MHA vs. MBA: Which Degree Is Best for Your Health Career?

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A health care leader sits at a desk in front of a laptop.

The global pandemic that disrupted people’s lives starting in late 2019 profoundly shook the U.S. health care system. Fortunately, health care leaders with MHAs or MBAs are steering health care in new directions that respond to big changes. An explosion in telehealth, a focus on health outcomes and a call for equitable access to care are just a few health care management trends poised to present challenges for the industry.

What Is an MHA vs. an MBA in Health Care?

Master of Health Administration (MHA) and Executive Master of Health Administration (EMHA) programs provide specialized education focused on business and health care-related issues, while a Master of Business Administration (MBA) is a broader degree with applications in a range of industries.

MHA vs. MBA: Similarities

Either degree can further a career in health services management by providing students with a foundation in principal business administration concepts, including finance, risk management and leadership. MHA and MBA graduates can shape the health care system in response to the demands of stakeholders, such as medical professionals, insurance companies and patients.

Health services managers strategically oversee the business of health care. Individuals with MHAs or MBAs can work in hospitals, insurance management, government agencies and consulting firms, among other settings.

MHA vs. MBA: Differences

What distinguishes an MHA from an MBA? A major difference is that an MHA equips graduates with knowledge and expertise specifically related to health care as opposed to business in general.

Key Distinctions: MHA

Unlike an MBA, an MHA trains students in areas specific to the health care field, including:

  • Managing population health
  • Improving quality in health care delivery
  • Tracking non-business data, such as electronic health records
  • Monitoring health care regulatory requirements
  • Applying health policy to administration and management

Another primary difference between an MHA and an MBA is the scope of areas of expertise it covers. While MBA programs primarily focus on skills for generating business revenue, MHA programs prepare students to optimize both revenue and health outcomes for the organizations they work for. Both degrees cover business expertise, but only the MHA focuses on equipping graduates to apply that business expertise in a health care setting.

Who benefits from an MHA? An MHA degree is geared toward health care professionals aiming to sharpen their business skills and gain in-depth knowledge of theory and practice in contemporary health care management.

For health care professionals interested in moving into high-growth sectors of the industry, transitioning to a management-level position, or taking on critical leadership roles in their organizations, pursuing an MHA offers a firm foundation.

In addition, highly educated health care professionals such as pharmacists, nurses or doctors earn MHA degrees with the aim of honing their management capabilities or preparing to take on nonclinical roles in heath care organizations.

An Executive MHA degree is a good fit for more senior leaders and executives who are looking to hone their health care leadership skills even further. Students in the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy’s online Executive MHA program, for example, explore curricular themes such as delivering cost-effective care in the era of value-based purchasing and developing and implementing strategies to enhance patient safety and quality of care.

Key Distinctions: MBA

While an MHA program focuses on business management as it relates to health care, an MBA, on the other hand, is a business management degree that applies to a wide variety of fields. Demand is high for MBA graduates with backgrounds in marketing, operations, finance and accounting.

And for those looking to jump into the fray of a dynamic and competitive arena that can change lives for the better, the health care industry has a strong job growth outlook, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

When considering an MHA vs. an MBA, prospective students should understand that both degrees are rewarding. Regardless of whether they hold an MHA or an MBA, graduates can find opportunities to improve health care delivery — and the well-being of all patients.

MHA and MBA graduates will take different approaches to hot-button issues such as telehealth, value-based care and equitable access to care. Comparing MHA and MBA degree holders’ approaches to current issues reveals some key distinctions.

Telehealth Trends and Challenges

When the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the health care landscape, it forced major changes that MHA and MBA graduates are equipped to address. The pandemic galvanized virtual health care, or telehealth. As older systems and technologies scramble to keep pace with today’s demands for quality care amid constantly changing rules and guidelines, professionals with relevant advanced degrees can help.

Challenges of telehealth are legion. Concerns about telehealth for today’s health leaders, according to Access, include:

  • Patient satisfaction and retention
  • Diagnosis and exam challenges
  • Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement issues
  • Privacy concerns
  • Technical training responsibilities

In spite of these challenges, MHA and MBA degree programs prepare health care leaders to tackle telehealth, each through a slightly different lens. An MHA degree holder may focus on practice plus finance, while an MBA degree holder may focus strictly on finance.

An MHA and the Future of Telehealth

Because an MHA degree’s curriculum delves into complex aspects of contemporary health care, an MHA degree holder is uniquely equipped to deal with issues such as the telehealth boom.

Furthermore, MHA degree holders typically have had boots on the ground in health care fields since day one of their career paths. Working with patients has allowed them to grasp telehealth’s patient-related advantages, including:

  • Offering a solution for risk-averse patients
  • Providing accessibility for patients with limited mobility
  • Maintaining continuity of care

Health managers with an MHA know the downside of telehealth, too. Disadvantages include:

  • The impossibility of getting bloodwork or images from patients online
  • Patient difficulties in accessing or using technology
  • Issues with keeping health data private during a virtual visit

Qualities that enable MHA graduates to help lead the telehealth revolution include:

  • Empathy for patients who are struggling to cope with
    • New technology
    • New ways of interacting with providers
  • On-the-job familiarity with
    • Appointments
    • Recordkeeping
    • Treatment plans
    • Follow-up care

An MBA and the Future of Telehealth

Management professionals with MBA degrees also bring unique skills and experience to bear on the challenges and rewards of the telehealth trend.

MBA graduates understand profit and loss in any industry. Thus, a health care systems manager with an MBA degree will be well-equipped to see the money side of telehealth. In addition to being less costly to patients, telehealth presents opportunities for providers to increase profits — for instance, by attracting new patients by offering free or low-cost online consultations.

MBA graduates also understand the financial pitfalls of technology trends. Telehealth presents financial challenges to health care providers, including:

  • Patients pay less for virtual visits.
  • Providers often receive lower reimbursement from insurance companies than expected.
  • Providers who don’t offer a user-friendly telehealth experience can lose patients to tech-savvy competitors.

The bottom line? Compared with an MHA graduate, an MBA degree holder is primed to handle the telehealth boom because of their advanced education in:

  • Marketing
  • Finance
  • Technology

Value-Based Care

Value-based-care, a key health care trend, revolves around rewarding providers for better patient outcomes and experiences, such as:

  • Measurable improvements in a condition such as high blood sugar or depression
  • Preventive care that keeps patients proactive about staying healthy and out of emergency rooms

Widely believed to boost patient health and well being, value-based care is replacing the older fee-for-service model that rewarded providers on a visit-by-visit basis. MHA and MBA graduates approach the value-based care model in different ways but with the same goal: better patient outcomes.

An MHA and Value-Based Care

An MHA graduate is uniquely positioned to make a difference in value-based care, as MHA degree programs often include core courses in the key area of quality of care, with a focus on its measurement and improvement.

According to LaVonna Blair Lewis, PhD, associate professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy, “Health care administrators are the invisible partners of our health care system. They focus on … the delivery of quality services.” Increasingly, quality service means value-based care.

An MHA degree program is all about addressing current health care issues, such as the shift from pay-per-visit to pay-for-performance. That means an MHA program graduate will bring new knowledge and expertise to championing value-based care in a competitive industry.

An MBA and Value-Based Care

Accompanying value-based care’s mandate to improve patient outcomes is the task of monitoring and analyzing those outcomes with an eye to continued progress. MBA graduates’ expertise in applying metrics to particular industries makes them key players in health care’s rapid evolution.

In reality, patients bring providers money, regardless of the payment model. However, care is more than seeing patients as numbers.

The consumer-focused mindset of today’s health care industry resembles that of banking and retail. Patient-centered payment models such as value-based care have ignited the demand for the skills MBA holders can offer, including:

  • An understanding of cost controls
  • An ability to oversee complex systems
  • An outcome-based perspective

Equitable Access to Care

Equitable access to care saves lives — and it’s a basic human right. The Affordable Care Act has gone a long way toward increasing access to health care. In addition, Medicare and Medicaid provide financial assistance to many individuals, including:

  • Lower-income people
  • People with disabilities
  • Older people

The U.S. continues to grapple with ingrained inequities in quality of care. Its health care system frequently prevents people of color, people who speak languages other than English and other groups from receiving care that’s equal to that enjoyed by more privileged groups, for a variety of systemic reasons.

Inequity, whether pertaining to quality of care or access to care, is a huge problem confronting health care today. Health systems managers with MHAs or MBAs stand ready to address it.

An MHA and Equitable Access to Care

MHA programs encourage students to ask hard questions that have no easy answers, including the following:

  • How can MHA programs prepare graduates to address racial disparities in quality of care?
  • How do we control health care costs so that affordable care is accessible by all?
  • How do we ensure that every U.S. resident, regardless of determinants such as region or socioeconomic background, has equal access to quality health care?

Graduates of MHA programs that prepare students to answer tough questions such as these are well positioned to succeed as industry leaders in equitable health care.

An MBA and Equitable Access to Care

If an MBA degree were concerned with only dollars and cents, then MBA degree holders who work in health care management would have little incentive to champion equitable access to care. But it isn’t all about profits. Accessible, equitable health care requires:

  • Focused and culturally competent marketing efforts
  • Rebranding that reaches new patient audiences
  • Strategies that target consumers of health services

For example, grassroots ways to address geographical challenges to health care access can include working with transportation companies to set up mobile clinics or arrange rides for patients. Similarly, starting up a pop-up clinic in a shopping mall involves coordination with retailers. In a larger sense, the nation’s health systems are businesses like any other, affecting employees, communities and the daily lives of the people they touch.
Some ways health systems can make equity a strategic priority, according to Deloitte, include:

  • Making health equity a leader-driven effort, with clear goals and accountability
  • Applying a health equity lens to all parts of the business
  • Ensuring that initiatives are funded and supported

Although MHA and MBA degrees prepare health care managers in different ways, the end goal is the same: equipping emerging health care leaders to boldly guide the future of health care to the benefit of all people’s health and well-being.

Shape the Future of Health Care

You care enough to devote your career to improving the business of health care as it flexes to meet the demands of the future. Interested in broadening your reach and gaining the tools to elevate patient care and increase your potential as a health care leader? Explore the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy’s online Executive Master of Health Administration.

The EMHA program emphasizes five key areas: management operations leadership, health policy analysis, quality of care, health finance and health information technology. It offers a career-building residency and connections with renowned health policy and management faculty members who make significant contributions to the field.

Discover how earning an Executive Master of Health Administration degree from USC can help you transform the future of health care.

Recommended Readings

What Is an Executive Master of Health Administration Degree?

How Telehealth Could Ease the Strain on Healthcare

The 5 Populations in Need of Better Access to Healthcare

 

Sources:

Access, “Top 10 Telehealth Benefits and Challenges Concerning Hospitals”

Deloitte, Prioritizing DEI in Health Care

Healthcare IT News, “Here Are the Major Issues Facing Healthcare in 2021

Health Catalyst, “The Top Three 2020 Healthcare Trends and How to Prepare”

MedPage Today, “Doctors Struggle to Get Paid for Telehealth Visits”

Monster, “Where Can You Work With a Master’s in Healthcare Administration?”

Proactive MD, “5 Ways to Improve the Quality of Healthcare”

Stakeholder Health, “10 Ways Hospitals Can Improve Healthcare Access”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Healthcare Occupations

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Medical and Health Services Managers