Health care experts evaluate the pros and cons of a specialized MBA

BY Hadley HitsonJune 23, 2021, 12:51 PM
Martin Laksman

Here’s what many physicians and business school administrators agree on: An MBA degree can provide applicants with advantages that may boost their hiring potential. Where they often disagree, though, is whether that degree should be a general MBA or an MBA with a health care focus, which generally involves three to five health-specific courses.

At the very least, the health care specialization in MBA programs is a way to expand your career prospects, notes Ned Rimer, faculty director of the health sector management program at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. 

“Sometimes people feel that they’re going to be pigeonholed into the health care industry forever if they do the focused program,” he says. “My lead response is that you are getting one degree: It’s an MBA degree. But we are asking you to go deeper into the nuance of health care, so that you bring even greater value when you arrive at your future vocational pursuits.”

Financial planning, operational efficiency, and policy analysis are just a few of the skills that health care MBA programs across the country aim to teach their graduates, and those could translate to higher pay and greater responsibility in the workplace. 

Specialized programs also force students to develop a deeper understanding of the U.S. health care system, which some professionals consider just as valuable to a leadership role as any other skill. However, other business school administrators argue that a general MBA education affords students those same skills that they can then apply to any field.

To help prospective industry leaders decide whether or not to pursue a health care MBA degree, three health care experts analyzed the pros and cons of specialization compared with a general MBA. 

Pro: The health care industry is growing 

Health care spending already makes up nearly 18% of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in health care is projected to grow 15% between 2019 and 2029. More specifically, roles as health and medical managers are expected to increase 35% in that time. 

Thanks to the industry growth and broadened job opportunity, interest in health care management has also expanded, says Dr. Paul G. Matherne, adjunct professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. 

“I think there is much more interest among health care professionals to understand the business of medicine and learn how to apply it in their careers,” he says. “Still, it’s hard for schools to actually track who exactly is going into health care because most of the time, health care is a secondary thing you’re doing.”

For example, Matherne says MBA students tend to identify themselves as wanting to go into banking or finance before they specialize in health care or another sector. Thus, tracking the potential growth of the health care MBA is difficult, even though the job market is growing and may offer hope to health care MBA graduates. 

Con: The current state of health care is unsustainable 

The intricacies of the health care market are vast, but essentially: Costs continue to rise at a rate that many people—including Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell—view as unsustainable. Moreover, the rise in health care costs combined with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused stagnant wage growth for many jobs, according to a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

“We can’t sustain the health care financial market that we’ve created in this country,” says Rimer, the faculty director at Boston University. “I think people come into the educational environment wanting to solve that problem, so I have seen a lot more attention and interest in…both understanding and solving the questions of health care equity and access.”

Pro: Many health care management jobs require specialized knowledge

The goal of obtaining a health care MBA should not revolve around specific skills but rather detailed knowledge of American health care, according to Steven D. Culler, associate professor at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health and Goizueta Business School. 

“I would argue that in terms of business skills, there’s very little added” from getting a health care–focused MBA, he says. “It’s more about really having the ability to talk about, and understand, how the health care system actually works at different providers and then how certain policies impact the business model for those sectors.” 

And in a health care MBA program, you can expect to learn more about the policy side of this industry—from President Harry Truman’s initial push for universal health care to the 1965 establishment of Medicare and Medicaid and, more recently, to the 2010 Affordable Care Act. 

Con: Limited benefits from specialization for those with prior health care experience

Dr. Matherne, who graduated from UVA’s Darden School of Business MBA program in 2010, says he’s a strict advocate for medical and health care personnel to obtain a general MBA over a specialized degree. He argues that people who have prior work experience in health or medicine—ideally three to five years, in his opinion—typically need to expand their understanding of business rather than deepen their expertise in health care itself. 

“I think that medicine has been too insular and has not availed itself of the general management tools and general business tools that are out there,” Matherne says. “I tell people in medicine: ‘We’re already working with doctors and nurses or someone in the health care profession all the time. What we need is to think and look at things differently.’”

Nonetheless, Matherne and Rimer both say that at least 20% of cases examined in core MBA classes are usually based in health care. So students will learn some health care applications whether they are in the specialized program or not. 

How to decide about a health care MBA

Deciding whether the health care specialization is right for you ultimately depends on your career goals, prior experience, and existing knowledge of the U.S. health care system. There is not one definitive path toward becoming a leader in the health care industry, but according to these experts, pursuing an MBA degree will set you in the right direction.