by Liz O'Neill
What is the field of health services?
As a general definition, health services may include any occupation that pertains to health and medicine. As a career sector or an academic major, health services usually refers to the type of work done by managers, directors and patient representatives at medical facilities or health-related organizations.
Health services is a very broad category. If you’re hoping to succeed as a health services student, try to pinpoint a specific career goal and/or a health services specialty, so you don’t get overwhelmed by all the different degree options and preparation advice.
How do “health services” degrees differ from health care administration degrees?
In many cases they don’t. Many bachelor’s and master’s level programs focus on the business end of health services, and they don’t necessarily differ from health administration degrees. Very often, the course content is quite similar, as both programs are designed to prepare graduates for work as managers or administrators in health care environments. This is particularly true if a health service degree title includes the word “management” or “administration.” The reason some degrees are categorized under “health services” and others fall under the heading of “health administration” is mostly an issue of how different colleges choose to structure and advertise their programs.
With that said, some health services degrees are geared towards students who are already medical professionals – like nurses, therapists or other clinicians. These degrees help graduates to manage employees who provide actual medical services, as opposed to managing budgets, marketing campaigns, or electronic patient records.
Professionals who oversee medical departments and direct patient care are known as “clinical managers.” Meanwhile, professionals who oversee health care’s business issues or legal issues are called “generalist managers.”
If you’re interested in a career in health care management, it’s worth your time to research both types of programs. But be sure you discuss your desired focus – clinical management or generalist management – with several enrollment counselors. They can offer more in-depth information on the type of students who enter their programs and the types of careers these students ultimately secure.
What are some different types and levels of health services degrees?
Associate’s degrees that fall under the “health services” heading may emphasize specific topics (e.g. medical billing and coding), or they may offer general preparation for a health-related bachelor’s degree. If you’re interested in applying actual medical knowledge, you might want to explore “health science” degrees, instead of health services degrees.
Health science A.A. or A.S. degrees usually include course work in anatomy, physiology, biology, chemistry and other precursors to advanced medical knowledge. A health science degree at this level may be ideal for a student who is considering a nursing career, future studies in radiologic technology, future studies in physical therapy, or the long term possibility of medical school.
If you’re more interested in health care roles that don’t involve direct contact with patients, you might want to skew your health services education towards health care administration. Curricula for those associate’s degrees – sometimes labeled AHAS degrees (associate’s of health administration services) – will focus more on the business end of health care, and less on medical course work. After all, you don’t need to know all the bones in the human skeleton if your plan is to work in health marketing or human resources.
Bachelor’s level health service degrees are essentially business degrees, with a focus on health care management (administration.) These are commonly labeled B.S. (bachelor of science), B.A. (bachelor of arts) or BBA (bachelor of business administration) degrees. Despite the different initials, the program content is likely very similar. To be sure, you may want to contact enrollment advisors from several different programs, and ask how (if at all) their degrees differ from typical B.S. and B.A. programs.
B.A.H. (bachelor of science in applied health) degrees are one exception to the rule. They are designed for students who are already experienced medical clinicians – for example, licensed nurses or lab technicians. Although they too prepare students for supervisory/management roles, they may assume students already possess a fair amount of medical knowledge and familiarity with medical settings.
At the master’s level, most health services degrees are also, essentially, business degrees. Again, they may come with different initials, including M.P.H. (masters in public health), M.H.S.A. (masters in health services administration) or M.B.A. (master of business administration) with a concentration in health services. But the course content is often very similar. (M.S.N. programs for registered nurses are an exception.)
Doctoral degrees (usually Ph.D.s) in health services are capstone credentials for students who are already experienced in some aspect of health services. These degrees often emphasize leadership and organizational planning, while allowing students to work on major research projects. Ph.D. students often use their research or dissertation topic as a way of exploring the real life issues that affect their organizations. In this way, the doctoral degree not only provides advanced knowledge in health services/management principles, it also sharpens students’ perspectives and strategic approaches to healthcare’s most pressing challenges.
What kinds of careers are available in health services?
As noted above, many health services degrees prepare graduates to assume roles as generalist health care managers or administrators. Graduates are most often employed by hospitals, medical offices and other health care facilities.
Clinical health care management roles are available to trained clinicians who complete advanced (master’s or doctoral) health services degrees. These are professionals who have already held a medical position (e.g. nurse, lab tech, therapist), and now wish to manage a related department.
With a master’s degree in health services, laboratory technicians and technologists may advance to become lab directors. The medical industry also needs master’s-level lab personnel in research and development, sales and marketing.
Similarly, licensed nurses can improve their career standing with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in health services or other types of advanced degrees. If you’re a registered nurse, and you’d like to pursue an online bachelor’s or master’s degree, you should explore the following categories: health services degrees, nursing degrees and health administration degrees. There may be some overlap in what’s offered among the different categories, and you’ll be more likely to find exactly what you need – whether you plan to teach nursing, manage other nurses, or explore subfields like midwifery or mental health.
If you’re not already a nurse or a clinician, and you don’t want to manage a medical office/department, here are some other niche roles that may appeal to you. Health services degrees are useful credentials for:
- Charity/Nonprofit Administrators
Countless charity organizations work to provide medical supplies and health services to disadvantaged communities, developing countries and regions recovering from natural disaster. While doctors and nurses often man the front lines of relief efforts, health services professionals execute all the administrative functions – including fundraising, recruiting, budgeting, reporting, researching and documenting results. Nonprofits look favorably on job applicants who have volunteer experience and demonstrate interest in their cause. Because they often serve marginalized or international populations, they also value degrees – like health service degrees – that include course work in emergency management, sociology, cultural diversity and world religions.
- Patient Advocates
As health care regulations grow more extensive and complex, patients need help understanding their rights and responsibilities. Some patients with chronic conditions or complicated diagnoses need help understanding their treatment options. Patient rights advocates are a relatively new type of professional, available to assist these individuals.
Advocates might also be called patient representatives or geriatric care managers (GCMs). They counsel patients who need expert advice on medical bills, insurance coverage and workplace laws. Some advocates provide more hands-on representation – including transporting seniors to medical appointments and/or sitting in on meetings with physicians. Advocates may work independently or as agents within a private organization.
At present, there are no certification laws for patient advocates. However, agencies and hospitals that employ advocates may prefer to hire graduates of health services-related degree programs and those with either clinical experience (former nurses) or legal/administrative experience (in insurance or HR).
- Plan Managers and Employee Welfare Managers
Employers and insurance companies need knowledgeable professionals to ensure compliance with state and federal guidelines, and to mediate problematic reimbursement claims or special circumstances. Professionals who work for insurance companies may be known as plan managers. Professionals who work for private corporations may be known as employee welfare managers. Even though they are employed by the corporation, they act on behalf of the employees, helping to explain health benefits and to improve the organization’s overall work/life balance.
- Eligibility Interviewers
Eligibility interviewers are sometimes employed by government agencies to review applications and qualify citizens for various social programs – including Medicare and Medicaid. Interviewers may help citizens complete paperwork, investigate claims for fraud or abuse, or help individuals find additional resources. Job requirements and availability vary from state to state, but graduates of health services programs cover much of the necessary preparation and often make good candidates for such roles.
What’s the difference between a self-designed and a course-based Ph.D. program?
Colleges offer online doctoral degree programs in different formats – namely, self-directed or course-based. Self-directed degree programs are designed by you, the student, and provide opportunities to focus your research exactly how you choose. Students are usually assigned to a faculty mentor or a dissertation director, who help them plan and execute their research. Early in the process, students may need to write a research proposal that explains how they plan to spend their time. Directors will also ask to be updated periodically with drafts and progress reports.
Course-based Ph.D. programs can still be flexible, but they involve a series of required courses. Some students prefer the structure and guidance that comes with preset course work, plus the extra opportunities to interact with different faculty members and classmates. Ph.D. research is a solitary pursuit. Online study adds an extra element of isolation. If you like plenty of feedback, debate and second opinions, you might prefer the course-based model.
Some colleges also offer a “mixed-model” format. Although their students are required to take a small number of core classes, these schools recognize independent projects and award credit for “dissertation hours,” otherwise known as time spent completing research.
Bear in mind that almost all online Ph.D. programs require some amount of in-person colloquia or “residencies.” Students are required to attend various sessions over the course of several days. Larger online colleges may offer multiple locations (so you don’t have to fly across the country), but it’s wise to plan ahead for these events. They’re only offered semi-annually, and missing one could significantly delay your graduation.
What materials do I need to apply for a health services degree?
Associate’s and bachelor’s degree applicants usually only need a high school diploma or a GED. Some colleges may ask for letters of reference, SAT scores, or a personal statement that outlines your career goals.
Master’s degree programs in health services are somewhat more competitive. Applicants will likely be asked to supply undergraduate transcripts, to prove that they graduated from an accredited college with a reasonable grade point average. Other possible prerequisites include letters of reference, a personal statement, and a resume that includes relevant work experience.
If you are applying to a program that is designed for nurses who are planning to transition into management roles, you may be required to submit proof of a current RN license. And if you are applying for a doctoral degree, you will need to supply transcripts from your master’s degree program.
What do I need to know about accreditation and health services degrees?
As with any type of college degree, it’s very important that your health services degree comes from an accredited school or college. Colleges receive institutional accreditation in one of two forms: regional or national. You may have heard that regional accreditation is more prestigious than national accreditation; this isn’t always true.
It is true however that credits from regionally accredited colleges are easier to transfer than credits from nationally accredited colleges. Some advanced degree programs will only accept students who completed undergraduate studies at regionally accredited colleges. So if you think you might want to build on your college education at some point – advancing from an associate’s degree to a bachelor’s degree, or from a bachelor’s degree to a master’s degree – you may want to limit your search to regionally accredited schools.
Also, specific degree programs within a given college can earn something called “specialized accreditation.” The Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education (CAHME) offers specialized accreditation to highly selective health care administration programs. For more information on CAHME accreditation, visit the FAQ section for health administration students.