7 Important Considerations for Successful Online Healthcare Programs

03/02/17   |  
Steve Fireng

In the monthly CEO Keys blog series, Keypath Education CEO Steve Fireng shares his thoughts and insights into the most prevalent topics in the higher education industry today.

The growth of healthcare programs is a consistent trend in higher education today. In the 2017 Higher Ed Predictions CEO Keys edition, I mentioned that these programs will continue to significantly outpace the market in enrollment.

While this is a desirable sector, we always remind partners that this is not a sure fire reason to start launching healthcare programs. It’s important to decide what your strengths, resources and capabilities are, as well as true differentiators. I sat with Cindy Wheatley, Ph.D., our SVP of research, to discuss seven of the most pressing questions to consider, whose answers will reveal the right decisions when looking to launch or expand an online healthcare-related program. Here’s what she had to say. 

What are your true, achievable goals?

If you know you want to expand online, first think about what you are trying to achieve. Are you trying to reach a broader audience for a program you don’t currently offer or extend the reach of those you already have? Clearly define your end goal. This will help you determine which steps to take next.

Healthcare changes very quickly, not only because of advancements in the field, but also due to fluctuations in demand and employer requirements. Because of the complicated process of building these programs, it could take you the same amount of time to get up and running as it takes for the sector to shift gears. Make sure you stay on top of trends and understand where these shifts are going to happen. Allot for these changes in your plans.

Do you want to launch a clinical or nonclinical program?

This is a critical question. The big challenge is that healthcare is so broad. Programs can be divided into two categories: clinical and nonclinical.

The larger growth opportunity is on the clinical side because of the strong demand drivers and low competition. Clinically based programs may not lend themselves well to online delivery, and require that students work with a preceptor in their local community. Management-focused, nonclinical degrees lend themselves well to online delivery and are, therefore, more competitive. Some degrees, such as healthcare administration, cut across many health-related fields and appeal to a broader audience.Fifty-two percent of Master of Health Administration programs are delivered online!

Consider this when thinking about growing online. Do you want to deal with intense competition or clinical challenges? Let’s look at nursing, for example. The biggest growth is in nurse practitioner programs, which is hard to do online, so it’s less competitive. The RN-BSN does still have high demand but comes with crazy competition and price sensitivity, whereas MSN-FNP programs are not as price sensitive. A suite of clinical and non-clinical programs may be the best solution to capture the broadest market possible.

What are the most pertinent demand indicators?                                                         

It's important to consider degree and occupational demand to uncover a program’s true growth potential. Here are some key research questions:

  • Does the program have a broad enough target audience? What is the size of the input occupations (prospective students) and output occupations (graduates)?
  • Which institutions are producing the most graduates and what is the average program size?
  • Is there strong demand for graduates?
  • Who are your regional online competitors? How would your program compete in this market?

These questions can be answered by using a few data sources.

  • IPEDS provides data on completions, numbers of programs delivered, and number of programs delivered via distance learning
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics provides data on employment levels by occupation, projected growth rates, educational attainment and media salaries
  • Labor market tools such as CEB TalentNeuron, Burning Glass and EMSI provide insight into supply and demand for particular occupations

Do you have the proper accreditation?

Professional accreditation is always an issue. Make sure you understand what the audience is looking for. In the case of licensure-based programs, accreditation is essential. In the case of non-clinical programs, it may be less important. For example, most prospective students who are interested in an online Master of Public Health expect the program to be accredited by CEPH. Programs without accreditation may struggle to recruit students. Also, keep in mind that some accrediting bodies have specific standards related to online delivery or faculty-student ratios. Become familiar with these standards before developing your program.

How do you find qualified faculty members?

This is a common struggle for healthcare programs that want to grow because institutions have difficulty recruiting full-time faculty from the practitioner pool. An effective growth strategy may be for full-time faculty to develop online courses that can be taught by practitioners in the field. It’s often easier to entice practitioners to teach one section of an online course than to join your faculty full-time. This is a viable option for supplementing your faculty base; therefore, we recommend building the option of utilizing practitioners with the appropriate credentials into your financial plan.

How can you tap into a student population looking to pursue continuing education in healthcare?

One great way to do this is through corporate partnership programs. You can reach students already in the profession who are looking to further their careers.

The more diversity you have in your portfolio, the more likely you are to attract the big employers. Do your research. Some employers do have certain restrictions on online education.

You can also look into offering programs specifically targeted toward healthcare professions that compliment their education while maybe not being directly healthcare-related. For example, offer business training opportunities that cater toward these practitioners.

What are alternative ways to grow enrollment and revenue other than offering new programs?

Not everyone is looking to pursue a full degree. Developing your degrees with stackable certificates is a good strategy. Healthcare is an industry where competency-based education makes a lot of sense. Rather than building stand-alone certificates, make them part of your degree program. For example, concentrations within a Master of Health Administration program can also serve as certificates. This provides more options for your students but does not incur additional expense.

As I mentioned before, ongoing research is vital to make sure you stay ahead of industry trends. In particular, analyze the following components to ensure your program portfolio is optimized for the market:

  • Student demand
  • Occupational demand
  • Competitive landscape
  • Internal capabilities 

Health education is a gold rush, but it takes a lot of work. With well-laid plans, the right resources and focused targeting, you can be successful.

Additional Resources

2017 Higher Education Benchmarks

Leadership Skills Are Becoming Imperative as Pharmacy Profession Continues to Evolve

How to Compete in the High-Demand Nursing Market

Healthcare Complexities, Shifts Call for Nurses to Further Education

Training Physicians in the Business of Medicine

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