How Does One Become A Medical Practice Manager?

Is my job similar to being the Commissioner of Baseball?

Am I the Commissioner of Baseball?

Most people who ask what I do have never heard of managing medical practices.  Many people say “I didn’t know there was a job like that.”  Medical Group Management Association’s (MGMA) definition of medical group practice and medical practice management is helpful:

Medical group practice is defined as three or more physicians engaged in the practice of medicine as a legal entity sharing business management, facilities, records and personnel. This includes single- and multispecialty physician offices, ambulatory surgery and diagnostic imaging centers, hospital-based practices and academic practices. (Medical Practice Managers) … are part of a large and growing field that requires broad knowledge, skills and experience for long-term success. And the decisions they make directly affect nearly every aspect of a practice’s operations, from financial performance to patient care.

The next question many people ask is “How do you learn to do that?”  People who do what I do come from lots of different professional backgrounds.

It has been a fairly recent development that there are undergraduate and graduate programs for this field.  Many physicians who are business-minded have pursued degrees that allow them to manage their own practices while practicing medicine, or enter the healthcare management field and leave active clinical practice.  According to a recent Times article, there are 49 schools that currently offer a dual MD/MBA degree.

Here a few ways other than formal healthcare management training that medical managers enter the field.

Nursing/Clinical: I have known some excellent medical practice managers who have four-year nursing degrees, but I don’t know a lot of them.  It seems that most nurses want to be nursing, not managing, and that they became nurses to care for patients in a hands-on way.  I have observed that some managers with nursing backgrounds are instant fixers, and have trouble taking the contemplative route to problem-solving.

Management Experience: There is no question that private practices are coming late to the business party and that experienced managers bring a lot to the field.  It can be hard, however, to jump into managing a practice with no former healthcare experience because so much is so different.  The owners of the business (the docs) are also the ones producing the revenue.  As my husband says, the job is very much like being the Commissioner of Baseball.

MBAs: Having a MBA brings a lot of tools and resources to the table, but is not the be-all and end-all, especially when it comes to people-management.  The best managers in any field truly like and value people, have time for people, are collaborative with people, and care about people.  Can this be learned?  I don’t know.  Probably not genuinely.

Technology: Managers who understand and embrace technology will have the advantage over every other manager.  Healthcare and technology are becoming more and more wedded.  Every priority technology function that healthcare managers have to outsource is an aspect of the practice that is somewhat out of their control.  Think practice management systems, EMR, phones, PACS, email, knowledge management, lab interface, hospital interface, patient communication, etc.

Up through the ranks: Managers who have come up through the ranks have a big plus in their favor and a big minus.  The plus is that they understand healthcare, the nitty-gritty functions of the practice, have experience relating to administrative and clinical staff, and know how to network.  The minus is that they are usually undervalued due to the lack of formal education, and may also undervalue themselves for the same reason.

In the end, it’s not where a person comes from that makes the biggest difference, it’s who they are and what they’ve made of their career.  Anyone can enter the field of healthcare management, but I do suggest  these three prerequisites:

  1. Compassion for patients (compassion for all people)
  2. A desire to continuously learn; if you stand still you’ll get moldy
  3. A sense of humor.

For information on organizations that award credentials click here.

Photo credit: Mary Pat Whaley

Posted in: A Career in Practice Management, Leadership

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60 Comments

  1. Lynnise March 29, 2013

    Hello Mary,

    I have a BS in Recreation Therapy, however I have no plans of using the degree. I have been a store manager in a local retail store for 9 years and I am looking for a change. I have done some research on the different jobs that I could possibly pursue with a masters in healthcare administration and came across practice management. Being that I have years of management experience although in a different field, what advice could you give me to pursue a job in practice management. Any help will be greatly appreciated.
    Thanks in Advance

  2. Mary Pat Whaley April 5, 2013

    Hi Lynnise,

    You can take your undergraduate degree, your business experience and by adding a Master’s degree, all you really need is some experience in a healthcare setting. I suggest that you see how you might combine work experience with your education so you’ll be ready to slide into your first job – probably in a hospital setting.

    Best wishes,

    Mary Pat

  3. Matt August 20, 2013

    Hi Mary,

    I’m 22 and I graduated from college last year with a BS in economics, and have since been working at a medical practice that specializes in making housecalls. I first started out doing mostly billing, A/R, and some bookkeeping, but have since been moved to a different position what involves reporting, IT, and the training of new employees in our clinical software. I have been deemed a pretty solid employee by our current practice manager and our CEO, and the company has been gracious enough to give me some cool responsibilities and is even planning on sending me to some conferences in the near future, so I guess I’ve progressed pretty quickly.

    I’m definitely interested in pursuing a career as a medical practice manager. However, I am wary about investing in a master’s degree. Given my current situation, would you say that it would be better to work up the ranks or should go ahead and invest in grad school? Would the fact that my undergraduate degree was not in a healthcare-related field be a deal-breaker for some employers? Any insight would be much appreciated.

    Thanks!
    -Matt

  4. Mary Pat Whaley August 22, 2013

    Hi Matt,

    The fact that your undergraduate degree is not in healthcare should not be a problem for you.

    Experience, especially as you are describing in your current position, is invaluable!

    People have different opinions about the value of a graduate business or health administration degree, but I think most people today agree that it could be difficult to get your investment back out of the degree if you are paying the going rate. There are graduate programs popping up now, however, that are much more affordable and are completely online. If I was at the beginning of my career, I would be exploring this at some point. If not that, then possibly some MOOC (I wrote an article about this recently) options on accounting, etc.

    Best wishes and good luck, Matt!

    Mary Pat

  5. Jerilyn February 12, 2014

    I am a certified paralegal with over twenty years of OFFICE management experience. I handled all aspects of managing a small law office. However, I have very little experience in managing associates. Can I move into medical practice management without that?

  6. Mary Pat Whaley February 14, 2014

    Hi Jerilyn,

    Healthcare is a field like no other, however it does have some similarities to the legal industry. The physician’s time, like the attorney’s time, is the product.

    There would be many crossovers for you – general accounting, human resources, facility and equipment management. What would be new for you is the billing and electronic medical records piece, which is huge. This is not to say you could not work in the field, only that you would have to come up to speed with medical terminology and medical practice technology. It is not unheard of for those with management experience but no healthcare experience to be hired into a small practice, but you would have to jump in with both feet, as small practice managers are jacks and jills of all trades.

    Best wishes,

    Mary Pat

  7. Johanne March 13, 2014

    I am a licensed practical nursing and have been for almost 8 years. I worked in nursing home setting for 4 years and hospital setting for 7 years (combined while my main job was at the hospital). Now I am working in a doctor’s office for 15 mths that is growing very fast( about 7 medical doctors and 7 ARNPs) and I would like to pursuit my carreer in the medical office setting as a practice manager. I will appreciate your inputs or advises . Thanks

  8. Mary Pat Whaley March 26, 2014

    Hi Johanne,

    I always advise people wanting to become practice managers to have command of three areas. It sounds as if you already have good experience working with physicians, and the fact that you a clinical background is a big plus! The two other areas are revenue cycle management and EMRs. Having an understanding of and ability to manage the billing process is extremely important. Knowing the EMR inside and out is critical as it impacts the workflow, patient care and can significantly impact expenses if not well-managed.

    Good luck!!

    Mary Pat

  9. Tiffany Wiggins June 29, 2014

    Hello, I am trying to get my foot in the door as a Medical Practice Manager. I have 15 years in the medical field . I have a Bachelor of Science in Biology and Chemistry, and currently enrolled in a Master of Business Administration concentrating in Health care Administration. What would your suggestion in becoming a Practice Manager.

    Thank you for your time.

  10. Mary Pat Whaley July 13, 2014

    Hi Tiffany,

    It sounds like you are doing all the right things. Sometimes you have to take a step back to take a step forward. If you are not able to land a job as a manager, you may have to take a job as a supervisor or assistant manager to get some time on your resume before you can get the job you really want.

    Best wishes,

    Mary Pat

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