What I Wish I Had Known Before Starting a Healthcare Administration Career
Flubbed introductions, missed opportunities, silly mistakes—we can all think of a time or two where 20/20 hindsight could have saved us some trouble. While the foul-ups of our past aren’t going anywhere, the beauty of these situations is that they provide an opportunity to learn and grow.
And what’s even better than waiting to learn from your own experience? Having the opportunity to learn from those who’ve already walked the walk. This gives you the luxury of gathering the insight without having to learn the lessons the hard way—like they did.
If you’re sizing up a healthcare administration career, there’s a lot you can learn from those who are already established in the field. That’s why we asked experienced healthcare administrators to offer up their thoughts on what surprised them about the field and their advice for those getting started in the field.
9 Things you should know before starting a healthcare administration career
Want a sneak peek at the road ahead of you? Here’s what healthcare administrators say they wish they’d known back when they started their careers.
1. There are a large number of regulations and policies to adhere to
While it’s probably not a surprise that the organizations with the power to make life-and-death decisions on a daily basis have some strict rules governing them, you may be caught off guard by their complexity when first starting out. Albert Ho, consultant and founder of Healthcare Heroes, says he was surprised by the number of policies and procedures required to run a hospital.
“It is a maze of policies with sometimes opposing recommendations,” Ho explains.
As an example, Ho cites a facility’s ban on personal glucose testing devices despite some patients requiring glucose testing up to three times a day. While it may seem contradictory at face value, it takes considering the reasoning behind a policy to understand whether or not it should change. In this case, unknown calibration or improper storage of these devices could lead to errors that could harm patients.
“Our staff need to have reliable information to provide care,” Ho says.
Policy examples like this may frustrate those who prefer a field where rapid change is made easily. Healthcare administrators will need to pack their patience when coming to work and remember the primary reason why many of those rules and policies are in place—for the good of the patients.
2. This field has diverse opportunities
You might think healthcare administration is limited to managing a small clinic or running a functional area in a hospital, but the skills needed for those roles can be applied much more broadly than you might expect.
“Most individuals do not really understand how complex and diverse the field is and how your skills can fit in multiple environments,” says healthcare executive and educator Joe Welfeld. “While many of my colleagues were hospital administrators throughout their careers, I touched almost every aspect of the field—hospital administrator, non-profit management, cancer control management, HMO management, consultant, physician organization executive, healthcare technology executive and academic.”
There are several roles available to those equipped with a Healthcare Management degree that aren’t necessarily focused on managing the day-to-day operations of a direct healthcare provider—businesses like insurance providers, pharmaceutical research and other healthcare-adjacent roles can also provide excellent career opportunities.
3. Getting into “T-shape” will help
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, a “T-shaped” professional is someone with a deep expertise of a single focus area to go along with a less in-depth, but broad knowledge of adjacent focus areas. Healthcare administrators seeking leadership positions will want to strike the right balance and will help with navigating cross-departmental issues or initiatives. You may know how to coordinate a nursing unit like a champion, but if you have a limited understanding of how HR, billing or other key focus areas operate and their needs, you may struggle.
You might not be able to build experience in every facet of healthcare administration, but do what you can to seek out opportunities to learn more about other functional areas.
4. You’ll benefit from building relationships
Just as you should aim to become “T-shaped” in your skills, you’ll want your professional network to take on a similar form. You’ll naturally have a deeper network of connections with the people you work closest with, but don’t neglect building those connections with administrators and employees working in other functional areas. These are the people that can help build your understanding of what issues they face in their daily work, facilitate conversations and potentially even help pave the path for career advancement.
“I recommend actively seeking mentors in your organization, through professional associations, and other networks,” says Gina Calder, Milford campus administrator for Yale New Haven Health System. “The goal is to have multiple mentors that represent diverse perspectives and experience whose advice or guidance gives you broader insight and understanding.”
5. Change can be slow
Healthcare administrators in high-level leadership positions set policies whose ripple effects can impact entire communities. That means sometimes the role is more akin to steering a cruise ship than steering a speed boat. Change comes gradually and only after great effort to get everything moving in the same direction. For instance, Ho points out that it took 10 years for electronic order sets to roll out and become widely implemented due to technical and user challenges.
“To this day, there are a small number of physicians that still prefer paper, yet electronic order sets should be faster and easier,” Ho explains.
While not every initiative will be an undertaking as big as this, even smaller projects can sometimes get bogged down. Patience—as well as knowing when to take charge—play a big part in your effectiveness in these scenarios.
6. A senior mentor can make a huge difference
There’s serious value in turning to experienced administrators for guidance and advice—and not just through this article. Whether this mentor-mentee relationship is developed through an organized, formal program or just an organic outgrowth from the people you work with, there’s tremendous value in hearing their perspective and getting their feedback on what you should improve.
Even if you don’t expect to have a long-standing relationship with a more experienced colleague, it can still be valuable to gather their input—even if some of it may sting a little.
“After transferring out to another role, I proactively asked my current supervisor to do an honest critique,” Welfeld says. “With nothing directly at stake, he agreed and I actually cried because he was so tough and brutally honest. It was the best thing that ever happened!”
Calder is another firm believer in the value of a mentorship. She says as a master’s student she pleaded with her pastor—who happened to serve on the board of Yale New Haven Hospital—for an opportunity to attend a community reception for the president and CEO of the organization. At the event, she made a positive impression on the CEO, who then helped her secure an internship. Long story short, this bold networking attempt turned into a fruitful, long-term, professional relationship.
“This grew into a great mentoring and sponsorship relationship with [the executive] and an amazing career at Yale New Haven Health for 11 years and counting,” Calder says.
7. Internal politics can be tricky to navigate
The severity of this may depend a bit on your role or seniority within an organization, but healthcare administrators should brace themselves for the disruptions that can come with interdepartmental politics. You may have an amazing plan that makes sense on paper, but physicians and other highly educated stakeholders can be a stubborn bunch, and getting them to “play nice” with other stakeholders isn’t always easy.
“[In my education] there was very little discussion about the roles of physicians and nurses and the less-than-ideal collaboration found in organizations among these groups and administrators,” Welfeld says. “The politics of the internal process can make or break an organization as can the quality and leadership in the nursing team.”
8. Mistakes will happen and plans will falter
No one likes to have a plan go off the rails or see their best efforts fall flat when it matters most. As a highly motivated person, you’ll probably end up putting a fair amount of pressure on yourself to be an absolutely infallible rock star administrator. While it’s great to strive for this, the reality is that you may be put into impossible situations or won’t always have everything you need to make a perfect plan. Welfeld says often new administrators are used to resolving “textbook” examples of issues that are much less messy or complicated than what their real work calls for.
“Very few situations in the real world follow a clear and simple path,” Welfeld says. “You will immediately encounter situations that are not perfect and will need to quickly decide where the attention should be given—if at all—and why. One quickly learns that imperfect decisions are not catastrophic, unless of course they are patient-care oriented.”
Calder says it took some time to adjust to the surprise situations that could shake up her plans.
“I had to learn to not be so surprised with daily issues, developments, challenges and opportunities,” Calder says. “Anything could and often did happen.”
Calder says over time she learned to position herself and lean on the relationships and resources available to her. This helped her become more proactive in anticipating, preventing and effectively responding to potential challenges and issues.
9. Your desire to learn is an asset—treat it that way
Sure, having a natural curiosity and an enthusiasm for learning more is valuable in nearly any role. But it is a particularly worthwhile trait for anyone seeking to tackle a field as expansive as healthcare administration. Simply put, there’s a lot to master.
Demonstrating that you want to take on that challenge and embrace learning opportunities is a good way to garner positive recognition. Whether this takes the form of pursuing a graduate degree, seeking out certifications or volunteering to take on “stretch” projects, Calder urges new healthcare administrators to keep learning and continuing education as priorities as they progress through their careers.
“Continue to be an avid learner and establish your routine for education and development,” Calder advises.
Launch your healthcare administration career with confidence
There’s a lot of unknowns that might surprise you when starting a healthcare administration career. While we can’t cover every unexpected twist you may encounter in this field, after reflecting on the insight of expert healthcare administrators, you should be feeling more confident about what the future may hold for you.
One aspect of this career that likely won’t surprise you is the need for a college education to get started. If you think you’re ready to take that first step, visit the Rasmussen College Healthcare Management degree page. If you already have a bachelor’s degree and work in the field, you may want to consider expanding your horizons with a graduate degree. Learn more about the possibilities in our article “6 Healthcare Administration Careers You Could Land with an MHA.”