Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a Healthcare Administrator

From degree paths to professional certification and networking opportunities, see what it takes to become a successful healthcare administrator in six steps.

Last Updated: 01/01/2021
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Healthcare is one of the fastest growing industries in the United States. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that from 2019 to 2029 the U.S. economy will add about 2.4 million new jobs in the field. This amounts to a 15 percent growth rate, with an even higher growth rate for healthcare administrators and managers. Why such a high demand? Chalk it up to the dramatic increase in individuals seeking medical care, largely thanks to the baby boomer population growing older and the Affordable Care Act putting health insurance in reach for millions of Americans.

To manage this increase in patients and efficiently allocate medical resources to provide the necessary care, there will be a strong demand for healthcare managers and supervisors, especially those in administration. If you’re considering a career in healthcare administration, but aren’t sure what’s required to get there, this guide is for you. You’ll learn step-by-step what you need to accomplish to successfully prepare for this career path, including information on college degree options, professional certification and networking opportunities, and much more. Start on your path to becoming a healthcare administrator below.

STEP 1
Make Sure You’re a Good Match for a Career as a Healthcare Administrator

The demand for healthcare managers is clear. With this demand comes immense potential for professional growth and earnings. But is the job really for you? Before starting on this career path, make sure it lines up with your personal interests and professional skills. Ask yourself the following questions.

  • Are you interested in the medical field but not necessarily interested in direct patient care?
  • Is working with day-to-day issues and concerns related to the allocation of departmental resources a challenge you’d enjoy?
  • Are you comfortable with financial and accounting data such as department budgets, patient fees, and billing?
  • Is recruiting, training, and supervising staff a top priority for you?
  • Are you committed to improving efficiency, solving problems, and setting goals and objectives?

If you answered “yes” to most of the questions above, a career in healthcare administration is likely a good choice for you.

STEP 2
Earn Your Degree in Healthcare Administration

How much education you need to become a healthcare administrator will depend on your academic background, the amount of healthcare experience you already have, and the type of position you want. For some, a bachelor’s degree will suffice. But for others, a master’s degree will be necessary, especially for positions with larger healthcare providers. After deciding on a degree level, you’ll also need to decide whether to attend an online or on-campus program.

Bachelor’s Degree Options

Primary Pick: Bachelor’s Degree in Healthcare Administration

The bachelor’s degree in healthcare administration can lead to entry-level positions; that’s a perfect fit for students who don’t yet have significant professional experience in the administration, management, and healthcare industries.

A bachelor’s degree program provides education in a combination of hard and soft skills. Hard skills include the ability to effectively review and analyze financial and accounting information, then use that information to make major decisions concerning a department or division. You’ll learn about the inner workings of a healthcare organization from the perspective of both turning a profit and treating patients. Soft skills include the ability to work well with colleagues, including effective communication and management of individuals from different areas of expertise.

Interested in earning this degree online? Read our complete guide to online bachelor’s degrees in healthcare administration.

Alternative Pick: Bachelor’s Degree in Healthcare Management

The bachelor’s degree in healthcare management is similar to the bachelor’s degree in healthcare administration. However, there is greater focus on organization-wide decision-making with healthcare management, as opposed to department level decisions with healthcare administration. As a result, a healthcare management degree is better for those who want to spend more time examining financial data and formulating long-term plans for the organization, instead of focusing on concerns that affect a single department or daily operations. In healthcare management programs, there’s a greater emphasis on preparing students to handle the business aspects of a healthcare organization.

Interested in earning this degree online? Read our complete guide to online healthcare management bachelor’s degrees.

Master’s Degree Options

Primary Pick: Master of Healthcare Administration (MHA)

The MHA is for healthcare professionals who already have a bachelor’s degree in healthcare administration (or a related healthcare field) and also have at least a few years of experience working in healthcare. These students want to either get into management for the first time or advance into higher leadership or management positions. The master’s degree in healthcare administration is also good for working professionals who have a degree in an area other than healthcare administration and would like to break into the field. While a bachelor’s degree looks at the theories and principles necessary for effective healthcare administration, the master’s degree takes the next step in finding ways to apply those theories to real-world problems.

Interested in earning this degree online? Read our complete guide to online MHA programs.

Alternative Pick: Master’s Degree in Healthcare Management

The master’s degree in healthcare management is similar to the MHA in that it offers an opportunity for professionals in a non-healthcare field to make a career change. It also allows working healthcare professionals the opportunity to take a management role for the first time or to further advance in an existing management role.

However, the healthcare management master’s degree is difference from the MHA in that there are more courses tailored to mathematical, financial, and scientific theory as they apply to the operation of a healthcare facility. Therefore, a graduate degree in healthcare management offers more potential for handling the business aspects of an organization or concentrating in a more technical area of healthcare management, such as health informatics.

Interested in earning this degree online? Read our complete guide to online master’s in healthcare management programs.

Bonus Pick: Healthcare Management MBA

The healthcare management master’s in business administration (MBA) goes deeper in the direction of managing the business and financial concerns of a healthcare facility. This degree is actually a business degree with a specialization or concentration in healthcare management, so it’s easy to see why the curriculum places greater emphasis on the business aspects of management.

That emphasis is much stronger than the master’s degree in healthcare administration, which focuses on the daily operations and concerns of a healthcare facility or organization, and the master’s degree in healthcare management, which looks at the broader concerns of an organization. While the master’s in healthcare management digs into the business aspects of maintaining overall financial health for an organization, the healthcare management MBA is for people who really want to focus on that business aspect.

Interested in earning this degree online? Read our complete guide to online healthcare management MBA programs.

Online vs. On-Campus Learning

The biggest difference in online learning versus on-campus learning is the flexibility. Unlike many other online degrees in healthcare that have at least a few in-person curriculum requirements, an online degree in healthcare administration is almost always 100% online. In addition, students can take courses at their own pace, sometimes just one course at a time. Online learning is often well-suited for those who want to attend a program but don’t want to move away from home or those who are working full-time and simply can’t attend classes without sacrificing their work to do so.

There can be some drawbacks to online degrees; one might be fewer interactions with classmates. For some, it’s harder to form connections virtually than it is in a physical classroom. Given the importance of networking for professional advancement among healthcare executives and managers, this is a potential drawback to consider.

STEP 3
Gain Relevant Experience Working in Healthcare

Healthcare administration involves handling a variety of issues that may affect a department or the daily operations of an entire organization. This can include staffing concerns, procurement, and processes and procedures. Completing these tasks will require special knowledge and skills. But most importantly, it will require experience.

Depending on the type of healthcare administration position you desire, you may need to get a few years of relevant healthcare or administrative experience first. This will allow you to more effectively apply what you’ve learned from the classroom. And even if this experience isn’t a minimum job requirement, having it will provide a big boost in potential job prospects.

Let’s look at the options that allow you to get the experience you need.

Internships

Internships are extremely popular among students in the healthcare administration field, and for good reason: Healthcare is an industry where real-world experience might actually be more important than formal instruction. To that end, many healthcare companies offer student internships. In addition to potential academic credit, students can find mentorship opportunities that allow them to learn under the supervision of a practicing healthcare executive. They will often have the chance to work on projects that can be applied to the healthcare or corporate setting. To find an internship, you can visit a hospital or corporation’s website or check with the school’s career services office.

Learn more about internship opportunities in healthcare

Volunteering

If an internship or post-graduate employment isn’t readily available, volunteering can offer outstanding opportunities not only to gain practical experience, but also to establish professional connections that can be useful later on. This foot-in-the-door opportunity is priceless, as it allows you to meet the movers and shakers of a healthcare company or organization even if you aren’t getting paid or earning academic credit.

Learn more about healthcare volunteering opportunities.

Junior-Level Positions

We all have to start somewhere, and that might mean taking on an entry-level position at a smaller healthcare provider or even a healthcare vendor. This gives you an opportunity to earn the important experience that will open doors later on. Below are some of the junior-level positions that recent graduates should look into, given the potential they provide.

  • Office manager for a doctor’s office
  • Auditor for an accounting firm that specializes in healthcare clients
  • Administrative medical assistant for a surgical department
  • Human resources manager at a clinic
  • Healthcare consultant

STEP 4
Network and Join Professional Associations

Networking is a critical component of any healthcare administrator’s professional development plan. These connections may lead to a new job somewhere else or might foster advancement with your current employer. These professional organizations within the healthcare industry can help facilitate your networking efforts.

ACHE

American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE): The ACHE works to improve the delivery of healthcare by helping executives improve their leadership and management skills. The ACHE also provides the FACHE certification of healthcare professionals.

AHIMA

American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA): AHIMA’s mission is to improve healthcare through the implementation of technology and the improvement of business practices. AHIMA also offers a host of certifications for medical professionals and executives.

AHA

American Hospital Association (AHA): The AHA is made up of thousands of members including hospitals, healthcare systems, and other medical providers and advocates on their behalf, working to improve the health of communities and individuals.

AMA

American Management Association (AMA): The mission of the AMA is to deliver educational and management development services to members and organizations.

AONL

American Organization for Nursing Leadership (AONL): The AONL works on behalf of nurses who hold leadership and executive positions, including the professional development of nurse leaders.

HFMA

Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA): The HFMA exists specifically to address the financial aspects of healthcare administration and management. It offers many career development resources, including certification, education initiatives, and job listings.

HIMSS

Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS): When it comes to improving the delivery of medical services with information technology, HIMSS is at the forefront and a great option for those interested in medical tech advancements.

MGMA

Medical Group Management Association (MGMA): If your goal is to improve the delivery of healthcare services, explore the MGMA, which prides itself on its mentorship and peer-to-peer programs for helping healthcare professionals advance their personal and work-related goals.

NAHAM

National Association of Healthcare Access Management (NAHAM): When it comes to improving the patient access aspect of healthcare delivery, NAHAM is one of the leading professional organizations. It also offers several certifications for healthcare professionals.

NCHL

National Center for Healthcare Leadership (NCHL): The NCHL provides three membership programs: The Leadership Excellence Networks, US Cooperative of International Patient Programs, and the National Council on Administrative Fellowships.

STEP 5
Consider Earning Professional Certification

Healthcare administration is always evolving, so professional certifications are a great way to keep your knowledge up-to-date and to showcase your professional accomplishments. Besides that, certifications can be well worth obtaining since they may come with a bump in salary.

The longer you work in healthcare administration, the more likely you are to have a specific area that you want to specialize in; professional certifications can help you steer your career in that direction. Check out these six specialized certifications that could be in your future.

Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives® (FACHE)

The FACHE professional certification communicates that its holder has proven leadership qualities and has demonstrated they are well-versed in various areas of healthcare management. To earn this certification, an applicant must be at least a three-year member of the ACHE, have at least five years of healthcare management experience, and possess at least a master’s degree.

cHAP (Certified Healthcare Administration Professional)

The cHAP designation indicates a healthcare professional has obtained not only the skills necessary to excel as a healthcare administrator, but also sufficient healthcare administration experience and knowledge. The qualifications for obtaining this credential are based on a point system, with varying numbers of points granted for experience and academic credentials. For the most part, a healthcare administrator with at least five years of experience and a bachelor’s degree will meet the basic eligibility requirements. 

Certified Healthcare Access Manager (CHAM)

Healthcare administrators who work to ensure patients receive proper and timely medical services might be interested in this patient access certification offered through the NAHAM. Basic eligibility requirements include at least two years of relevant experience and a high school diploma plus 90 contact hours or a bachelor’s degree in healthcare, business, or a similar field.

Registered Health Information Administrator (RHIA)

The AHIMA offers a host of certifications for healthcare professionals. The RHIA credential is designed for professionals who work primarily as intermediaries between patients, insurance companies, and medical providers. They will have a great deal of familiarity with medical records and other health information systems. The primary requirement for eligibility is a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, or certificate in health information management.

Certified Healthcare Financial Professional (CHFP)

Offered through the HFMA, the CHFP certification is intended for financial professionals in the healthcare industry. Earning this credential involves completing two modules. The first module relates to the business of healthcare, and the second module relates to the operations of providing healthcare services.

Certified Professional in Health Care Risk Management (CPHCRM)

The CPHCRM certification is available from the American Society for Health Care Risk Management and allows eligible professionals the opportunity to show their expertise in risk management. The primary requirement for obtaining this credential is passage of the CPHRM exam.

STEP 6
Search for Jobs, Polish Your Resume, and Get Ready to Interview

You’re coming to the end of earning your degree in healthcare administration, and now it’s time to apply for the jobs that led to you pursuing this degree in the first place. You’ll want to have the best resume possible and be fully prepared for the interviews you’ll soon have lined up. Here are some tips to give you the best chances of snagging your dream job.

Resume Tips

1

Because of the experience many healthcare administrators possess, it’s best to list your work experience before your educational background. Additionally, list your most recent experience first.

2

Healthcare administrators will need to take a leadership role. Be sure to emphasize your skills and experience that directly relate to your ability to lead.

3

Most resumes should be limited to a single page. However, if you’re applying for a position where extensive experience and qualifications are necessary, you can probably use a second page to have extra room to expand on your skills and accomplishments.

4

If you decide to have a special section for identifying your skills, don’t make the list too long. It’s best to aim for a list of six to eight skills.

5

There are specific words or acronyms healthcare administrators are more likely to use in the course of their job duties. Good examples include laws, regulations, and medical terminology. Identify these words and, if you include them on your resume, be sure to use them properly.

Interview Advice

1

Anticipate questions that ask you to show how your skills and knowledge tie to what’s necessary for the job. For example, you might be asked about your familiarity with recently enacted healthcare laws or regulations.

2

Thoroughly research your potential employer. Gain a solid understanding of the administrative processes and operational practices for the organization.

3

Prepare questions that reflect your seriousness about the position and the background research you conducted to prepare for the interview. For instance, you might ask about which accounting methods an organization uses to prepare its budget and the reasons the organization has chosen to use those methods.

For more insider tips and advice for landing a great job in healthcare, read our guide to getting hired and guide to navigating job offers.

FAQs About Becoming a Healthcare Administrator

What types of healthcare administrator roles are available?

Many students earn a healthcare administration degree despite having prior professional or academic training in a different field. The result is a huge array of healthcare administrator roles potentially available. Depending on your background, you will be better suited for certain positions over others.

For instance, perhaps you spent several years practicing as a registered nurse in an emergency department, then earned your master’s degree in healthcare administration. Now you’re perfectly suited to become the nursing emergency services director. Along those same lines, here are some other options to consider:

  • Nursing Director
  • Wellness Director
  • Mental Health Program Manager
  • Hospital Human Resources Officer
  • Healthcare Facilities Manager
  • Clinical Administrator
  • Health Information Manager
  • Healthcare Program Director
  • Medical Department Manager
  • Hospital Manager

How much do healthcare administrators make?

It takes substantial effort to become a healthcare administrator, including extensive academic training and real-world experience. But there’s a good reason for these requirements, given the amount of responsibility and complex decision making that goes into the job. Accordingly, healthcare administrators are very well paid, with a median salary in six figures. This is well above many other professions in the healthcare field and in line with other executive and manager positions, including human resources managers and administrative services managers.

When you first start out in a profession, you may be below the median salary. But as you progress, you could end up well above the median. Here’s a look at how healthcare administrator salaries break out by percentile:

10% 25% 50% (Median Pay) 75% 90%
$58,820 $76,770 $100,980 $133,520 $189,000

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2019

Are healthcare administrators in demand?

To say healthcare administrators are in demand is an understatement. With more people than ever making use of medical services, healthcare providers need more managers to oversee the operations. This means from 2019 to 2029, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the number of healthcare administration jobs will grow by 32%. To put this in perspective, the projected growth rate for other management jobs is 3%. Here’s the data for healthcare administrators:

Employment 2019 Projected Employment 2029 Employment Change (2019-2029) Job Growth Rate (2019-2029)
422,300 555,500 133,200 32%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

How many years does it take to become a healthcare administrator?

The length of time it takes to become a healthcare administrator will depend on where you want to work. If you’re interested in working in a small clinic or medical office, then a bachelor’s degree and a small amount of experience may suffice. This means you should expect to take anywhere from four to five years to become a healthcare administrator, presuming you are attending college full-time.

If you want a position at a hospital or regional healthcare system, you will likely need a master’s degree and several years of relevant experience. You should expect it to take at least six years if you’re earning a bachelor’s degree as a full-time student and earning a master’s degree as a part-time student. One of the great things about online master’s level programs in healthcare administration is that the curriculum is built for students who will be working while attending class. This means it’s possible to gain the necessary experience while earning a master’s degree in approximately two years.

What’s the difference between a career in healthcare administration and a career in healthcare management?

Healthcare administration and healthcare management are similar fields. They both deal with overseeing and managing a healthcare or medical organization. But they differ primarily in that healthcare administration focuses on departmental level concerns, such as staffing and day-to-day operations. In contrast, healthcare management is tailored more toward the strategic concerns of an entire organization or medical system. To learn more about the difference, check out our healthcare management vs. healthcare administration guide.