University of Sourthern California


MPH vs. MHA: Which Degree Should You Pursue?

Hospital administrators and staff meet around a conference table.

A career in public health can be both rewarding and challenging, as can a career as a health care administrator. Public health programs prevent disease and promote wellness and safety, and they grapple with complex health and societal issues in the process. Health administrators manage hospitals or clinics and are responsible for the financial and operational health of an organization.

Many students who are drawn to the field may not know the best educational path to their goal. Is a Master of Health Administration (MHA) or Master of Public Health (MPH) the best choice?

Both of these advanced degrees can provide students with the necessary skills for a career in health care. To learn more about whether an MPH vs. MHA is the right choice, investigating the curriculum and projects offered by online MPH programs is a good first step.

What Is Public Health?

Public health agencies manage programs that promote healthy behaviors and protect the well-being of communities and populations. These agencies operate at the local, state and national levels. They’re responsible for ensuring the health and safety of citizens through education, prevention, guidance on regulations and communitywide initiatives. Other public health organizations may be nonprofits that join forces with government agencies to solve health issues. Students who want careers in public health will generally pursue an MPH.

Public health activities include the following:

Health and Wellness Programs

Public health agencies develop health and wellness programs that promote healthy communities. Agencies are a source of resources for vital needs, such as housing and food. They also offer educational programs that inform the public about the risk of disease and injury. These programs may include the following:

  • Type 2 diabetes and chronic disease registries
  • Injury and accidental death prevention
  • Programs for the homeless, elderly and teens
  • Epidemiology and disease surveillance

They also carry out health regulatory activities that local ordinances or state or federal laws have enacted. Examples are the following:

  • Birth and death certificate management
  • Restaurant inspections
  • Newborn screening programs
  • No smoking ordinances

Disease Prevention

A large part of public health’s mandate is disease prevention. Agencies conduct a number of activities to prevent the spread of disease. They use biostatistics and other data analysis to determine where an illness is prevalent. Their actions include communication with the public to warn of potential risks and recommend actions. During the COVID-19 pandemic, public health agencies encouraged mask-wearing, handwashing and vaccinations.

Infectious Disease Response

As illustrated by the COVID-19 pandemic, public health agencies are responsible for responding to all infectious diseases, including foodborne illnesses such as E. coli or listeria contamination. Public health officials also monitor drinking water and recreational water use to ensure that the water is safe to drink or swim in. The appearance of blue algae in lakes and rivers around the country has triggered warnings about harmful toxins.

Environmental, Social and Demographic Impacts

Public health takes into consideration the social determinants of health, all of which have a great impact on the wellness of individuals and their communities. The social determinants of health include factors such as ZIP code. Where people live determines whether they live in a food desert or in an area with poor water or air quality. These are risk factors for chronic illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, asthma and hypertension.

What Is Health Care Administration?

Health care administration differs from public health in that it has a narrower scope. Health care administrators manage the operations of a doctor’s office, hospital or other health care provider. While administrators may have a background in health or medicine, they must also have experience in business, finance and human resources, among other skills. Students interested in working in health care administration will likely pursue an MHA rather than an MPH.

Health care administration covers the following areas:

Operations Management

The goal of health care operations management is to ensure that a hospital or practice runs smoothly. Health care administrators are responsible for managing costs while making sure that patients receive the best care. Administrators must set and manage budgets; ensure that facilities and medical equipment operate at peak efficiency; and ensure that the organization has the financial, technical and medical and human resources (HR) needed to be successful.

Human Resources

HR is one of the many departments that fall under administration. HR is responsible for hiring, retaining and terminating employees, both clinical and nonclinical staff. The tight labor market has strained many providers. This problem is especially acute in nursing, which has been hit hard during the pandemic. Health care administrators are responsible for creating conditions that attract the best employees and ensure that they have the support and resources necessary to do their jobs well.

Facilities, Inventory and Supply Chain Management

Health care administrators are responsible for managing their facilities to ensure that they operate efficiently and safely. Administrators must have plans to prevent theft, violence or data breaches. Inventory and supply chain management are related skills. Group purchasing organizations enable providers to band together to save on costs and to make it more efficient to manage inventory.

Finance and Accounting

Health care administration requires skills in financial management and accounting. Responsibilities include operating budgets, revenue cycle management and financial and risk management. Medical billing is complicated due to the numerous different payment systems. The transition from fee-for-service health care to value-based care is also pressuring the financial outlook of health care providers.

Patient Information Management

Patient data is protected under federal privacy laws. This includes both medical data collected in electronic health records (EHR) and administrative information, such as addresses and billing history. Protecting patient data is a challenge, especially in light of the move to data-driven decision-making in health care.

Regulatory Compliance

Health care is a highly regulated industry. Health care administrators must have an extensive background in the regulatory landscape to be able to make good business decisions. Health care regulations impact all aspects of the industry, and laws continue to change. Administrators need to stay ahead of Medicare benefits and drug pricing regulations, as well as changes in medical reimbursements and change strategy.

What Skills Does an MPH Need?

Because of the core differences between public health and health care administration, MPH and MHA programs teach different skills. Skills taught in an MPH program include the following:

  • Biostatistics. Biostatistics is used in public health to identify disease outbreaks.
  • Health promotion. Public health professionals develop and roll out health promotion materials and resources to the general public.
  • Health policy. Public health leaders work with politicians and other public servants to research and develop health policies.
  • Population health. Understanding population health metrics, which include the social determinants of health, is a critical part of the job of public health experts.
  • Global health care policy. Public health doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Global health policies and statistics can help local health officials get a view of best practices that work with various populations.
  • Leadership skills. Public health leaders must be able to effectively manage projects and staff for the best results. They have to also communicate with the public and with government officials, among others.

What Skills Does an MHA Need?

An MHA degree program focuses on operations and financial and regulatory management. As with an MPH, leadership and communication are important skills; however, they’re executed in a different context. MHA skills include the following:

  • Operations management. Operations management is a leadership role that can be a stepping stone to the chief operating officer (COO) position in a large organization.
  • Financial management and accounting. An MHA degree program will focus on financial management and accounting, essential business functions.
  • Human resources. Staffing is one of the biggest challenges in hospitals and health care organizations due to nursing and other shortages.
  • Facilities management. The risk profile of hospitals and clinics is an important part of facilities management.
  • Communications. A health care administrator will need to communicate with the executive team as well as colleagues and staff. These communications will largely be internal.
  • Leadership skills. As with an MPH, a professional with an MHA must be an effective leader of administrative staff.

Are You Ready for USC’s Online MPH?

Deciding whether an MPH or MHA is right for you ultimately depends on your career goals. If you’re looking for a career in managing a hospital or medical facility, then an MHA is an excellent educational path. However, if you’re excited by the chance to influence the health of people and their communities, explore the online MPH program offered by USC. Begin your public health journey today.


Recommended Readings

Important Vaccines in History

The Next U.S. Drug Epidemic: Increased Opioid Usage and Alcohol Abuse

Social Justice and Public Health in 2022



American College of Healthcare Executives, “Top Skills Hospital CEOs Need to Navigate the Pandemic — And Beyond”

American Public Health Association, About APHA

American Public Health Association, Careers in Public Health

Austin Public Health, Programs

Avalere, “Most Significant Healthcare Legislation Since ACA Possible This Fall”

CDC Foundation, What Is Public Health?

Connecticut State Department of Public Health, Blue-Green Algae

Healthcare Finance, “Hospitals Can Change Their Models of Care to Meet the Worsening Nursing Shortage”

Healthcare Supply Chain Association, About Us

Investopedia, Operation Management in Healthcare

Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Social Determinants of Health

The Nation’s Health, “Community Actions Can Support Racial Healing, Health Equity: New Policy Papers Chart Roadmap”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Mathematicians and Statisticians