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Which Credentials Count?


Considering starting a master’s program or getting the latest certification? Here’s the scoop on the benefits of continuing education and credentials for practice administrators.

After 20 years in the medical field, and four spent managing the multiple offices of Allied Ankle & Foot Care Center in Atlanta, Lyresa McGriff was well-equipped to handle the day-in and day-out decision making that kept her practice afloat. But she also knew there was more to learn about practice management than experience alone could ever impart.

In June 2008, she earned the Certified Administrator in Physician Practice Management (CAPPM) credential from the American Academy of Medical Management in Atlanta, a designation granted after completing 60 hours of continuing education courses and passing a rigorous exam. To maintain her credential, she’ll have to complete additional classes every three years on a variety of topics, including marketing, physician recruitment, employee retention, profit and loss statements, billing and coding, and growth strategies. That’s fine with McGriff. “I’m a lifelong learner,” she says, noting she is simultaneously working towards her master’s degree. “In this field, you need to stay current with what’s going on. Having that certification makes me more marketable from a personal standpoint, as well.”

Indeed, for those managing the business of medicine, continued education is part of the job description. New billing procedures, shrinking profit margins, digital record keeping, and compliance with ever-changing federal regulations have made it imperative that administrators seek training throughout their career that will bring their practice - and their professional status - to the next level.

Yet, among the alphabet soup of credentials that exist, how do you decide which letters after your name will serve you best?

Will the Fellow of the American College of Medical Practice Executives (FACMPE) designation look best on your resume? How might getting the Certified Medical Manager (CMM) credential from the Professional Association of Health Care Office Management (PAHCOM) help your practice succeed? Do you need a master’s degree?

Consider a master’s

“The first question you need to ask yourself is whether you want to stay with this practice and grow with them or do you see employment opportunities elsewhere that may give you more flexibility,” says John Lloyd, president and chief executive of the Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education, which accredits college and university master’s degree programs. A bachelor’s degree, supplemented with healthcare management courses from training academies and trade groups, he notes, may suffice for those in smaller practices, but those looking to branch out or manage larger groups usually need a higher degree. “The minute you begin to say, ‘I want to be part of something bigger,’ you have to consider a master’s degree,” says Lloyd. “The department of medicine at Georgetown University, for example, will immediately say, ‘Show me your master’s degree.’ If you don’t have it, your door will be shut.”

A master’s degree, he adds, gives you more flexibility across the spectrum of healthcare industries. “If you get tired of being in private practice you can go into a hospital setting, insurance, biotechnology, or pharmaceuticals.”

Such sentiment is confirmed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which notes in its most recent Occupational Outlook Handbook that a master’s degree in health services administration, long-term care administration, health sciences, public health, public administration, or business administration “has become the standard credential required for most generalist positions in this field.” It notes, however, that a “bachelor’s degree is sometimes adequate for entry-level positions in smaller facilities and departments. In physicians’ offices and some other facilities, on-the-job experience may substitute for formal education.”

Selecting the right certification

Certifications, of course, are less involved and far more affordable - though many require membership in the trade organization that administers them, plus several years experience managing a medical practice before you can sit for the exam. Deciding which is right for you depends largely on your career aspirations.

The CMM, for example, is generally favored by those who plan to remain in smaller practices with 10 or fewer physicians. The exam is designed to test your knowledge, skills, and effectiveness at managing a practice in which the physician owner is also the front-line care provider. It focuses on 18 areas of core competencies, ranging from financial management to human resources. The CMM exam costs $385, plus membership in PAHCOM, another $165. “It’s a good way to document your competency in the eyes of your employer and yourself, while distinguishing yourself as a professional,” says PAHCOM executive director Richard Blanchette.

The gold standard for those who work in large group practices or healthcare networks, meanwhile, is the FACMPE, which requires members to pass a 175-question objective exam and an essay exam (both of which cost $165). The exam is designed to assess on-the-job knowledge of factual information, problem solving techniques, written communication skills, and general management principals.

The CAPPM credential falls somewhere in between, with the average test taker managing a practice with 12 physicians. The 150-question test, however, covers a broad spectrum of topics relevant to all practice settings. “We believe that you must be well-developed in all areas if you are to be thoroughly trained and certified,” says Roger Bonds, chief executive of the academy and a former practice administrator with a master’s degree in business administration. “It’s designed to help you with the job you have today, but also to prepare you for jobs you may have in the future.” The CAPPM costs $259, plus the $378 membership fee. To sit for the exam, you must have at least 18 months experience in the field, and the certification itself will not be dispensed until the 24-month mark.

To help professionals chart their continuing education course, a handful of societies formed the Healthcare Leadership Alliance (healthcareleadershipalliance.org), which created a competency directory that identifies skills important across diverse professional roles within healthcare management; including leadership, communications, professionalism, business knowledge, and knowledge of the healthcare environment.

Skills for the future

Donna Knapp, practice administrator for both Pulmonary Medicine Associates (a 12- physician private practice) and Sierra Hospitalists in Reno, Nev., says she would not be where she is today without her master’s degree in healthcare administration and her FACMPE credential. “Nowadays,” she says, “things change so quickly that you’ve got to be able to think on your feet and going through the credentialing process helps you do that.”

The benefits of continuing education, of course, include not just the ability to improve your job performance, but the opportunity for higher pay. According to PayScale.com, a Seattle-based firm that tracks compensation data, average salaries for those with a master’s degree in business administration (MBA) are $10,000 to $20,000 higher than salaries for those with a bachelor’s or business administration degree.

A survey by the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., further notes the median starting salary in 2008 for a full-time MBA graduate in the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and healthcare industries was $100,000 nationwide.

Credentials look good on your business card, of course, but they should be part of a larger plan to improve your managerial expertise and set yourself apart as an employee. Before deciding which course work to pursue, consider both your practice’s immediate needs and your long-term career goals.

“My degree and FACMPE give me a lot of confidence to know that I can do the job; that I have the skills I need,” Knapp says. “And if I don’t know the answer I know how to find it.”

Shelly K. Schwartz, a freelance writer in Maplewood, N.J., has covered personal finance, technology, and healthcare for more than 12 years. Her work has appeared on CNNMoney.com, Bankrate.com, and Healthy Family magazine. She can be reached via physicianspractice@cmpmedica.com. This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of Physicians Practice.

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