Hospital CEO Career Outlook and Salary

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A smiling hospital CEO stands with her team.Even before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. health care system was facing a crisis. As the nation’s population ages, and as the baby boomer generation, in particular, requires increased levels of medical care, the demand for physicians is outpacing the supply.

According to a CNBC report, the United States may face a shortage of 121,900 doctors by 2032. And it’s not just physicians who are in short supply; a report from the National Center of Biotechnology Information projects a nurse shortfall of up to 1 million.

This shortage of qualified health care professionals points to some potentially big problems, and ultimately to a health care system that may not be equipped to provide the needed levels of care. While the situation is serious, it is not hopeless. Now more than ever, qualified hospital executives can provide the leadership to recruit and retain caregivers, judiciously allocate system resources, and manage the levels of care that patients receive.

In particular, a hospital CEO can play a central role in guiding the next generation of health care professionals toward delivering optimal patient outcomes. Those who wish to make a meaningful contribution to the health care industry, and potentially to help solve some of these looming crises, may wish to explore the hospital CEO career path.

One of the most meaningful steps toward becoming a hospital CEO is receiving proper formal education. An advanced degree in health administration or a related field can be invaluable.

The Hospital CEO: A Job Description

Generally, a chief executive officer (CEO) is someone who is charged with creating policies, developing long-term strategy, and providing overall direction for an organization. In a hospital setting, the CEO is in charge of the big picture, which means providing optimal patient outcomes while also ensuring the organization remains profitable.

Duties and Responsibilities

While the hospital CEO job description may vary from one facility to the next, there are a few primary concerns that most hospital CEOs will share.

  • The hospital CEO is responsible for delivering the highest standards of patient care. In this capacity, the hospital CEO will often work closely with the chief medical officer (CMO) or the chief nursing officer (CNO), both of whom will play a more hands-on role in delivering quality outcomes and report back to the CEO.
  • The CEO will also create the policies, procedures, and regulations that all other hospital employees must follow. Generally, these policies will be designed to promote operational efficiency, and may be developed in collaboration with the chief operating officer (COO) or other executive team members.
  • The CEO is responsible for ensuring the hospital is properly staffed. While individual department heads may recruit, hire, and train their own people, the CEO will be heavily involved in recruiting and hiring hospital leaders and executive team members. The CEO may also be involved in physician recruitment, and is tasked with creating a hospital environment that attracts talented doctors and nurses.
  • The CEO is in charge of maintaining compliance not just with local, state and federal health departments, but also with key accrediting boards, such as the Joint Commission. A hospital CEO can play a vital role in preparing the hospital for a scheduled visit from surveyors or accreditors.
  • The hospital CEO job description may also include maintaining positive relationships with the outside community. The CEO is the public face and ambassador of the hospital, and may represent the hospital’s interests among local business owners or government officials.
  • Ultimately, it falls to the CEO to ensure the hospital is profitable. This may involve close collaboration with the chief financial officer (CFO), and intense focus on cost reductions, operating margins, and more. Hospital CEOs may innovate new avenues for generating revenue, whether that’s by opening a satellite clinic, expanding a service line, or increasing surgical volume. Decisions about how to expand revenue opportunities must be made with an eye toward the needs of the community.

Reporting Structure

In the typical hospital setting, the CEO is at the top of the organizational hierarchy. All other executive team members will report to the CEO. The specific makeup of an executive team can vary from one hospital to the next, but will often include a CFO, COO, CMO, and CNO.

In a hospital system, the individual hospital CEO may report to a regional or system president or CEO. At an independent hospital, the CEO will be directly responsible to a board of directors. The board helps cast a vision for the hospital’s priorities, then tasks the CEO with carrying out that vision.

Additional Considerations

The basic hospital CEO job description can sometimes include responding to unusual or unexpected challenges. For example, if the community is beset with an infectious disease or pandemic, the hospital CEO can play an important role in containing the outbreak, leading team members to deliver judicious and responsible care.

Additionally, a hospital CEO may need to provide oversight and direction for a building project, whether the hospital may be updating old facilities or building new clinics, towers, or surgical wings. Often, this work is done in collaboration with the CFO (who keeps an eye on the financial implications) and the CMO or CNO (who advises on how the new construction can best address patient and staff needs).

How to Become a Hospital CEO

Due to the importance and the high level of responsibility associated with the CEO position, this is by no means an entry-level position. The path to becoming a hospital CEO is usually a long one, encompassing many years of academic training followed by several years of experience working in a health care facility.

Educational Requirements for a Hospital CEO

When it comes to defining how to become a hospital CEO, one thing is clear: education is foundational. In most cases, this does not mean going to medical school. While there are some physicians who become CEOs, this is an exception to the rule. In fact, The New York Times suggests that the number of hospital CEOs without any medical training has risen significantly in recent years.

The specific educational requirements for a CEO can vary by hospital or system, but usually the CEO is expected to have a master’s degree at the minimum. Some executives do rise through the ranks with only a bachelor’s degree, but again this is the exception and not the rule.

There are a few fields of study that an aspiring CEO might consider, but two of the primary examples are health administration (an MHA degree) and public health (an MPH degree). Options that are less common but still viable are a master’s degree in business administration (MBA) or a degree in medical management. While all these degree programs differ in many ways, all provide foundational skills that a hospital CEO can use to offer high-level leadership and direction.

In addition to an advanced degree, the aspiring hospital executive may also wish to acquire licensing or certification. There are a number of accrediting institutions to choose from; for example, the American Association of Healthcare Administrative Management provides several certifications for executives to pursue. Not all facilities require certification, but achieving certification can provide a clear competitive advantage in the job market.

Experience in a Health Care Facility

In addition to education, qualifying experience is also important. Becoming a hospital CEO usually involves years of work in health care administration. There are several paths that an aspiring  executive can choose. Relevant experience may be gained by working in the accounting department, as a service line administrator, or by managing a particular clinic or ambulatory center within the broader health care facility. Gaining varied experience in different hospital departments can provide the well-rounded background that a chief executive needs.

Key Skills of a Hospital CEO

Through the combination of education and hands-on hospital experience, a CEO can hone the skills to deliver high-level leadership to the entire health facility. Some of the most important skills for a hospital CEO include the following.

Servant Leadership

While the CEO is in charge of establishing the vision for the hospital, he or she should ultimately be focused on creating an environment in which patient needs come first, and in which nurses and doctors feel empowered to do their best work. The CEO’s vision-casting is always in service of others, not their own personal agenda.


The hospital CEO plays a significant role in establishing policies and procedures, then communicating them to the entire hospital staff. This means delivering a core message to representatives in different divisions and departments, and showing them how a policy or procedure specifically impacts their operations. Exemplary written and verbal communication skills are a must.


Even the most active, engaged CEOs can’t do everything themselves. It’s crucial for effective executives to develop other leaders and empower the people who work for them to take on new responsibilities. The best CEOs are excellent mentors, skilled in developing staff members and helping everyone reach their full potential.

Problem Solving

Working in a hospital setting is often unpredictable. Executives may need to react quickly and judiciously to any number of incidents, including financial setbacks, problems with reimbursement, public health crises, national disasters, even changes to health care laws and regulations. Competent executives know how to analyze problems and work toward sensible solutions.

Public Relations

An effective CEO also needs to know how to engender the goodwill of the community, helping the hospital maintain a positive reputation. The hospital’s reputation can either draw in or drive away patients. Similarly, it can be either a boon or a detriment to staff recruitment efforts. Knowing how to facilitate community relationships is an important aspect of being a hospital CEO.

Technical Expertise

A good CEO will also have a sound working knowledge of technical issues including finance, reimbursement/insurance, and health care regulation. While CEOs don’t have to handle these issues entirely on their own, they should be prepared to collaborate with experts in these respective fields.

These are just some examples of the skills that can lead to success in hospital leadership. Each of these competencies can be honed through enrollment in an academic program, combined with hands-on experience in a hospital setting.

What Is a Hospital CEO’s Salary?

Given the high level of influence and impact that a CEO can have in a hospital environment, it should come as no surprise that the hospital CEO salary is typically quite competitive, commensurate with the many crucial duties that a chief executive must take on.

What is the typical hospital CEO salary? According to data from the compensation website, the average median salary for a hospital CEO is $153,061. On top of this, most CEOs receive a bonus, with the average annual bonus estimated at $29,691. Additional opportunities for profit sharing may also exist in some hospital systems.

There are a number of factors that can determine the precise hospital CEO salary. Three of the primary factors are listed here.

  • Education and certification: CEOs who have more advanced degrees or higher levels of certification can anticipate receiving greater compensation.
  • Experience level: Generally, those with more years of experience in the chief executive role will receive higher salaries. Experience overseeing larger facilities, either in terms of bed count or overall operating budget, can be another factor. Higher levels of responsibility typically yield higher salaries.
  • Location: Salary may also be determined by the geographic market. As a general rule, larger metropolitan areas tend to have higher costs of living and pay higher salaries for health care executives.

What Do the Highest-Paid Hospital CEOs Receive?

Having considered the median salary for a hospital executive, let’s now turn our attention to the highest earners in the hospital CEO role. How much money does the highest-paid hospital CEO make?

According to data from, the upper 10% of hospital CEOs earn a salary in the $305,000 range. As with other CEOs, they may receive bonuses, shared profits, or commissions on top of this base salary.

Again, there are a few different factors that can contribute to these higher salaries. These executives tend to have advanced degrees, such as an MHA or MPH. They typically have years of experience working in major hospitals or health systems, overseeing large staffs and large operating budgets. Geography can also play a role. Usually, the highest-paid CEO will work in a larger city with an extremely competitive health care market.

For the sake of comparison, it is worth mentioning that the hospital CEO’s salary tends to be higher than other health executives. For example, the median annual salary for a chief nursing officer (CNO) is $127,905, with the upper echelon of CNOs making as much as $201,000 annually. On the other hand, the chief medical officer (CMO) earns a median annual salary of $295,329. This higher salary reflects the fact that CMOs have high levels of responsibility for patient outcomes. They also have additional educational requirements (medical school, fellowships, and residencies) beyond what the average CEO brings.

Shaping the Future of Health Care

The health care industry is on the brink of some potentially tumultuous times. The shortage of doctors and nurses looms larger than ever, particularly in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. More than ever, hospitals and health systems will look to their chief executives to provide steady leadership, to be diligent in recruitment, and to make innovative decisions about how best to care for patients.

Becoming a hospital CEO can be a rewarding career path, one that brings ample opportunity to shape the way our health system works. The path to becoming a hospital’s chief executive begins with the proper education, which provides an opportunity to hone key skills and develop technical competencies.

Ohio University’s online Master of Health Administration program provides an excellent foundation for anyone who is seeking a career as a health care executive. The program combines classroom learning with real-world application, touching on such core subjects as Health Care Policy, Health Care Finance, and Strategic Planning for Health Services. To learn more about this program, reach out to Ohio University today.

Recommended Reading:

National Patient Safety Goals for Health Care

How AI in Health Care is Driving Change— For the Better

MHA Career Path: How to Become a Hospital Administrator


Becker’s Hospital Review, 7 Traits of a Great Hospital CEO

CNBC, America’s Aging Population is Leading to a Doctor Shortage Crisis

Healthcare Dive, CEO Salaries at Nonprofit Hospitals Up 93% Since 2005

Houston Chronicle, How Much Does a Hospital CEO Make?

Missouri Hospital Association, Roles and Responsibilities of Hospital Board Members

NCBI, Nursing Shortage

New York Times, Shouldn’t Doctors Control Hospital Care?

PayScale, Average Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Salary

PayScale, Average Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) Salary

PayScale, Average Hospital Chief Executive Officer Salary

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Top Executives