If you’ve been to a hospital or medical facility of any sort lately, you know exactly how much paperwork goes along with the average patient visit. If you haven’t, let us tell you: it’s a lot.
And who exactly is passing around all that paperwork, entering information at front desks, and coordinating with insurance and care teams? It’s a lot of hard working people handling the tasks of dealing with the last things that people want to be thinking about when they are sick:
- Customer service representatives
- Front desk staff
- Billing professionals
- Patient coordinators
Most of them probably got their start in the industry with a two-year associate’s degree in healthcare administration.
We’re going to need a lot more of those people in the next decade. The wave of Baby Boomers hitting retirement age will surge between 2016 and 2024, opening up positions in health care at the same time they themselves will need more of that care. Healthcare support positions are expected to be one of the two fastest growing occupations in the United States in that period, representing (together with health practitioners) one out of every four new jobs created.
That’s the greatest job growth predicted for any industry in the United States during that period. And many of the folks filling them are going to do so after getting an associate’s degree in healthcare administration.
You might be surprised to learn that so will many of their bosses—upper level managers and executives in the healthcare industry often use the solid foundation and low cost of a two-year associate’s degree as a springboard into the industry. If you plan it right, your associate’s degree is just step one on a path to higher education and bigger paychecks in an industry that is going to be booming.
Career Options for Associate’s Educated Professionals in Healthcare Administration
Although healthcare is unquestionably a high-tech and professional field today, there are still many well-paying positions you can land without an advanced education. In some cases, you might only need a high school diploma. But an associate’s degree is both better preparation and a more consistent path to roles that are focused on patient management/administration and billing.
Medical secretaries and administrative assistants earned an average salary of $39,000 as of May 2020.
- Early career: $31,370
- Mid-level: $37,350
- Senior-level: $54,600
Medical secretaries in outpatient care centers earned the highest average salaries during this time, while those working in physician offices generally earned less:
- Outpatient care centers: $43,920
- Dentist offices: $41,990
- Physician offices: $37,790
- Offices of other healthcare practitioners: $35,220
- General medical and surgical hospitals: $39,370
Billing and posting clerks earned an average salary of $41,610 as of May 2020.
- Early career: $33,650
- Mid-level: $39,590
- Senior-level: $58,820
Billing and posting clerks in various healthcare settings earned similar average salaries during this time:
- Physician offices: $40,560
- General medical and surgical hospitals: $41,850
- Offices of other healthcare practitioners: $39,200
- Medical and diagnostic laboratories: $40,700
May 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and job market trends for medical secretaries and administrative assistants and billing and posting clerks represent national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Salary statistics representing entry-level/early career = 25th percentile; mid-level= 50th percentile; senior-level/highly experienced = 90th percentile. Data accessed August 2021.
Selecting an Associate’s Degree Program in Healthcare Administration
Since associate’s degrees are so often just a first step on a path to further education in the field, it’s more important than usual to choose a program that you can build on.
Types of Degrees
Associate’s degrees come in three flavors:
- Associate of Arts – These programs are traditional preparation for transfer on to a bachelor’s degree in the field with a broad, liberal arts component. They may require additional classes in foreign languages and arts and humanities.
- Associate of Sciences – AS degrees usually involve more math or science training with fewer liberal arts components. They are considered more career-focused than as preparation for further college education.
- Associate of Applied Science – An AAS will be tightly focused on the core curriculum of healthcare administration, with almost no general studies courses. These degrees are not usually transferable.
You might also find virtually identical programs under other titles, including:
- Associate of Arts in Health Services Administration
- Associate of Arts in Medical records
- Associate of Arts in Healthcare Management
You should always check the curriculum to make sure it covers the core components listed below, however.
Transferability is so important that associate’s degrees are sometimes referred to as transfer degrees. They build two years of relatively inexpensive college credit that can be transferred to and recognized by four-year universities to count for the first two years (or 60 credits) of a bachelor’s degree program.
But not all four-year colleges will accept all associate’s degrees, or even all credits from some associate’s degrees they do recognize. Even if you are not immediately planning to transfer your AA credits, the first thing to check is that the program you are considering is fully accredited.
In general, community colleges will have more robust transfer agreements with four-year schools that are nearby, or at least within the same state. If you are considering going on for further education in healthcare administration, spend some time checking regional bachelor’s programs to make sure your associate’s credits will count.
Accessibility and Convenience
Online degree options open up the healthcare administration field to students who didn’t have easy access to AA degree programs before. Although healthcare is a universal need, not every community college nearby will offer healthcare associate’s degrees.
In those cases, online degree programs from other colleges in the state, or even elsewhere in the country, can make it easy for you to attend.
In other cases, you may already be working and need a program that allows you to attend on a schedule of your own choosing. Again, online programs are a great option, since most allow asynchronous attendance and assignment completion. You can watch the streaming class video when and where it’s convenient for you, and do your homework on your own time as long as it’s in by the class deadline.
You may even be able to set your own pace, and move faster than the rest of the class, completing your degree in less time and getting into the workforce that much faster.
Associate’s in Healthcare Administration Core Curriculum and Electives
In general, the first year of associate’s programs tend to focus on meeting the general education requirements for the degree. This will include basic courses in math, English, social studies, history, and other liberal arts topics.
After that, you will be into the core courses for your healthcare training. They will include a mix of required and elective classes in the following subjects:
Writing and Communication Skills
Although you’ll probably already have had some English and writing courses as part of your general education, clear communication skills are critical in medical environments. No one wants to operate on the wrong patient or even the wrong body part—but that’s happened before because office staff and surgical teams have not communicated clearly. You can expect additional training in business writing and healthcare terminology to train you against becoming a part of such tragedies in your own career.
Ethics and Bioethics
Medical ethics and privacy are hot issues in the field today. Especially as more and more records become electronic, and data mining and analysis become more a part of the field, you will need training to understand what is and is not permissible in patient and medical professional relationships.
Medical Coding, Billing, and Insurance
Billing and insurance concerns occupy almost everyone in medicine today. It’s a big business, and that business if fueled by insurance claims. Proper documentation and filing is critical to having those claims honored, and the complicated process of building a claim and billing it out is something best learned in a classroom and not the back office.
Medical Office Procedures and Financials
Medical offices operate differently than other businesses, so even if you have an office background, you’ll probably find your first day in a medical office a little confusing without some extra training. These courses explain how office procedures are built to accommodate both insurance company and ethical requirements in medicine. They also cover the basic financial elements of running a medical practice.
Healthcare Information Technology
With big data comes big demands for automated information processing. As electronic medical records and electronic billing have come to dominate the industry, it’s no longer enough to just show up with some basic knowledge about Microsoft Office—although you’ll need to learn Microsoft Office as well. Most associate’s programs will make sure you get the basic technology skills you need to hit the ground running.
The American healthcare system is unique. In a good associate’s program, you’ll learn about every aspect of that system and how it ties together with what your daily work looks like in a medical clinic or hospital. Industry trends and factors that shape public policy allow you to understand your field and career better.
Basic Anatomy and Physiology
Although you won’t be actively treating patients, you’ll be able to assist the clinicians in your company much better if you have at least a basic understanding of anatomy and human physiological systems. This information also comes in handy when its time for you to code procedures for billing and organize medical records.
Accreditation Standards for Associate’s Degree Programs in Healthcare Administration
Your biggest accreditation concern at the associate’s level will probably be surrounding transferability of your credits. The only legitimate source to answer these questions will be the regional colleges that you might eventually transfer to. Most institutions will post lists of nearby schools they have transfer agreements with.
Whether you plan to transfer to a higher degree program later or not, you will also need to make sure the program has been accredited by one of the six regional accrediting agencies recognized by the Department of Education for validating colleges and universities. These agencies are:
- Accrediting Commission for Western Association of Schools and Colleges
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
- Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges
- Higher Learning Commission (North Central)
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
Each of these agencies is responsible for looking at details such as instructor qualifications, student support systems, grading processes, and how classes are established and conducted. Schools that do not meet their strict standards do not receive accreditation, and should not receive your business.