Public Administration & Policy

How to Become a Health Policy Analyst

How to Become a Health Policy Analyst
Thousands—if not millions—of people are alive, thanks to policy analysts who identified ways to improve public health. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry March 11, 2020

Do you have a passion for politics and public health? Here's what you need to know to launch a career that encompasses both.

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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:

  • What are health policy analysts and what do they do?
  • What skills do health policy analysts need?
  • Which degrees do health policy analysts usually have?
  • How can aspiring health policy analysts advance more quickly?
  • How much do health policy analysts earn?

What are health policy analysts and what do they do?

Health policy analysts (sometimes called health policy specialists or public health policy analysts) in the public sector are professionals who:

  • Assess existing healthcare programs and delivery policies
  • Develop new legislation designed to improve access to healthcare, shorten wait times, or lower costs

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:

  • Identifying health disparities among populations
  • Analyzing existing healthcare initiatives to determine program effectiveness and cost-effectiveness
  • Collecting public health, environmental health, and other health data
  • Analyzing healthcare data within the context of current policies
  • Using advanced statistical modeling to identify potential problems
  • Identifying areas where a policy shift might curb overspending, improve delivery, or solve other specific issues
  • Developing new health policies or improvements to existing policies with particular goals in mind (e.g., improved patient outcomes or increased accessibility)
  • Designing tailored analytical studies to assess the short- and long-term effects of proposed changes
  • Meeting with leaders from public health organizations, government agencies, healthcare networks, and research labs
  • Developing measures to make existing public health programs less expensive
  • Creating or collaborating on health education campaigns alongside healthcare administrators, health organizations, and health professionals
  • Researching issues at the intersection of public health and political science to understand current trends in the healthcare delivery landscape

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:

  • Policies, procedures, and care issues related to the spread of infectious diseases
  • Health and safety in areas of the world where healthcare infrastructure is basically nonexistent
  • Ways in which nonprofit organizations can improve public health when governments can’t

What skills do health policy analysts need?

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.

Which degrees do health policy analysts usually have?

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:

  • Harvard University
  • New York University
  • Princeton University
  • Stanford University
  • Syracuse University
  • University of California – Berkeley
  • University of Georgia
  • University of Michigan – Ann Arbor
  • University of Southern California
  • University of Washington – Seattle Campus

Students in these programs typically study topics like:

  • Data Analysis:
    • Involves collecting and interpreting data to inform policy decisions.
    • Utilized for understanding trends, making forecasts, and evaluating policy impacts.
  • Ethics:
    • Pertains to the moral principles guiding policy decisions and implementations.
    • Essential for ensuring fairness, accountability, and transparency in public policy.
  • Leadership:
    • Relates to guiding and influencing public policy development and implementation.
    • Involves inspiring and coordinating teams, stakeholders, and communities toward policy goals.
  • Microeconomics:
    • Applies economic theories at the individual and small-scale level to public policy.
    • Critical for understanding the impact of policies on individual behavior and market dynamics.
  • Policy Analysis:
    • Involves evaluating the effectiveness and implications of public policies.
    • Includes identifying policy problems, proposing solutions, and analyzing potential impacts.
  • Population Methods:
    • Refers to the study of population dynamics and demographics for policy planning.
    • Useful in addressing issues related to population growth, aging, migration, and urbanization.
  • Program Evaluation:
    • Focuses on assessing the effectiveness of public programs and interventions.
    • Involves analyzing outcomes to determine if objectives are being met and identifying areas for improvement.
  • Public Finance:
    • Deals with government revenue and expenditure, including taxation and budgeting.
    • Essential for understanding the economic implications of policy decisions.
  • Public Management:
    • Involves the administration and management of public sector organizations.
    • Focuses on improving efficiency, resource allocation, and service delivery in government.
  • Qualitative Research:
    • Utilizes non-numerical data (like interviews and observations) to understand policy contexts.
    • Helps in exploring complex issues, understanding stakeholder perspectives, and developing hypotheses.
  • Quantitative Evaluation Methods:
    • Employs statistical and numerical analysis to evaluate policy impacts.
    • Useful for providing objective, data-driven insights into policy effectiveness.
  • Research Methods:
    • Encompasses various methodologies for conducting research in public policy.
    • Includes both qualitative and quantitative techniques for data collection and analysis.

In a healthcare-focused MPP program, students may also take classes like:

  • Health Economics:
    • Explores the economic factors affecting the health care sector.
    • Topics may include the demand for health care, health care financing, and the role of insurance.
  • Public Health and Policy Development:
    • Focuses on the intersection of public health and policy-making.
    • Covers how public health initiatives are developed, implemented, and evaluated at various policy levels.
  • Issues in National Health Policy:
    • Examines key topics and challenges in national health policy.
    • Discusses current debates, policy formulation, and the impact of national health policies on public health outcomes.
  • Management of Healthcare Organizations:
    • Addresses the principles and practices of managing healthcare organizations.
    • Covers topics like organizational behavior, strategic planning, and healthcare leadership.
  • Quality Assessment and Performance Measurement in Healthcare:
    • Focuses on methods for assessing and improving healthcare quality and performance.
    • Includes topics on quality improvement, patient safety, and performance measurement techniques.
  • Cost-Effectiveness in Healthcare:
    • Examines the economic evaluation of healthcare programs and interventions.
    • Discusses methods for assessing cost-effectiveness and resource allocation in healthcare.
  • Economics of Behavioral Health:
    • Explores economic aspects of behavioral health, including mental health and substance use disorders.
    • Topics may include the economic burden of behavioral health issues and the evaluation of related health policies.
  • State Health Policy Analysis:
    • Focuses on health policy issues at the state level.
    • Includes analysis of state policy-making processes, intergovernmental relations, and specific state health policy challenges.

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.

How can aspiring health policy analysts advance more quickly?

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.

How much do health policy analysts earn?

According to PayScale, the average health policy analyst salary is about $65,000 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.

(Updated on January 24, 2024)

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