Health Informatics & Sciences

What Is a Master’s in Health Services Research?

What Is a Master’s in Health Services Research?
Working as a health services researcher means becoming a jack of all trades. You have to be a health policy expert, a data scientist, and a statistician, plus an expert in medicine, medical insurance, and medical ethics and law. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry May 20, 2020

There's an unheralded squad of scientists working behind the scenes to make healthcare better, cheaper, and more accessible. The key to joining their ranks is getting a health services research degree.

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Modern healthcare systems are huge and complex. That’s a problem when your goal is to help people lead longer, healthier lives. With so many factors in play, finding a solution to healthcare inequality or addressing the staggering cost of US medical care can seem impossible. Even trying to make small improvements to quality of care can be a massive undertaking, given the diversity of patient populations and the wide variety of treatments for each disease.

Complicated as these problems are, however, solutions are waiting to be found. Health services researchers are the scientists who study every facet of healthcare delivery, from the care patients receive to the ways providers deliver it. It’s more complicated than it sounds. According to the Health Research Alliance, this is a “multidisciplinary field of scientific investigation that studies how social factors, financing systems, organizational structures and processes, health technologies, and personal behaviors affect access to health care, the quality and cost of health care, and ultimately, our health and well-being.”

Working as a health services researcher means becoming a jack of all trades. You have to be a health policy expert, a data scientist, and a statistician, plus an expert in medicine, medical insurance, and medical ethics and law. You also need to have a firm grasp of how human behavior and government policy impacts health outcomes. And to be all this, you’ll need a master’s degree. Some people enter the field with an MD, a Master of Public Health, or a Master of Public Policy, but the best degree for aspiring healthcare services researchers is arguably a master’s degree in health services research.

There are a few degrees that fall under that umbrella. In this article about master’s in health services research degree programs, we cover:

  • What is health services research?
  • What kinds of students pursue master’s in health services research degrees?
  • Are there different kinds of master’s in health services research programs?
  • What prerequisites do health services research students have to meet?
  • What do students in master’s in health services research programs study?
  • Which schools offer the best master’s in health services research degrees?
  • What can you do with a degree in health services research?
  • How much money can people earn with a health services degree?
  • What else should I know about earning a master’s in health services research?

What is health services research?

Health services research looks at the big-picture social, economic, structural, technological, and procedural factors that affect access to healthcare, the cost of healthcare, quality of care, and patient outcomes. Health services researchers have diverse goals, which are often driven by their employers. A health services researcher might do work focused on:

  • Expanding access to healthcare
  • Expanding access to specific treatments
  • Identifying more effective organizational structures in healthcare management
  • Identifying more efficient procedures for healthcare facilities
  • Improving patient outcomes
  • Improving patient safety
  • Improving outcomes for a specific demographic
  • Lowering the cost of healthcare in general
  • Making health insurance less expensive
  • Reducing medical errors
  • Reducing the cost of specific medical procedures
  • Understanding why some people don’t seek treatment

According to a report prepared by the National Academy of Medicine for the National Library of Medicine, the overall goal of health services research is “to provide information that will eventually lead to improvements in the health of the citizenry.”

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What kinds of students pursue master’s in health services research degrees?

Historically, health services research was conducted by doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals who looked at patient outcomes or costs on a relatively small scale. Today, health services researchers come from a wider variety of backgrounds. Professionals in this discipline hail from fields like:

  • Actuarial science
  • Behavioral science
  • Biostatistics
  • Dentistry
  • Economics
  • Engineering
  • Epidemiology
  • Health policy
  • Healthcare administration
  • Medicine
  • Nursing
  • Social science

The reason health services researchers come from so many backgrounds is that healthcare isn’t really a single discipline. Researching medicine means looking at things like risk assessment, finance, politics, psychology, and sociology. Understanding how doctors care for patients also involves examining how they use pharmaceuticals and medical devices as varied as prosthetic limbs and ventilators. Administrative issues can affect who has access to care and how much it costs. Challenges related to emergency care are very different from those specific to long-term care. It would be all but impossible for a single health services researcher to look into every single facet of healthcare, so some degree of specialization is a must.

Are there different kinds of master’s in health services research degree programs?

There are several master’s degrees and other degrees that can prepare you to work in health services research. These include the:

  • Master of Health Science
  • Master of Health Science in Health Economics
  • Master of Public Health
  • Master of Public Health in Epidemiology
  • Master of Science in Health Policy and Economics
  • Master of Science in Health Services Administration
  • Master of Science in Public Health with a health policy concentration

Professionals in this field also go on to earn doctorate degrees in the above disciplines. Some are even full-fledged medical doctors. There is, however, only one master’s-level degree specifically designed for aspiring health services researchers: the master’s in health services research. It’s one degree that goes by many names:

  • Master of Science in Health Services & Systems Research
  • Master of Science in Health Services and Outcomes Research
  • Master of Science in Health Services Research
  • Master of Science in Health Services Research, Policy & Administration
  • Master of Science in Health Services Research and Policy
  • Master of Science in Healthcare Research

Sometimes the ‘research’ portion of this degree is only implied, and so as you look into schools that offer degrees in this discipline, make sure to include Master of Science in Health Services programs in your searches. You’ll also find health services research offered as a concentration option in Master of Public Health programs.

What prerequisites do health services research students have to meet?

Admission requirements for master’s in health services research programs vary from school to school. At some colleges and universities, students must hold a bachelor’s degree in a related discipline and meet minimum GPA requirements. A health services or healthcare administration background can make an applicant more attractive but isn’t required.

Other schools only admit students who have earned an advanced degree in a health or health-adjacent discipline (sometimes a master’s degree but more often an MD, DO, PhD, DNP, or PharmD) and have two or more years of healthcare experience. In both cases, prior experience in health-related research is a big plus.

What do students in master’s in health services research programs study?

Master’s degree programs for aspiring health service researchers cover core competencies related to:

  • Health outcomes
  • Health policy and management
  • Health services administration
  • Medical finance
  • Primary and secondary research methodologies

Students at the University of Pittsburgh‘s MS in Health Services Research and Policy program, for instance, prepare to “conduct research on policy issues affecting the organization, financing, and delivery of health care and public health services.”

Don’t assume, however, that the University of Pittsburgh’s approach to this master’s program is universal. While some Master of Health Services Research programs emphasize the study of health services administration, others focus on the clinical, scientific, and epidemiological issues related to healthcare delivery. Read program descriptions carefully before applying to ensure that the topics covered in the curriculum align with your interests and career goals.

Courses commonly found in health services research graduate degree programs include:

  • Advanced Quantitative Methods
  • Comparative Health Systems and Policy
  • Health Economics and Healthcare Financing
  • Health Law, Policy, and Policymaking
  • Health Policy and Policymaking for Public Health
  • Health Regulation and Planning
  • Introduction to Research Theory & Design
  • Qualitative Research Methods for Public Health and Health Services Research
  • Quantitative Research Methods for Public Health and Health Services Research
  • Theoretical & Empirical Issues in Health Services
  • Tools for Project Management, Communication, Budgeting
  • Translating Research into Practice
  • Writing for Peer Review and Publication

Most programs culminate in a semester-long research project during which students draw from existing research and data or conduct their own original research.

Which schools offer the best master’s in health services research degrees?

Putting together a list of the best master’s in health services research degree programs is challenging because this isn’t a particularly common degree. Many aspiring health researchers opt to study in other types of graduate programs related to healthcare, earning degrees like the Master of Health Administration, because it’s possible to become a health services researcher after graduating from a Master of Health Services Administration (MHSA) program or healthcare policy program. However, if you really want to go into this field, you should definitely check out these programs:

  • Boston University‘s MS in Health Services & Systems Research program, which has a public health focus
  • Northwestern University‘s Master of Science in Health Services and Outcomes Research (HSOR) program, which is designed for physicians, students who work in other health professions, and non-clinicians
  • Stanford University‘s MS in Health Policy, which was formerly an MS in Health Services Research but still has a research-focus
  • University of Minnesota – Twin Cities‘ Master of Science in Health Services Research, Policy, and Administration, which emphasizes the role of data science, analytics, and big data in health research
  • University of Rochester‘s Master of Science in Health Services and Policy, which is focused on the fundamental elements of health services research
  • University of Washington‘s MS in Health Services program, which is offered as either a Master of Science with a focus on research methods or with a clinical and translational research concentration

Most of the above programs are open to both full-time students and part-time students. Northwestern University’s master’s in health services research, in particular, was designed for graduate students who need flexibility. It’s a hybrid program that supports local students who can study on campus as well as those looking for an online master’s degree in health research.

What can you do with a degree in health services research?

Health services research is a multidisciplinary field, but related job titles don’t vary much from field to field. With a master’s in health services research, you might become a:

  • Assistant professor
  • Healthcare analyst
  • Program analyst
  • Researcher

The focus of your research, however, will vary depending on where you work. You might be employed by a:

  • Advocacy organization, studying underserved populations
  • College or university, teaching and studying in your area of interest
  • Government agency, studying healthcare policy
  • Healthcare foundation, studying how to improve access to care
  • Home healthcare agency, studying how to make care more efficient
  • Insurance company, studying how to make care less expensive
  • Legislative office, studying how to inspire more people to access care
  • Managed care organization, studying how to make healthcare more profitable
  • Medical facility, studying how to boost patient satisfaction
  • Pharmaceutical company, studying medication compliance and how it affects outcomes

How much money can people earn with a health services degree?

Salaries in health services research depend on a few factors. Level of education is one. Researchers in healthcare frequently have PhDs or graduated from a related doctoral program before transitioning into research via a master’s degree program. Working in this field with only a graduate degree may have a negative impact on earning potential. The average health researcher salary is about $76,000 (or possibly closer to $55,000, depending on the source). With a PhD in Health Services Research, you could earn $120,000 or more.

Of course, averages can only tell you so much in a discipline that includes both assistant professors and Big Pharma employees. You might earn six figures working for a large insurance company… or as little as $16 per hour doing research for a small medical facility.

The smart thing you can do is look into salaries before enrolling in a master’s in health services research program. Think about where in the field you see yourself working and then research incomes. Your findings can help you decide whether pursuing a master’s degree in health research makes financial sense.

What else should I know about earning a master’s in health services research?

This is a degree that will help you make a difference. According to one research paper, “Health services research has accrued an impressive track record in the past quarter-century.” It has led to improvements in medical care for underserved populations, helped expose gaps between epidemiological research and medicine, led to the development of tools to make Medicare financing and reimbursement better, and expanded the list of treatments insurance will cover.

If you want to help people lead longer, healthier, and happier lives, a master’s in health services research can help you do that. You might not command the kind of respect that doctors do, but you’ll also spend fewer years in school and rack up less debt. You’ll also have a much broader view of healthcare—and a much broader impact. Your work will indirectly improve outcomes by empowering doctors and nurses to provide better care, inspiring policymakers to expand access to care, and showing insurance companies that covering things like preventative care makes good economic sense.

Keep in mind, however, that becoming a health services researcher may require earning a PhD in Health Services if you want to work for a top-tier university or specialize in specific areas of health research. Many PhD programs let students choose an area of emphasis, like health behavior, occupational health, health economics, or health systems. Before you balk at having to commit to more schooling, keep in mind that knowledge is power. Diving deeper into research methods, health care systems, health policy, health management, and the social determinants of health can only make you a better researcher.

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