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What is a healthcare administrator?

Healthcare administrator is a far-reaching term for managers and administrators in healthcare settings. The generic job description can have a wide variety of job titles, ranging from IT manager to CEO, or from office manager to lobbyist. Their main objective is to coordinate other healthcare providers whether part of a medical practice, a department or an entire facility.

Generally healthcare administrators will develop departmental goals, train staff, create schedules and create and monitor budgets. They may work with doctors, nurses, technicians, pharmacists or other leaders.

Kapri Ames, Associate Chief Nursing Officer at Indiana University Health West, has been in healthcare administration for 14 years after six years as a nurse. She has held multiple leadership positions such as service line director, clinical director, medical unit manager and post-operation manager.

Ames believes that those who are best suited to jobs in healthcare administration have a passion for the work, have coping skills, can embrace change, possess succinct communication skills and are self-aware.

What does a healthcare administrator do?

Healthcare administrators may deal directly with clinicians, they may manage other leaders who oversee clinical staff or they may handle strategy, budgets and staffing. Their primary goal is to ensure the operations of their facility runs smoothly. Because they have leadership roles, communication is one of the top job requirements.

“I’d say 80% or more of what we do is all based on really good communication,” said Ames.

Ames received her degree in nursing education versus nursing administration, but that degree helped her assess communication styles and understand how to better communicate with others whether it’s a surgeon or someone from another department.

How much do healthcare administrators make? 

The job outlook for healthcare administration is strong, with growth expected to rise faster than average for other health-related careers. More than 130,000 jobs in this area are expected to be added in the next decade mostly due to the increase of an aging population. Demand is expected to be highest in medical group settings and for those working with electronic records.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay in 2020 was $104,280 per year, or $50.13 per hour. Those with the highest salaries worked in government or hospital settings. Employees of nursing and residential care facilities had lower median salaries.

Do healthcare administrators work in clinics or hospitals? 

One third of medical and healthcare administrators work in hospitals, while roughly 20 percent work in either physicians’ offices or nursing facilities. Because the job opportunities are so broad and there are so many opportunities to lead those who work in healthcare systems, they could work in small offices with just a handful of employees or in a large hospital setting. They can manage a group of medical practices or a department within a larger facility.

Starting in an area of interest is a good way to move into a job in healthcare administration. It could be a clinical specialty like occupational therapy or respiratory therapy or could be business in nature.

What is a healthcare administration degree?

There are multiple types of healthcare administration degrees at associate, bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate levels. These degrees can focus on areas such as hospital management, hospital administration, health information technology or informatics.

Some degrees have accelerated programs, and some programs are available online. It’s possible to obtain a higher degree without a lower degree in the same field. For instance, a candidate with a nursing, pharmacy or other health-related degree would be eligible for most master’s degree programs particularly with practical work experience.

Those with a clinical degree and experience in that field might find it easier to get a role in healthcare administration. Even if it’s not required, having at least a year of prior healthcare experience is beneficial to anyone wishing to pursue an administration position and may be expected by most employers.

“Take advantage of any opportunity that’s presented to be involved, and network and learn and grow even if you don’t know what purpose it might serve,” Ames said. She suggests interning or shadowing in order to acquire additional job-related experience.  

How many years of college do you need to be a healthcare administrator?

A four-year bachelor’s degree at a minimum is required for almost every healthcare administrator position. Most larger organizations will probably expect a graduate degree at minimum. An advanced degree is more common for those who would like to further their careers in higher levels of management. Usually a healthcare-related degree is preferred for positions that are clinical in nature, such as those working with nurses, pharmacies or therapy. For healthcare administration roles that are strategic in scope, a business background with a master’s degree in healthcare administration may also be an option.

Ames found that her Master of Nursing Education was valuable because it helped with communication skills. Coupling experience with education is her advice for being a strong leader.

“Graduate school creates a wider depth and breadth of thought process, communication skill and how to problem solve in a more systematic way. It shapes you in a different way that you don’t have with only a bachelor’s degree,” she said.

A license isn’t required for all healthcare administrator roles except for those working in nursing homes or assisted living facilities. Some states may require licenses for specific jobs such as those who oversee nurses or physical therapy. Some employers might require that their administrators and managers maintain their license for their specific clinical field.

The American Association of Healthcare Administrative Management advocates for healthcare managers and has its own certification program. While not required by all employers, the certification can help provide additional training and skills for different career stages. The organization provides support and education for those in healthcare management.

How to start a career in healthcare administration

Most who move into healthcare administration have prior healthcare experience, and often in a role similar to those they’re leading. Ames began as a student staff nurse after receiving a bachelor’s in nursing. She took advantage of multiple opportunities for varied experiences.

“I took them all, whether it was a one-time subgroup to an ongoing committee or charge nurse certifications,” she said. “Not knowing where it might lead but just having an appetite to learn and grow and be involved in my profession (was beneficial).”

Ames hesitated when given the chance to become interim manager, but ultimately was grateful she took the opportunity.

“My ability to influence and impact on the teams that were taking care of the patients was immeasurable,” she said. Despite some challenges working with a large team and variety of people, she is able to do what she loves on a larger scale.

As a healthcare manager she recognized that she could help not only the patients indirectly but all members of the medical team.

“I realized if I lifted up (my team) and inspired them and developed them and held us accountable to best practices and great outcomes, that was rewarding for them and for me and for our surgeons,” Ames said.

Those with prior experience in healthcare might have an advantage finding job opportunities. First start looking within the organization and any opportunities to advance into a leadership role. Someone who has recently graduated with a degree related to healthcare administration may want to start with the school’s career department or with faculty or staff.