I Want to Work in Hospital Management… Now What?
By Will Erstad on 06/24/2019
If you’re looking for a place to put your business and people management skills to use, it’s easy to understand the allure of working in hospital administration. The energy that comes with the hustle and bustle of the work environment is contagious. Not only that, but you’re able to walk into the building every day knowing that your work plays an important role in saving lives.
Of course, thinking a career sounds great is one thing, but actually working your way into one of those roles is another. To help you understand the road ahead, we asked hospital management professionals to reflect on what they’ve learned along the way. Consider their advice as you start making your plans to follow in their footsteps.
Things you should know if you want to work in hospital management
Leading a busy hospital environment is no simple task. You’re going to need an informed plan of attack to achieve this goal. Here are some of the key factors to consider.
Education is not optional
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to grasp that healthcare is a complex field. Even if you have an innate sense for business and managing people, there are myriad regulations that effect how you can navigate those decisions. That’s just one practical reason education matters—but the biggest and most obvious is the fact that a college education is what employers are seeking. We analyzed the minimum education requirements of over 121,000 healthcare management job postings and found that over 85 percent were seeking candidates with a bachelor’s degree or higher.1
So where should you start? A bachelor’s degree in Healthcare Management or business management would make an excellent starting point, but there are other options to consider. Aspiring hospital administrators with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing also possess a solid foundation, particularly if they’d like to focus their administrative work to a nursing unit.
While these all provide an excellent educational foundation with plenty of opportunities to pursue at that level, you’re likely going to need a graduate education to compete for upper-level hospital management positions. Gina Calder, Milford campus administrator of Yale New Haven Health System, advises anyone with their eyes on a hospital management role to prepare for graduate education—particularly if you’re planning to build experience in the field before returning to school.
“Make sure you have or plan to finish the needed master’s-level education,” Calder advises.
As you might expect, it can be tricky to fit earning a master’s degree into a full work schedule, so you’ll want to do your research to find a Master of Healthcare Administration program that’s flexible enough to work with your busy lifestyle.
There’s no “perfect” path to leadership
Reaching a senior-level hospital management role can seem daunting when starting at square one. There are many routes you could take to one of these positions, so if you’re getting a case of “paralysis by analysis” take comfort in knowing there’s no one true path to your desired destination. That being said, there are a few things you may want to keep in mind.
Clinical patient care experience: Depending on where you are in your career, you may be debating whether it’s worth spending time in a clinical role where you care for patients directly. The short answer is that it’s perfectly normal for hospital administrators to never have worked in a patient care role. But that’s not to say patient care experience isn’t valuable. Calder says clinical experience in healthcare leadership can be beneficial, even if it’s not a requirement.
“[Clinical experience] gives leaders insight and perspective as to the challenges and opportunities inherent in patient care and other roles,” Calder says.
That perspective is valuable when you consider the work—often the recommendations a hospital administrator makes to improve a process might sound great on paper, but fall flat or become frustrating in practice.
“In some cases, having clinical knowledge provides some ‘street cred’ when attempting to influence and/or collaborate with physicians on clinical matters, but it has a very small impact on the overall role,” says healthcare executive and educator Joe Welfeld.
Calder says that leaders with or without clinical experience should still consistently seek to understand those working in front line clinical roles via regular shadowing, employee surveys, one-on-one conversations and focus groups. You might not have the exact same shared experience, but an honest effort to understand their perspective can help build trust and rapport.
Where to build experience: Another factor you may be curious about is the settings in which you should build experience. Is it better to spend some time managing a small clinic, working in a hospital billing department (or other administrative area) or as a member of a healthcare consulting firm? Remember: there’s no single path—and all of these routes have benefits.
Managing small clinics can provide excellent personnel management experience and broad exposure to general healthcare operations. Experience in specialized hospital administrative departments can give insight into the dynamics between departments within a hospital. Consulting work can provide a hard-to-obtain variety of experiences as you may end up working on a multitude of projects for several types of healthcare providers.
Calder says success is less about the route taken and more about the experience.
“Be open and creative about where and how you get that experience,” Calder recommends. “If you are too rigid or unrealistic about what level, in what capacity, or in which department you enter the field, you are much less likely to gain entry.”
Welfeld echoes the thought that it’s not worth getting too hung up on where you get your start in healthcare administration.
“The goal is to get into an organization at any level possible and work your tail off,” Welfeld says. “If you are successful, your success will carry you into higher-level positions—either in the organization or in another.”
Relationships are key
It’s a long journey to hospital management positions—and you won’t make it there on your own. As you advance your career you’ll need to lean on your relationships to help you forge a path forward. Actively seek out mentorships and shadowing opportunities. These can provide valuable insight into the career paths taken by other administrators, as well as a better understanding of the departments they run or work closely with.
“If you’re already in healthcare, leverage existing relationships and knowledge of your organization to get exposure and experience beyond your normal scope and responsibilities,” Calder advises.
Dive into the work
You’re not going to advance into leadership positions by simply earning a graduate degree and biding your time in an administrative role. You’ll need to make positive impressions. One of the best ways to do that is to go above and beyond what’s expected of you and attacking the work ahead of you with purpose.
Calder encourages aspiring hospital administrators to do what they can in their current roles to refine and highlight their abilities in the following areas:
- Team leadership
- Inpatient and ambulatory operations management
- Physician relations
- Patient safety quality and experience
- Business development
While these focus areas may not all perfectly align with your current daily work responsibilities, Calder suggests seeking out opportunities found in volunteer organizations or local chapters of professional organizations.
Welfeld says it can be easy for new graduates from master’s programs to enter their roles thinking they’re too good to tackle the “small” tasks—something he considers a mistake.
“I still have the first note I received from the Chairman of the Department of Pediatric Cardiology who asked me to clean the pigeon [excrement] off the window sill,” Welfeld says. “That was the first successful task of many.”
While that’s perhaps an extreme example, it’s still important to project a positive attitude and tackle every task with gusto.
Seek out opportunities to stand out
With any senior-level position, understand that the competition for these roles will be fierce. To keep yourself in contention you’ll need to seek out opportunities to stand out. Calder suggests getting involved in diverse committees and initiatives as a way to stretch yourself.
“There is always an opportunity to help someone or accomplish something so seek out and volunteer for those opportunities,” Calder says.
Beyond workplace initiatives, Calder recommends pursuing administrative fellowships, becoming board certified by the American College of Healthcare Executives and becoming an active member of the National Association of Health Services Executives.
“Both organizations have local chapters that offered me wonderful networking, education and volunteer leadership roles,” Calder says. “Healthcare executives are a relatively small community so this has been a critical way to connect for me and position me for career advancement.”
Lay the groundwork for your hospital management career
If you want to work in hospital management, you should now have a much better understanding of the road ahead. As you work your way up into one of these roles, you have a lot of options for how you proceed.
According to our experts and the data analysis, earning a master’s degree is a smart move. Learn more about what this entails in our article, “What to Expect from a Master of Healthcare Administration Program.”
1Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 327,587 medical and health services manager job postings, April 1, 2018 – March 31, 2019)