Leadership in Health Care: How to Advance Into the Hospital C-Suite

A hospital chief administrative officer greets a doctor and nurse in the hallway of a hospital.

Hospital executives are at the forefront of change and innovation in the U.S. health care industry. Whether these health care leaders come from a clinical, research or administrative background, they make decisions that will impact providers, patients and policy for decades to come. Medical breakthroughs such as the fast-track development of COVID-19 vaccines, complex technological issues such as health data analytics and telemedicine, and security and public health concerns such as an aging population and access to health care for all underscore the need for leadership in health care.


Professionals interested in advancing their careers to the hospital C-suite may want to consider earning a graduate degree such as an executive MHA.

Who Are the C-Suite Leaders?

Unsurprisingly, many health care executives have clinical backgrounds as doctors, nurses and other care providers with direct experience in medicine. But a clinical career is not the only route to the C-suite. Experienced professionals from the insurance, pharmaceutical and medical technology industries can also be successful in health care leadership. Individuals in nonmedical careers, such as finance, technology, marketing, and government and community relations, also bring valuable skills to the executive team. All these professionals share a deep desire to solve complex health care issues and help transform the industry to meet the challenges of care.

Traditional Hospital C-Suite Roles

Health care leadership roles provide the opportunity to contribute to a host of operational areas, including business development, community relations, quality oversight and management, and information technology and security. Below are some insights into the traditional health care leadership roles.

  • Chief Executive Officer. A hospital CEO is responsible for the operations of the entire hospital or hospital chain. This person is the final decision-maker on all aspects of operations, strategy, policy and finance. All C-suite executives report to the CEO.
  • Chief Administrative Officer. The CAO is the second-in-command to the CEO. They run hospital operations and execute the decisions of the CEO. The chief operating officer (COO) can also fill this position.
  • Chief Financial Officer. The CFO leads the finance and accounting department and establishes financial policy.
  • Chief Information Officer. The CIO or the chief technology officer (CTO) is responsible for all health care technology infrastructure, patient data and health care data security issues.
  • Chief Medical Officer. The CMO oversees hospital care, acts as the liaison between physicians and hospital executives, and ensures that medical care is necessary and proper.
  • Chief Nursing Officer. The CNO is a similar position to the CMO for nursing staff, with a focus on nursing operations and protocols and the quality and delivery of patient care.

Nontraditional Hospital C-Suite Roles

As the health care industry transforms to meet new challenges, nontraditional C-suite leadership roles have emerged as well. The following health care roles have gained prominence in recent years, and many center around patients and technology.

  • Chief Nursing Informatics Officer. The CNIO works with information technology (IT) to develop specific nursing and patient care strategies that improve performance and effectiveness.
  • Chief Patient Experience Officer. The goal of the patient experience officer is to improve the relationships that patients and their families have with the hospital.
  • Chief Innovation Officer. This CIO (not to be confused with the chief information officer) seeks to build a hospital environment that embraces innovation and change based on best practices and creative solutions.

Advancing to the Hospital C-Suite

Mid-career professionals in health, finance and technology looking to help lead the transformation of health care may want to consider a hospital C-suite role. Those positions require education, experience and a specific set of skills.


A bachelor’s degree in health administration or management, public health, nursing, business administration or a related field is a required first step. A health- or business-related master’s degree is increasingly common and often necessary for advancement. Graduate programs that combine elements of health care and business management — such as an Executive Master of Health Administration — can be extremely beneficial for professionals looking to move into the hospital C-suite. For example, Executive MHA students gain a deeper understanding of health care issues across the entire health care system; become proficient in management, finance, public policy, and community and government relations; and hone valuable skills.



Before taking on a role such as hospital CEO, chief nursing officer or chief patient experience officer, professionals generally work in the industry in lower-level positions, including both clinical and administrative roles. They may work as registered nurses or mid-level managers in human resources, information systems, patient care services or medical staff relations, among other areas.



Aspiring C-suite executives gain valuable skills through their education and real-world experience. Success in health care leadership requires:

  • Strong analytical skills
  • Good communication and interpersonal skills, including listening skills
  • Decision-making and problem-solving skills
  • Good judgment
  • Leadership skills (coordination of projects, policies and people)
  • Technical skills
  • Effective time management

Chart Your Course Toward Leadership in Health Care

Hospital C-suite executives and other members of health care leadership teams face endless challenges. They have long been grappling with the cost of care, health care access, quality of care and data security. An MHA program is a way for up-and-coming health care leaders to gain the knowledge and skills to help find solutions to these and other complex issues.

Are you ready to become a problem-solver in today’s challenging health care environment? USC’s Executive Master of Health Administration is an online program for current and aspiring health care leaders who need flexibility while earning an MHA degree. USC students benefit from the insights of excellent faculty members with a broad base of experience in health care administration. Become part of the next generation of leadership in health care that will transform the industry.


Recommended Readings

Day in the Life of Executive MHA Student | Stacy Tarradath, MD

Frontline Issues in Healthcare

Telemedicine, COVID-19 and the Future of Healthcare



American College of Healthcare Executives, “Your Career as a Healthcare Executive”

Becker’s Hospital Review, “5 New Executive Roles, Coming to a Hospital Near You”

Becker’s Hospital Review, "The Most Pressing Issues Facing Health Systems in 2021"Becker’s Hospital Review, “38 Hospital and Health System C-Level Roles, Defined”

Healthcare IT News, "Here Are the Biggest Issues Facing Healthcare in 2021, According to PwC"

Managed Healthcare Executive, "Top 6 Challenges Healthcare Executives Will Face in 2020"

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

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Top Executives