Erin Boyle always knew she wanted to help people stay healthy. She thought she’d grow up to be a doctor or maybe a physician’s assistant. That is, until a part-time job as a college research assistant showed her a new way to help people: working in health-care policy.
“It opened my eyes,” she says. “I realized big changes happen on the system side.”
Boyle, 23, is now in her second year of Georgetown University’s health systems administration master’s program, studying the state of health care, the factors that influence change and what all that means for the future. It’s a complex field, and one that’s evolving.
Health care in the U.S. has seen big changes since 2010’s Affordable Care Act overhauled the system.
“Policy is shaping the health-care delivery system,” says P.J. Maddox, chairwoman of health administration and policy at George Mason University.
As a result, there’s a high demand for experts in health policy who can understand and shape laws governing health care, as well as for health administrators who are on the front lines of implementing those laws in hospitals and other health-care organizations.
Boyle and her classmates will work on policy in the federal government or in advocacy groups. “We will be movers and shakers in future health care,” Boyle says.
They could also be administrators or analysts for medical providers, corporations or nonprofit groups.
“They can translate complexities to non-health-care specialists,” says Patricia Cloonan, chairwoman of health systems administration at Georgetown’s School of Nursing & Health Studies.
The health-care overhaul broadened access to health insurance by, among other things, expanding Medicaid and offering incentives for employers to cover employees.
Graduate programs in health policy shifted focus accordingly.
“We think differently from the way we thought even a few years ago,” Cloonan says.
Georgetown’s program offers classes and lectures on a range of topics, including the economic, social and political aspects of health care and detailed examinations of current care systems and how they may change. Students perform case studies looking at possible future policy issues and administrative concerns for patient care and well-being. They also participate in a residency with a relevant organization to give the students hands-on experience so they can start to apply what they’ve learned to the real world. “The proactive approach to health policy is a great part of the program,” Boyle says.
Practicing her skills before graduation means she’s more likely to find a better jobs with more responsibility. That’s one of the primary reasons Boyle chose graduate school in the first place.
“I wanted a way to enter the field at a good level and progress quickly, and that meant more school,” she says.
George Mason’s health administration and policy master’s program caters to working professionals by offering evening and online classes. Most students have worked in a field related to health care or health policy before they begin the program.
Students analyze the complex factors that go into health-care policy and find ways to develop solutions for problems that exist at local and federal levels. “At the end they’ll really understand the link between social policy and health-care delivery,” Maddox says.
Jason Money, 33, a student at George Mason, had a lot of prior experience in health policy, both in the Senate as a legislative assistant and at his current position as a lobbyist for a health-care trade association.
“A specialty program in health policy was a perfect fit for me,” he says. “If you’re involved in health care, this is a degree you should get. You gain a tremendous amount of insight.”
As health-care policy changes, the programs adapt and try to anticipate the future needs of their students. “Every year we add new dimensions,” Cloonan says.
Boyle is still thinking about what path she wants to take in her field. She’s optimistic about the future for herself and others seeking education in health-care policy and administration despite the challenges and tumultuous nature of the field.
“We have such a great potential as a nation to improve,” she says. “The changes are only going to expand opportunities.”