Becoming a hospital CEO — an overview with real-life examples

6 min read


Hospital CEOs are masters at balancing a multitude of tasks. They must display business acumen, healthcare expertise, and forward thinking — all at once. Throwing a worldwide pandemic into the juggling act makes it even clearer why hospital chief executive officer is a job that requires a multifaceted skill set.

John Haupert, President and CEO of Atlanta’s Grady Health System, can attest to this fact. At the end of 2019, the facilities Haupert runs were reeling from an internal disaster that left them facing financial challenges and a shortage of patient beds. In the midst of recovery from these concerns, he told the Atlanta Business Chronicle, his health system — like others around the world — felt the impact of the largest healthcare crisis in a generation: COVID-19. 

The situation has tested Haupert and his staff financially and emotionally, but he has weathered the storm by relying on communication skills, a willingness to assist employees, and the ability to pivot healthcare delivery models. For Haupert, the rewards of managing the complex responsibilities of being a hospital CEO come in providing a quality healthcare environment: one that assists those facing medical challenges and the employees who care for them.

Implementing analytical thinking to develop strategic solutions to address hospitals’ challenges makes comprehensive healthcare and business education an asset for individuals looking to reach C-suite status. If you’re interested in building result-driven management skills and pursuing professional opportunities to excel in your career, our higher education programs such as our Master of Business Administration (MBA) in Healthcare with Northern Arizona University can set you up for success.

Skills hospital CEOs need to have

CEOs in any field oversee the day-to-day operations of an organization, as well as its broader strategic vision. For hospital CEOs, this work is in healthcare, which is undergoing fundamental changes in technology, funding, and approaches to care. 

The role requires both general management skills and skills specific to healthcare leadership. Hospital CEOs oversee the following aspects of a facility:

Hiring and retaining staff

Hiring and retaining staff

Ensuring compliance with healthcare laws and policies

Ensuring compliance with healthcare laws and policies

Monitoring hospital finances

Monitoring hospital finances

Maintaining excellence in care

Maintaining excellence in care

Adapting to changing needs and trends in care

Adapting to changing needs and trends in care

Key management skills for hospital CEOs             

As with all professions that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) classifies as top executives, hospital CEOs need effective management and leadership skills to succeed — with communication skills at the top of the list.

The ability to communicate effectively is so important, in fact, that Michael Fisher, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center CEO, considers it a critical part of his hospital’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. As he told McKinsey Quarterly, increasing the frequency of his informational videos from occasional to once or twice weekly allowed his team to inform the community about how the hospital was addressing the pandemic. 

The BLS also lists the following management skills, among others, as important for top executives:


For hospital CEOs, this might mean making difficult calls such as furloughs or executive pay reductions during challenging times.


For those leading hospitals, an example could be coordinating care provided by a broad range of medical personnel.


At a hospital, a CEO must identify and resolve issues, including those related to providing treatment during times when in-person care is limited.

Benefits of healthcare training for hospital CEOs             

The BLS recommends that top executives have a background in the field they’re leading — and hospital leadership is no different. Experience and training in the medical field often are a plus when becoming a hospital CEO. 

Dr. Michael Buckley, a retired CEO of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, started his career as an infectious disease specialist. He cites the respect he developed while working alongside other medical professionals as critical to his success. Buckley told Key Financial his advice for other physicians interested in leadership roles is to establish credibility and expertise in healthcare before taking that leap. 

Buckley’s role in working in the infectious disease specialty exposed him to personnel from a variety of areas of the hospital, helping him to form relationships and earn trust. 

For Roxanna Gapstur, President and CEO of WellSpan Health in York, Pennsylvania, her experience as a registered nurse working with a team that pioneered stem cell transplants drew her to finding innovative ways to approach challenges, she told Becker’s Hospital Review. Among the challenges facing healthcare are:

  • Developing technology, including equipment upgrades that facilitate greater collaboration
  • Changing government mandates, such as insurance reimbursement criteria
  • Rising costs, including medical treatments and prescriptions
  • Increasing focus on data, with greater transparency for consumers
  • Lingering pandemic effects, including care for those who delayed other treatments
  • Staffing concerns, from both increased demand for care and burnout

Education and certification requirements for hospital CEOs

Hospital CEOs typically come from a wide range of backgrounds, with varying levels of college education. Licensing and certification typically aren’t required, but they can show a breadth of knowledge and commitment to the profession, which can be helpful in advancing toward becoming a hospital CEO. 

Education for hospital CEOs

A bachelor’s degree is generally the minimum education requirement for a hospital CEO, and many employers expect candidates to have a master’s degree. Aspiring healthcare administrators often study subjects such as hospital management, business administration, accounting, budgeting, and planning. 

Dr. David Pate — a retired President and CEO of St. Luke’s Health System in Boise, Idaho, as well as a member of the state’s coronavirus task force — holds medical and law degrees. Haupert, from Grady in Atlanta — who made the CEO Forum’s 2019 list of “10 CEOs Transforming Healthcare in America” — earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree in healthcare administration. 

Another way to combine the healthcare and business aspects of the hospital CEO role is to pursue a master’s degree that focuses on both. For example, the Master of Business Administration in Healthcare degree program equips healthcare professionals to bridge gaps between departments, engage teams, develop talent and optimize systems within a healthcare context. It provides a greater emphasis on business management than typical Master of Healthcare Administration (MHA) programs as well as a specific focus on leadership, communications, and collaboration skills to prepare learners to lead meaningful change in healthcare. 

Certifications for hospital CEOs

A variety of certifications can lend authority to a hospital CEO’s title. Among the healthcare administrator certifications available is Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives (FACHE). This popular certification for hospital executives requires:

  • Being an ACHE member
  • Having at least a master’s degree
  • Holding a current position, as well as five years of experience in healthcare management
  • Obtaining two references, including an interview with a current fellow and a written reference from a colleague
  • Earning 36 hours of continuing education credit (note that most of OpusVi’s programs carry these credits)
  • Performing four volunteer activities
  • Passing an exam

Other certifications also have experience or education requirements — or both. A few of those options are Certified Medical Manager (CMM), Certified Professional in Healthcare Information and Management Systems (CPHIMS), and Certified Professional in Healthcare Risk Management (CPHRM).

MBA, Healthcare

Online Degree

Mini-MBA in Healthcare

Online Certificate

Healthcare Leadership

Online Certificate

Annual salary for hospital CEOs

The average annual salary for hospital CEOs varies according to the size of the hospital. A 2019 report on 1,345 hospitals from Total Compensation Solutions found that CEOs at hospitals with an annual revenue of less than $50 million had an average annual salary of $274,300. 

However, at hospitals whose annual revenue topped $1 billion, the average CEO salary was $1.4 million. The report’s figures include the base salary and a bonus, with the base salary comprising 68% to 76% of the pay. Other reports also show that many hospital CEOs earn at least $1 million a year, with average salaries consistently increasing throughout the last few decades.

Gain the healthcare and business expertise to become a hospital CEO

Hospital CEOs lead businesses that provide the critical service of healthcare while also addressing the many issues facing that industry. If you’re ready to make your move toward pursuing this rewarding career, explore the Master of Business Administration (MBA) in Healthcare program offered by Northern Arizona University in partnership with OpusVi.