Every healthcare system has its upsides and downsides. The United States has some of the most advanced medical technology in the world, lots of doctors specializing in chronic conditions, and the highest survival rates for many cancers. Medicine (and medical care) in the US is also relatively expensive; demand for care is outpacing network expansion, and we could definitely do a lot better when it comes to metrics like maternal and child health.
Finding a solution to these and other problems can seem like an impossible task, but there are professionals out there willing to try. They are called health policy analysts—public policy experts who specialize in issues related to healthcare delivery. It's a big job because healthcare systems have to serve millions of people, and it can be frustrating because few healthcare problems have easy solutions. Still, becoming a health policy analyst might just be the perfect job for you if you're passionate about finding ways to ensure equal access to healthcare or finding ways to improve healthcare outcomes while reducing costs.
In this article about how to become a health policy analyst, we cover:
Health policy analysts (sometimes called health policy specialists or public health policy analysts) in the public sector are professionals who:
Not all health policy analysts are employed by governments or government agencies, however. Health policy analysts also work for think tanks, nonprofit organizations, and community groups. Some develop new policies and lobby legislators to enact their innovations as law. Others spend their days developing internal policies for hospitals, insurance companies, and medical networks. In some instances, the policies they produce may be designed with shareholders, not public health, in mind.
The responsibilities of health policy analysts can include:
It's worth noting that there are also global health policy analysts. They may do some or all of the above while also working on:
Health policy analysts need to be big-picture thinkers because there are no simple solutions when it comes to public health problems. They also need to have solid research skills and the ability to sort through massive amounts of data to identify what's important. Merely defining a problem can involve looking at academic papers, census data, healthcare data, polls and surveys, patient outcomes, and costs associated with treatments or programs. A thorough understanding of healthcare and finance is also essential because public health policies that aren't cost-effective may never be implemented.
Health policy analysts also need to be extremely politically savvy and able to understand different points of view. They typically work with people from diverse backgrounds, different economic situations, and different regions. When you become a health policy analyst, you might sit down with a low-income single mom caring for a child with pollution-induced asthma one day and then have lunch with a high-powered senator the next.
Because there are employers (usually in the private sector) who treat health policy analysts as entry-level or lower-level roles, it's technically possible to become an analyst with a bachelor's degree. It's much more likely, however, that you'll need to have both an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree; in fact, most policy analysts in the health and health services sector have master's degrees.
You'll have some flexibility when it comes to earning a relevant bachelor's degree. You could choose a major like health science, healthcare administration, or health informatics. There are also public policy and public affairs degree programs at the undergraduate level. Some aspiring policy analysts even opt for degrees in politics, social work, or economics.
If you're absolutely sure you want to become a health policy analyst, however, consider pursuing 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).
Regardless of the major you choose, look for opportunities to complete internships in healthcare settings, government agencies, policy and planning settings, or other public and private settings related to health policy. Your work in these settings will give you a chance to see how health policy is created and potentially to flex your research and data analysis muscles.
After you earn your bachelor's degree, you may be able to find work in health policy, health promotion, or health education. Spending a few years amassing professional experience before enrolling in a master's degree program can boost your lifetime earning potential. Some graduate degree programs actually require applicants to have work experience, so think carefully before going directly from an undergrad program into graduate studies.
Most health policy analysts earn either a one- or two-year Master of Public Policy (MPP) degree or a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree with a public health policy specialization—or a hybrid of the two, the MPP/MPH. The public health MPP is probably the best degree for an aspiring health policy analyst. Some of the best public policy programs can be found at:
Students in these programs typically study topics like:
In a healthcare-focused MPP program, students may also take classes like:
As an alternative degree, you might also consider the MS in Health Policy and Management. This interdisciplinary master's degree program dives deep into topics related to public health, healthcare administration, health informatics, and public health policy. It's a good option for anyone interested in public health and policy analysis who isn't entirely sure they want to become a health policy analyst. With this degree, you could also become a healthcare administrator, health education specialist, or health services manager.
Advancement in this career is typically a matter of amassing the experience to land a senior policy analyst role or a directorship. Having specific skills may help you advance more quickly, however. Project management skills, data analysis skills, research skills, and technical writing skills can all be learned independently and may help you get promoted more quickly.
There are also graduate certificate programs for health policy analysts at schools like Columbia University and George Washington University. Columbia University offers a Health Policy Analysis Certificate designed to give professionals the skills and knowledge they'll need to address urgent issues faced by health organizations and healthcare systems. The curriculum touches on access to care, insurance markets, health economics, mental health policy, health manpower, and global health systems. George Washington University's Health Policy Graduate Certificate program is similar but offers students the opportunity to work with an advisor to craft a personalized course of study designed to fulfill personal and professional goals.
According to PayScale, the average health policy analyst salary is about $62,000 per year. That isn't much when you consider the specialized training and knowledge health policy analysts are expected to have. Master's degree programs are expensive, and entry-level health policy analysts and those working for smaller nonprofits may earn barely $50,000. While it's true that a health policy analyst employed by the federal government can earn over $100,000 if they reach the GS-15 pay grade, this isn't a career that anyone should choose for the money.
Maybe you're wondering why anyone would want to become a health policy analyst, given the educational investment necessary and the relatively low earning potential. The simple answer is that some people dream of spending their lives making the world a better place, and that's literally what most health policy analysts do. Consider that some of the most significant public health successes in the US—e.g., improved motor vehicle safety and maternal-infant health—only happened because strategic policy changes were rolled out nationwide. There are thousands, if not millions, of people alive today who might not have been alive if it weren't for policy analysts who identified ways to improve public health. If you want to be a part of that kind of change, this could be the right career for you.
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