General MBA vs. Healthcare MBA vs. MHA: Key Differences You Need to Know Before Choosing

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You can choose from multiple academic pathways to prepare for leadership roles in healthcare management. Some students enroll in generalist Master of Business Administration (MBA) or Master of Health Administration (MHA) programs. Others choose a third option, combining elements of the traditional MBA and the MHA in curricula, built around business-oriented and healthcare-focused coursework: an MBA program with a healthcare management focus.

Choosing among a traditional MBA, a Healthcare MBA or an MHA can be challenging for prospective students because each graduate degree program covers many of the essential hard and soft skills healthcare managers need. However, only the MBA with a healthcare management focus teaches all of the skills you need—and only at colleges and universities with comprehensive degree programs.

The part-time Online MBA in Healthcare Management offered by Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management is a very different kind of graduate degree—one that renders the MBA versus healthcare MBA vs. MHA debate moot. The curriculum combines both a traditional management core and a focused healthcare management core designed to give graduates a firm grasp of the business side of medicine.

Is a healthcare management MBA for you? The best way to answer this question is to compare the current job outlook with what a traditional MBA, healthcare MBA and MHA can do for your career.

What draws people to careers in healthcare management?

Opportunity is a significant factor. The healthcare industry employs 11% of the nation's workers, and the administrative side of medicine is the fastest-growing subfield of a rapidly expanding sector. There are various compelling and lucrative career paths in healthcare management, including executive management positions such as hospital CEO and administrative roles such as health services manager, clinical administrator and nursing home manager. Every city in the United States has at least one hospital, in addition to numerous medical and allied health practices—and provider and facility consolidation has created sprawling nationwide, managed-care networks with complex administration needs. In other words, geography rarely binds demand for healthcare management professionals.

Healthcare management careers are also relatively recession-proof and offer high salaries. The rise and fall of the economy do not impact this sector as dramatically as they do others. Aging populations require more healthcare services than ever before, and medicine relies on competent administrators to thrive, grow and better serve their communities.

"Both healthcare management and healthcare administration can encompass nearly everything involved in the business of medicine."

Some people, however, are attracted to careers in health administration not because they are stable and well-paid but because they're impactful. Even though healthcare professionals in management and administration don't interface with patients, their work directly affects the delivery of care, quality of patient care and patient safety. Healthcare managers set quality goals, drive process development, allocate resources and shape facility culture—building the framework in which clinicians treat patients. Management in healthcare settings may even influence patient outcomes. Effective administration could, for example, be the differentiating factor between a hospital where patients wait hours for an MRI and a hospital where patients wait days or even weeks.

What is the difference between healthcare management and healthcare administration?

The Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education (CAHME), the official accrediting organization for healthcare management degrees in the United States, uses "healthcare management" and "healthcare administration" interchangeably. However, educational institutions and employers are free to differentiate between these terms, or not, as they see fit.

The key difference between healthcare management and healthcare administration varies, depending on the source. Common assertions include:

  • Healthcare management focuses on organization-wide, big-picture needs, while healthcare administration focuses on department operations and staffing.
  • Healthcare administrators handle the staffing and human resources needs of healthcare organizations, while healthcare managers oversee operations.
  • Healthcare management is an umbrella category that includes health administration.

Case Western Reserve treats these disciplines as distinct. At Weatherhead School of Management:

  • Healthcare management is a strategy that prepares students to leverage data to make informed decisions and to inspire and lead interdisciplinary teams.
  • Healthcare administration focuses on managing day-to-day operations.

There is significant overlap between these areas of business, so simply defining these terms is probably not a good way to find a conclusive answer to the MBA vs. healthcare MBA vs. MHA question. Both healthcare management and healthcare administration can encompass nearly everything involved in the business of medicine—including planning, operations management, strategy development, marketing and HR—depending on how organizations use these terms.

Healthcare management and healthcare administration degrees can each support careers such as:

  • Clinical director
  • Clinical informatics manager
  • Director of operations
  • Emergency medical services administrator
  • Health informatics director
  • Health services manager
  • Hospital administrator
  • Managed care director
  • Medical device manufacturing administrator
  • Medical records manager
  • Practice administrator
  • Surgery center manager

Salary averages in medical management and administration do not reveal any additional distinctions. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn't differentiate between healthcare administration roles and healthcare management roles in its employment outlook and salary statistics. According to its calculations, medical and health services managers—a category that includes health administrators—earn about $104,000. Sources such as PayScale, Indeed and Glassdoor sometimes publish separate salary statistics for healthcare managers and healthcare administrators, but many roles with similar titles (e.g., surgery center manager and surgery center administrator) tend to pay comparable salaries. That said, the average salary associated with an MBA in healthcare is slightly higher than that associated with an MHA degree.

"When choosing among healthcare MBA programs, a critical deciding factor should always be the curriculum."

What is the best master's degree to get in healthcare?

The answer depends on your career goals but should come down to the content of a given program. The "healthcare MBA vs. MHA" quandary is thornier than the "business degree versus healthcare degree" question because the MBA with a healthcare concentration at one university may be pretty similar to the Master of Health Administration at another. The following sections contain more information about the fundamental differences among the most common healthcare master's degrees, but you should always read program guides carefully.

General MBA vs. Specialized MBA

Over 30% of CEOs have MBAs. While you don't necessarily need a Master of Business Administration to become a chief executive officer or chief operating officer, an MBA undoubtedly opens doors—and may open them more quickly in many settings than other master's degrees. Additionally, your starting salary will likely be higher than that of your peers who don't have MBAs.

The quintessential benefits of earning an MBA don't change when you pursue a Master of Business Administration program offering a specialization. When choosing among healthcare MBA programs, a critical deciding factor should always be the curriculum. In some healthcare MBA programs, students primarily take general management courses and only a handful of health business electives. Case Western Reserve's Online MBA in Healthcare Management, which takes under three years to complete, has an entire healthcare core that makes up approximately 40% of the total curriculum.

You should also look at the people behind the program. Regardless of specialization, the best MBA programs have faculty with distinguished expertise and active alumni networks with powerful connections among employers.

Colleges and universities offer many variations on the healthcare MBA, from an MBA in Healthcare to an MBA with a Healthcare Administration specialization to a Healthcare Management MBA. The core coursework in health administration and health management MBA programs typically covers the same topics, making naming conventions largely irrelevant. It is best not to make assumptions, however, when researching healthcare MBA programs.

What is a healthcare MBA?

An MBA with a concentration in healthcare management or administration prepares students to oversee operations and drive strategy in hospitals, clinics and healthcare facilities. The curricula of these programs typically cover general business, marketing, finance and management principles, plus some medical management fundamentals. Case Western Reserve's eight-term program is unique in that healthcare MBA candidates dive as deeply into health business concepts as they do into advanced management concepts.

Classes in the management core include:

  • Accounting for Managers
  • Economics for Managers
  • Financial Management
  • Leadership Assessment and Development
  • Managing People and Organizations
  • Operations Management
  • Probability, Statistics and Quantitative Methods
  • Statistics and Decision Making
  • Strategic Issues and Applications

Classes in the healthcare core include:

  • Artificial Intelligence in Healthcare
  • Dialogues in Healthcare Management
  • Digital Innovation in Healthcare
  • Economic Issues and Applications in Healthcare
  • Experiential Learning in Healthcare Management
  • Financial Issues and Applications in Healthcare
  • Healthcare Decision Making
  • Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Healthcare
  • Introduction to Population Health
  • Lean Operations in Healthcare Systems
  • Regulatory Issues in Healthcare Management

How much does a Healthcare MBA cost?

It is important to note that most students don't pay the full sticker price of tuition for this or any other degree. Students finance their MBA tuition with scholarships, loans, other forms of financial aid, and, in some cases, employer sponsorships. Case Western Reserve's 48-credit online healthcare management MBA program costs $1,500 per credit hour (or $72,000 in total tuition), and the online learning experience mirrors the traditional on-campus MBA experience. Students pursuing the Online MBA in Healthcare Management receive robust student support. In addition to participating in virtual interviews with healthcare industry leaders, online MBA students benefit from the Weatherhead corporate and alumni networks' breadth and proximity to Cleveland's Innovation District and Health-Tech Corridor. Ideal for working professionals seeking to complete their degree online without sacrificing their income, the university's healthcare MBA program offers incredible flexibility.

As you assess master's programs, keep in mind that the ROI of a healthcare MBA is a more critical consideration than tuition alone. Median base salaries for new MBAs in the healthcare sector may be as high as $125,000 per year.

What can you do with a healthcare MBA?

As a healthcare MBA graduate, you have ample career opportunities in finance, general management, HR, marketing, operations and the c-suite in clinical settings, drug development, insurance and medtech. You might have any of the titles listed above or become an insurance coordinator, pharmaceutical brand manager, device sales consultant—or the COO, CFO or CEO of a hospital or healthcare network. One standout feature of this degree is its versatility. An MBA in healthcare is still an MBA, so you could potentially pivot away from medicine and into other non-healthcare fields in the future with this degree.

The average salary associated with the healthcare MBA is about $82,000, though the BLS reports that median pay for professionals in health management is much higher. Looking at wages by title may give you a clearer picture of how much you can earn with an MBA in healthcare. The highest-paying jobs you can get with an MBA in healthcare management include home healthcare CEO ($195,000), hospital CEO ($153,000), hospital CFO ($130,000) and other healthcare executive positions. Still, hospice managers, informatics managers, compliance directors, clinical managers and nursing home managers can all earn over $100,000 per year.

What is the difference between an MBA and MHA?

Most 40- to 60-credit MHA programs take about two years to complete, just like healthcare MBA programs. And while the average cost of a Master of Healthcare Administration may be slightly lower than that of the typical Master of Business Administration program, that variance disappears when comparing top programs. Focus is the main differentiator.

Unlike the Case Western Reserve Online MBA in Healthcare Management, which puts equal focus on both business and healthcare courses, many healthcare MBA degree programs tend to take a business-first approach. Students take more classes in finance, economics, marketing, management and accounting than they do in innovation in medical technology or healthcare entrepreneurship. MBA graduates have a broad understanding of management plus specialized knowledge related to the business of medicine.

The curricula in most MHA programs may cover some of the same ground that of MBA programs, but all course content is healthcare-specific. MHA students may also learn about care delivery, ethics in medicine, health policy, public health and health law.

What can you do with a master's in healthcare administration?

Upon completing their degree, MHA students work in clinical practice settings and various subfields of healthcare, including:

  • Consulting
  • Health information systems or health informatics
  • Health insurance
  • Health policy
  • Home healthcare
  • Hospital administration
  • Infection prevention
  • Long-term care administration
  • Maternal and child care
  • Medical device manufacturing
  • Mental healthcare
  • Pharmaceutical manufacturing
  • Veterans health administration

The titles graduates hold mirror the list of those commonly held by healthcare management professionals because many employers treat MHAs and MBAs in healthcare management or administration as functionally equivalent. Even so, at $78,000 per year, the average salary associated with an MHA is lower than that of an MBA. The highest-paying healthcare administration jobs include nursing home administrator ($92,000), clinical informatics director ($96,000), hospital administrator ($87,000) and insurance director ($105,514). However, some MHA students become COOs, CFOs and CEOs at hospitals, healthcare networks and insurance companies—earning just as much as their counterparts with MBAs.

Should I get an MBA in healthcare management or an MHA?

Employers are creating jobs in health administration and management much faster than in other fields, which means there's no right or wrong choice. Curriculum should be the No. 1 driver of your decision because there is simply too much ambiguity where degree names in graduate-level health business programs are concerned. The only way to determine whether a given master's degree program aligns with your interests and supports your career goals is to look at the coursework through the lens of what inspired you to take the leap.

As similar as healthcare MBA and MHA programs can seem at first glance, the coursework in each may be very different. Whereas MHA programs generally prepare students for highly specialized health administration roles in the clinical, public health and health policy spheres, healthcare management MBA programs tend to teach more transferable competencies applicable in medicine and non-clinical settings (e.g., medtech, pharma, insurance and entrepreneurship) and in fields entirely unrelated to healthcare.

Students in Case Western Reserve's Online MBA in Healthcare Management learn from faculty members from schools and departments across the university, including business, medicine, engineering and law, giving them a broader, multidisciplinary perspective.

One final consideration you may have is flexibility. No MHA programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education are currently offered entirely online. When colleges and universities offer a hybrid MHA, it may still involve full-time study and a semester-long practicum or field experience. On the other hand, accredited online healthcare MBAs are relatively common, and Case Western Reserve designed its online MBA in Healthcare Management for maximum flexibility so students can keep earning income while studying. Live, synchronous sessions make up just 60 to 90 minutes of coursework per week per class, and students can complete asynchronous work when it is most convenient. That makes the MBA the best choice if your goal is to launch a career in what is arguably one of the few recession-proof fields out there without disrupting your life.

If you're confident you want to apply to a healthcare management MBA program but aren't sure you meet Case Western Reserve's admission requirements, connect with an Enrollment Advisor at onlinemba@case.edu or 216.352.4965.

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