Making Your Way in Health Care

A reader looking to enter the field wonders what academic credentials are necessary and how best to target the job search

Q: I am an African-American man with a Master's in health administration, a post-graduate certificate in health-plan management, and 13 years' experience in managed care. Most of my experience has been in sales and marketing. But to broaden my background, I've worked in operations for quite some time now.

I'm considering getting a PhD. in health-care administration. But I've been told that an MBA would be a better investment if I'm interested in climbing up the corporate ladder. My goal is to eventually run a consumer health-services company or consumer-products company focusing on health care for the underserved population.

The areas I like most are product development and marketing. Could you tell me what opportunities exist for someone with my background and experience? Also, what would be the best path for reaching my goal? I want to stay in health care but not managed care. -- F.J., Southfield, Mich.


You're in luck. Health care is a fast-growing field where good jobs are expected to abound as the U.S. population ages -- and people need more professionals like you to take care of them. For instance, a government report released earlier this year predicts that the demand for medical- and health-services managers will increase 32% by 2010.

As for your question, I'll answer the easiest part first. If you decide to go back to school, the MBA is hands down the way to go, our experts say. A PhD. won't add much to your resume, unless you want to teach or do research, top recruiters say. Besides, it sounds like you're through working in managed care anyway, so a doctorate in health-care administration doesn't make much sense. "The MBA would be more appropriate for someone looking for a job in the consumer-health industry," says Gilbert Carrara Jr., a partner with executive search firm Battalia Winston in Edison, N.J.

Our experts also say, however, that you may be able to get ahead without another advanced degree -- and spare yourself the effort and expense of becoming a student all over again. "I'm not sure he needs either of those degrees to move up the corporate ladder," says Julia Justus McGinity, a managing director at executive search firm Berkhemer Clayton in Los Angeles.


  With your Master's in health administration and your 13 years' experience in managed care, you would be an appealing hire for a large consumer health-products outfit, McGinity says. For instance, a pharmaceutical or medical-devices company might be interested in a candidate who knows the ins and outs -- and has contacts -- in managed care. "He understands their primary customer," she says.

Before you launch your search, however, it would help to narrow your focus, our experts say. Is your dream to someday run a big company like Johnson & Johnson? Such a company's main focus may not be the underserved population, but its drugs and other products would certainly be used by that market. There are of course opportunities in marketing and product development at this type of company. "Every pharmaceutical company has a managed-care group, and one area would be how to communicate with the under-served," says Joe Boccuzi, a senior director in the life-sciences practice of search firm Spencer Stuart in New York.

If you picture yourself on the services side, there might be operations jobs helping state health agencies work better with disadvantaged communities, among other opportunities, Boccuzi says. "I think he could do either" consumer products or services, he adds.


  It's possible, Boccuzi says, to move from marketing to product management and up the corporate hierarchy to general manager. But "you'll have to put some time on the clock," he notes. And it will benefit you to figure out where your true interests lie, so that you end up paying your dues at the right company or organization.

One way to find a good fit is to talk to people whose jobs interest you. "If he is working in managed care, he's probably often coming into contact with people who are marketing products or services to his company," says McGinity. Determine whether you would like to do what these people are doing, she says. And find out how they got there. "I know this all sounds really basic, but it's the reality," she adds.

If your ultimate objective is to run an outfit, you must have experience managing people budgets, our experts say. An MBA might give you an academic understanding of finance and P&L (profit and loss) responsibilities. "But any individual stepping into a senior role will need to have experience in these areas," Carrara says. So even if you land a job in marketing or product development, remember that you'll want to get these other skills under your belt.


  Whatever you decide about your next job, make sure networking is a key element of your hunt. "Most new opportunities, especially in a career transition, are afforded to people based on their personal network," McGinity says. "People who know you and have seen you be successful in one environment are more likely to give you a chance in a new environment."

One good place to start might be the National Association of Health Services Executives, a non-profit group of about 2,000 professionals devoted to increasing opportunities for black leaders in health care and to improving health care for minorities. The organization has more than 20 chapters across the U.S., including one in Detroit, says Edison Bond Jr., who heads the New York region's chapter. The association "would be an excellent opportunity to network with other health-care execs who represent a broad spectrum of the industry, including managed care, pharmaceuticals, insurance and consumer products," says Bond, director of patient relations at SUNY Downtown Medical Center in Brooklyn.

Recruiters add that many hiring companies have diversity initiatives to attract minority candidates, so be sure to find out about them, too. Even though health care's future is bright, job prospects are dimmer than usual because of the overall gloomy labor market. Moreover, if your career is very important to you, you may want to consider relocating. Many companies that you would likely be interested in working for are based outside of Michigan in states like Illinois, New York, and New Jersey, says Amanda Fox, a Spencer Stuart senior director in Chicago.


  Fox adds that there's a shortage of executives with top-flight marketing skills and with the ability to truly understand consumer thinking. "What I see frequently is that the skills that health-care companies need moving forward are simply not there," she says. Your task, then, will be to show these employers that you have what they need.

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By Eric Wahlgren in New York

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