What to Expect in an Online MHA Program

After serving in director-level roles in medical staff services for more than a decade, Stacy Carson was ready for the next step in her health care career.

The 42-year-old Pennsylvania resident says over her 21-year career, she was exposed to hospital operations, which sparked her interest in working in hospital administration. That, she realized a few years ago, would likely require either a master’s degree related to health care or an MBA.

Carson also realized that an on-campus master’s degree program would be difficult to juggle alongside her full-time job and family obligations. She decided on the completely online Master of Health Care Administration degree option at Colorado State University–Global Campus.

“It just allowed me that flexibility to do what I needed to do and also was very structured in the sense that I knew what the expectations were each week. I was able to manage my time and set aside the time I needed to be successful in the program,” says Carson, who upon finishing the program recently began a new role as chief operating officer for Select Specialty Hospital in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

[Read: 6 Questions to Ask About Flexibility in Online Degree Programs.]

Online education is growing in popularity. And a 2018 survey conducted by Learning House and Aslanian Market Research found that health was among the most popular fields of online study at the graduate level.

Experts say online health care administration degrees, which often blend coursework in health care and management, can be a good option for those interested in various careers in the field. Here’s what students should consider prior to enrolling.

Students’ Backgrounds and Career Goals. “Individuals come from a variety of different professions, and they’re going into a variety of different professions in the health care sector,” says Susan Aldridge, president of Drexel University Online, which offers an online MHA. “These positions might vary from managers in health insurance companies, health risk management companies to everything from nursing homes and long-term care facilities all the way into hospital administration.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that health care jobs are projected to grow 18 percent from 2016 to 2026. For health care practitioners and those in technical positions including nurses, physicians and dental hygienists, the median annual salary was $64,770 in May 2017. For medical and health services managers specifically, the 2017 median pay was $98,350.

Many online MHA students have relevant work experience. Some may have a bachelor’s degree focusing on health care. The fact that students may come from different industries or areas within health care enables their classmates to learn about the field from different perspectives, experts say.

The average student in the online MHA program at the University of Maryland University College is 35 years old, says Donald A. Donahue, program chair and professor for graduate health care administration and global health at UMUC. Many students work full time and have families, which is common across online degree programs.

Online students may live across the country or even overseas.

Curriculums and Course Requirements. Just because a program is online doesn’t mean it will be any easier than an on-campus degree program. Though it varies, students often need to complete around 10 hours of work per class each week, experts say.

“It really is a management degree embedded in both health care terminology and health care finance,” says Chris Calkins, executive director of the MHA online program at Pennsylvania State University–World Campus.

While the specific classes in an online MHA program will vary depending on the school, course subjects generally include a range of topics, including health care management. At Penn State–World Campus, students complete health care coursework related to finance, leadership, law and economics, as well as human resource management. At Drexel University Online, there are courses in health care policy, biostatistics and epidemiology.

[Read: 4 Ways to Study Health Care Online.]

“Students really need to take into consideration whether the type of health administration program covers some of the unique areas they might be looking for in the sector that they’re going to be employed in, or maybe that they’re currently employed in,” Aldridge says.

In some programs, students may be required to complete a capstone practicum or project. They may also be able to pick a specific concentration. In Liberty University’s program, for instance, MHA students may specialize in accounting, finance, marketing, project management and supply chain management and logistics, among others.

Whether online MHA students need to visit campus for residencies or complete internships varies. The same goes for synchronous course requirements, where students attend live lectures or discussions in real time through videoconferencing.

Types of Assignments. Given the wide range of topics covered in online MHA courses, students should expect various types of assignments, from research papers to case studies to discussion boards, experts say.

[Read: Online Course Discussion Boards: What to Expect.]

“For the most part, it would follow: Thursday night, you had to have all your reading and your discussion posts done, and then usually by Sunday night, your deliverable for the week, which was a critical-thinking assignment — it was usually a paper, a presentation, a PowerPoint, some other project — had to be completed,” Carson says.

In discussion boards, students answer prompts and respond to each other, often bringing in examples from their current careers. At Penn State–World Campus, students in one of Calkins’ classes must share examples of teams they have seen that functioned well, as well as teams that have struggled in certain areas, and discuss how to build a highly functional team in an organization over time.

At CSU–Global, students may partake in experiential learning, which is based on real-world experience or observation. In one course on health quality, students visit emergency rooms and observe the number of people entering and leaving to better understand what typically happens in the ER, says Arletta Wallace, the school’s health care administration master’s program chair.

Some courses even require group work such as team presentations. Students typically communicate outside of class, even across different time zones.

Though online education differs from learning face to face, Donahue says, the curriculum is just as challenging.

“You have to comment something, you have to post something every single week,” he says. “You have to use references and citations every single week. It’s pretty intense.”

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