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What Degree(s) Do You Need to Become a Health Policy Analyst?

What Degree(s) Do You Need to Become a Health Policy Analyst?
Health policy analysts need qualitative and quantitative analytical skills, a thorough understanding of healthcare and finance, and the ability to see how politics is likely to impact medicine in the future. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry February 2, 2020

Is the US healthcare system broken? That depends on who you ask, but there's certainly room for improvement. Health policy analysts design those improvements. Breaking into this field means earning a master's degree.

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The American healthcare system has a lot going for it. The US has the world’s best survival rates for many cancers, the best coverage of chronic diseases, and the most advanced medical equipment per capita in the world.

Unfortunately, healthcare in the US also has a lot of problems. It’s expensive, for one, and in many areas systems are overburdened. Medical mistakes kill almost 100,000 people each year. Uninsured patients strain networks, and long wait times and rationing are genuine concerns. There are no simple solutions to any of these issues because the healthcare system itself is so large and complex.

That’s why health policy analysts—the professionals who assess existing healthcare policies and develop new ones—don’t look for simple solutions. They evaluate everything from research and census data to polls and surveys to patient outcomes and costs before proposing policy changes that are likely (but not guaranteed) to address specific issues. To do this, health policy analysts need qualitative and quantitative analytical skills, a thorough understanding of healthcare and finance, and the ability to see how politics is likely to impact medicine in the future.

It’s easy to see why there’s no single educational background that provides all the skills and knowledge necessary to become a health policy analyst. It’s a multidisciplinary, multifaceted role, and the people who take it on need backgrounds in public health, budget analysis, public administration, social work, health services management, accounting, and political science.

In this guide to health policy analyst education requirements, we’ll cover:

  • What is a health policy analyst?
  • What does a health policy analyst do?
  • What kinds of people become health policy specialists?
  • What kind of training do you need to become a health policy specialist?
  • What undergraduate degrees do health policy analysts typically have?
  • What graduate degrees do health policy analysts typically have?
  • Why do people pursue this career?

What is a health policy analyst?

Health policy analysts are policy experts who work in the healthcare space providing practical solutions to health and social issues. Some health policy analysts do this at the government level. They research how legislative policies affect different groups and create new legislation that helps more people access healthcare or get the types of care they need.

Other health policy analysts work for nonprofit groups, community organizations, and think tanks, developing policies and lobbying for policy changes that will make the US healthcare system better. Still others work for provider networks, hospitals, and insurance companies, helping to create and implement internal policies related to when and how healthcare is delivered and paid for in those systems.


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What does a health policy analyst do?

Health policy analysts (sometimes called health policy specialists) assess existing public health and healthcare delivery policies and develop new policies designed to solve specific problems like lack of access or wait times. To do this, they:

  • Collect and analyze healthcare data related to current policies using advanced statistical modeling to identify problem areas
  • Design and conduct tailored analytical studies to assess the short- and long-term effects of proposed changes
  • Assess existing healthcare initiatives to conduct cost-benefit analyses and determine program effectiveness
  • Develop new policies that modify or improve upon current policies to drive results (i.e., patient outcomes, accessibility, lower costs)
  • Suggest measures that will make health policies and programs more cost-effective without negatively affecting outcomes
  • Keep current with academic research and political developments related to healthcare
  • Meet with legislators, government agencies, healthcare providers, health policy researchers, nonprofit organizations, and other professionals in the healthcare space
  • Create written and graphic presentations outlining proposed policy changes and present their findings to influencers and stakeholders

Because doing all this and more requires specialized training and knowledge, you might assume that all health policy analysts make a lot of money. Not so fast: the average health policy analyst salary is only about $62,000 per year. That number is a little misleading, because pay can vary dramatically in this role. An experienced health policy analyst working for a smaller nonprofit organization might make closer to $45,000, while another employed by the federal government could make over $100,000 once they reach the GS-15 pay grade.

What kinds of people become health policy specialists?

All kinds. Some health policy analysts are passionate about making sure that everyone can access quality healthcare. Others love number-crunching and look at solving health policy problems as a puzzle. Some health policy analysts step into this role because they’re interested in the politics of healthcare. What they all have in common is solid math skills, communication skills, research skills, problem-solving skills, and critical thinking skills

Daniel Swartzman, associate professor of health policy and administration at University of Illinois at Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune that health policy analysts must be able “to look analytically at the policy environment, to identify forces and trends that make a policy more or less likely to be adopted, [and] to estimate the likely impact of a policy based upon an array of inputs.” They need to be able “to understand the substance of the policy proposal and the political landscape” so they “can advise their organization or client appropriately.”

What kind of training do you need to become a health policy specialist?

It’s theoretically possible to satisfy the health policy analyst education requirements by completing a bachelor’s degree program if an employer chooses to treat the analyst role as an entry-level position. Smaller nonprofits and regional political action groups may be more likely to hire policy analysts without master’s degrees. According to a report published by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, most policy analysts in health and other sectors have a graduate degree. Health policy analysts don’t necessarily need degrees related to their specific area of expertise, though some have medical degrees or come from medical backgrounds. Others have public policy degrees and public affairs degrees, or even degrees in economics and politics.

What undergraduate degrees do health policy analysts typically have?

Aspiring public health analysts have some flexibility when it comes to earning a bachelor’s degree. Most policy analysts begin their careers by choosing majors like health science, communications, social work, political science, public affairs, or healthcare administration. If you’re absolutely sure you want to become a health policy analyst, you can jumpstart your career by getting a bachelor’s degree in policy analysis (like Stanford University‘s Bachelor of Arts in Public Policy) or in health policy (like the BS in Health Policy and Administration from Pennsylvania State University (Main Campus)).

Some of the best undergraduate public policy programs can be found at:

In programs like these, you’ll study problems in the public domain, government policies, and the impact of those policies on individuals, families, communities, and society as a whole. You’ll also hone the skills (e.g., research and data analysis) that will eventually allow you to formulate evidence-based solutions to social problems in the healthcare space.

If you’re absolutely sure you want to work in health policy, take advantage of any and all opportunities to complete internships in healthcare settings, government agencies, policy and planning settings, or other public and private settings related to health policy.

What graduate degrees do health policy analysts typically have?

Most health policy analysts go on to earn either a one- or two-year Master of Public Policy (MPP) degree or a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree. There are colleges and universities that offer concentrations or specialization options like Public Health Policy and Management, as well as schools (like Brown University and University of California – Berkeley) that have dual MPP/MHA programs. These typically take two to three years to complete.

Students in Master of Public Policy programs dive deep into topics like:

  • Data analysis
  • Ethics
  • Leadership
  • Microeconomics
  • Policy analysis
  • Population methods
  • Program evaluation
  • Public finance
  • Public management
  • Quantitative evaluation methods
  • Research methods
  • Urban policy and planning

According to US News & World Report, some of the best schools for public policy analysis include:

If you choose to pursue a Master of Public Health degree, you’ll study topics like:

  • Behavioral health science
  • Biostatistics
  • Environmental health
  • Environmental science
  • Epidemiology and infectious diseases
  • Health and culture
  • Healthcare planning
  • Health economics
  • Health policy
  • Health services administration
  • Research ethics

US News & World Report‘s list of the best public health schools includes:

These master’s degrees aren’t your only options. It’s possible to become a health policy analyst with a Master of Public Administration (MPA). The MPA is a good option if you’re interested in how public institutions can work together to solve societal problems through policy shifts, or if you want to spend your career working in the government. Some people transition to the health policy field after earning a Master of Health Administration (MHA) degree, though that’s not the norm. The third alternative degree you should consider is the MS in Health Policy and Management. This interdisciplinary degree pathway includes coursework in topics related to public health, healthcare administration, health informatics, and public health policy. It’s an attractive option for anyone who is interested in public health and policy analysis but isn’t sure they want to become a health policy analyst.

Why do people pursue this career?

It’s clearly not the salary that inspires people to invest in the education necessary to become a health policy analyst. Getting a master’s degree can be expensive and provides no guarantee of higher pay. People pursue this career because they want to make a difference. How they do that in this role depends on their focus. It might be by designing policies that ensure healthcare funding is allocated fairly; policies designed to reduce the load on overburdened medical systems; or, policies that help underserved populations access care.

“There is a lot to fix, with a lot of problems in the current health care system that could be greatly improved,” Cheryl Fish-Parcham, deputy director for health policy at the Washington-based Families USA, told the Chicago Tribune. “Health care is a big sector of spending in our nation’s economy, and now, thankfully, health care is on the agenda.”

Given that, this may be the best possible time to get a degree that will train you in the skills required to make healthcare better.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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