing workflow, and assigning tasks. 

I’ve heard the difference described as this: Management is focused on “doing,” while administration is focused on “thinking.” 

That said, when it comes to masters-level degrees suitable for physicians, the difference between healthcare administration and healthcare management is quite subtle or even negligible. 

The Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education (CAHME), which is the only accrediting agency for graduate healthcare management degrees in the US, doesn’t make a distinction between health management and health administration degrees.  

In fact, neither does the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Both are workers who “Plan, direct, or coordinate medical and health services in hospitals, clinics, managed care organizations, public health agencies, or similar organizations.” 

Therefore, don’t get stuck on whether a degree includes the term “administration” or “management.” 

MBA – Master of Business Administration 

A Master of Business Administration (MBA) is a business degree designed to furnish professionals with the knowledge needed to excel in leadership and management roles in a wide variety of company types. Programs teach students how to solve complex business programs, lead departments and entire organizations, and develop smart business strategies in evolving markets. 

An MBA can be a route to a higher salary, a career advancement, a promotion within your organization, or an improved ability to thrive in your management position. 

Typical courses include finance, macro and micro economics, operations, accounting, ethics, business law, marketing, and management. 

There are oodles of MBA programs across the country. The school name and ranking can be influencial in some situations, depending on what you’re hoping to do with your degree. Major names in MBAs include Harvard Business School and the Wharton School.  

The MBA is arguably the most popular masters degree for physicians wishing to lead healthcare organizations. It is so popular among healthcare leaders, actually, than many programs have tracks or concentrations that are specifically geared toward healthcare. Moreover, there are executive MBA programs meant for professionals who already have significant work experience (which tends to be the case for doctors) and even physician executive MBAs that combine the executive-level focus with the healthcare specialty track. 

MHA – Master of Healthcare Administration  

Master of Healthcare Administration (MHA) programs aim to provide students with the education needed for careers in all types of health administration. Examples of MHA programs include Georgia Southern and the online program through Queens University

Course types are likely to be similar to those offered in an MBA program, but, when possible, will be specific to healthcare. For example, you’ll study healthcare economics instead of just economics, health policy instead of just policy, and healthcare finance instead of just finance. 

This degree traditionally emphasizes administration in the public and nonprofit health services sectors more so than the private sector. As such, it may be more fitting to a physician hoping to lead a not-for-profit hospital than one who wants to lead a for-profit healthcare business. 

A few schools, such as at Cornell, offer an MBA/MHA dual degree. The goal of combining the two is to create a strong general management foundation and couple it with specialized knowledge in healthcare. My opinion is that the second masters degree is unnecessary for most physicians and unlikely to add much value to a single, carefully selected masters program. 

MHM – Master of Healthcare Management 

I’ve been unable to find any clear distinction between an MHA and a Master of Healthcare Management (MHM) degree. I’m also unable to find any highly ranked graduate schools that offer this degree.  

There are more MHA programs than MHM programs available, so the MHA degree is more widely recognized. For these reasons, I don’t think I’d advise any physicians to pursue an MHM unless there is a particular school they’d like to attend that offers an MHM but not an MHA. 

MMM – Master of Medical Management 

The Master of Medical Management (MMM) degree is sometimes referred to as an “MBA for physicians.” The main difference between an MMM and an MBA is that the MMM is exclusively for physicians (and, in some cases, other medical professionals).  

The course content, though designed to specifically address doctors when possible, is largely the same as that delivered in an MBA. In this way, MMM degrees are similar to physician disability insurance, physician contract review services, or doctor mortgages. They have certain elements tailored to physicians, but the non-physician versions are perfectly acceptable and fitting for many doctor’s needs. 

More so than the other degrees described in this article, MMM students will learn how to effectively manage a medical practice, lead teams of healthcare practitioners, and wear the many hats that physicians administrators tend to wear, including clinician, leader, and teacher.  

There are not many MMM programs nationwide. A couple examples include the programs at Norwestern’s Kellogg School and Carnegie Mellon University

MPH – Master of Public Health 

Whereas an MBA, MHA, MHM, and MMM are all fairly similar in terms of the content you’ll learn while earning the degree, a Master of Public Health (MPH) has some clear distinctions. 

An MPH focuses on public health practice. Core knowledge areas for a public health professional include epidemiology, biostatistics, environmental health sciences, social and behavioral sciences, and health services administration. Among those, health services administration is really the only one that overlaps with the core content of an MBA.  

That said, there tends to be a lot of flexibility in the courses taken to complete an MPH. A physician interested in healthcare management can, in many cases, tailor his education to heavily focus on healthcare leadership, systems thinking, and healthcare organization structure and function. 

Most MPH programs allow studies to have a concentration. Examples of concentrations that are relevant to healthcare management that some public health schools offer include health services administration, health leadership and management, and health systems management and policy

I have an MPH (from Johns Hopkins), and it’s really be an asset to my career so far and the way that approach the work that do, despite not working in a government department of public health. A population-level approach to health is quite helpful in almost every healthcare management role. 

Physicians interested in healthcare leadership that keeps the overall health of our populations and communities as their focus may want to consider an MPH – regardless of what type of health system they’d like to lead. 

MPA – Master of Public Administration 

A Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree is also a consideration for physicians interested in healthcare leadership specifically within the public sector and nonprofit or government-owned health systems and hospitals. 

MPA coursework imparts the skills to lead organizations and projects within the public sector. MPA-holders are more commonly city, state, and federal government department and program managers than healthcare administrators; however, the degree is certainly relevant for some healthcare administration positions, especially within the public healthcare system. 

Courses include public administration, economics for policy planning and development, public financial management, intersectoral leadership, and human behavior in public organizations, among others. 

Like an MBA, an MPA program is not specific to healthcare. Rather, it covers business and administration topics that can be applied to many industries and organization types. Nonetheless, some programs – as with MBA programs – have healthcare concentrations, such as those at Kean University and DeVry University. Other concentrations that may be relevant to some physicians include public policy, non-profit management, and public finance and budgeting. 

MS – Master of Science 

Finally, some physicians in healthcare management may want to consider a Master of Science (MS). The main difference between an MS and an MBA or any of the other masters degrees described above is that an MS is more specialized. It allows the student to focus exclusively on a particular area of specialization. In many cases, they become experts in their particular field. 

There are countless concentrations for MS degrees. Some examples of specializations within administration and management are: 

  • Healthcare management 
  • Health administration (such as through the program at the University of Alabama
  • Healthcare quality 
  • Science of healthcare delivery 
  • Administrative studies 
  • Organizational behavior 
  • Business analytics 

At George Washington University, you can earn an MS in Health Sciences in Clinical Operations and Healthcare Management. What a mouthful! 

One can even earn an MS in Disruptive Innovation from the Hult International Business School

If chosen wisely, an MS program prepares physicians for high-level and executive leadership positions in a broad range of healthcare organizations. 

Conclusion: How to choose between masters degrees for physicians 

Though the general foundations of business remain the same regardless of what type of business you’re managing, healthcare certainly has its nuances. This is true of its financing, business structure, and the mix of public and private organizations that make up our healthcare system. So, it’s easy to make an argument for a masters degree specifically focused on healthcare. 

On the other hand, there is something to be said for a broad-based, general administration or management degree, such as an MBA. The principles of great leadership surpass industries and sectors. The ability to effectively run an organization depends on general skills that aren’t exclusive to healthcare.  

The specifics of different masters programs, such a length, cost, and admission requirements are beyond the scope of this article. But these are all important factors in deciding where to earn your degree. 

Ultimately the best masters degree for physicians depends on their individual professional goals and personal situations. 

2 Comments

  1. Wealthy Doc

    I’m glad I got my MBA.

    It helps me “speak the language” of business. I can argue about comp, funding, marketing, etc. using spreadsheets.

    The degree also helped me with relationships, job offers, credibility, and understanding of investment projects.

    I always loved business and investing. The degree just kicked things up a notch. It isn’t necessary by any means. I know plenty of people who are extremely successful in administration, investing or business without it. But if you like it, go for it. Adding to your reputation and skill set is never a bad thing.

    • L4Z

      Great insight! Thanks for sharing your experience. I have similar feelings about my MPH. I do sometimes feel that I’m lacking business-related knowledge, but (so far) not enough that it’s driven me to pursue an MBA. I haven’t ruled out an MBA at some point in my future, though!

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