Break Into Health IT: 9 Master's Degree Programs

Having trouble landing a health IT job because you're not a clinician, or your IT experience lies outside healthcare? These master's degree and health informatics programs can help bridge the gap.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

April 4, 2012

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The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimate there will be a shortage of about 50,000 healthcare IT workers during the next several years. And HIMSS' latest Leadership Survey listed staffing resources as the key barrier to IT.

But even with this demand, many IT pros with experience outside the healthcare arena say that they can't get hired in the healthcare field because they aren't RNs or MDs. It seems quite a few institutions would prefer a combination of IT and clinical skills. In many cases, it's the clinical people who are seeking to learn more about the health IT being deployed in their organizations.

To address those learning needs, U.S. educators and other organizations are offering a variety of programs aimed at IT professionals and clinicians. Those educational offerings include boot camps sponsored by regional extension centers in some states, certificate programs from community colleges and private training firms, and classroom or online Masters of Science in health or medical informatics degree programs from colleges and universities.

One key difference between a master's degree and a certificate program is that the latter is usually shorter and tends to be better for IT professionals who need to hit the ground running so they can immediately start working on EHR implementations, whether as a consultant or as part of an in-house deployment team. Meanwhile, master's programs take longer to complete, are broader in scope, and therefore may be more suitable for managers who are involved with overseeing health IT, but won't need to roll up their sleeves on actual deployment.

When it comes to training clinical workers vs. IT workers for health IT deployments, the learning curve depends largely on each individual and his or her background. It also depends upon the content and focus of the programs.

In general, however, some IT stakeholders believe it's easier for clinical workers to pick up what they need to know for EMR and other related endeavors than it is for IT people without a healthcare background to become fluent in the clinical side. That's because use of health IT products generally doesn't require a deep dive into the workings of the technology. On the other hand, IT people making the transition to health IT really need to understand healthcare-related processes thoroughly, according to Dave Delano, project director for the Regional Extension Center of New Hampshire's (RECNH) meaningful use services and health information exchange technical services for critical access hospitals.

Delano teaches an Office of National Coordinator for Health IT-sponsored boot camp for critical access hospitals. The three-day crash course instructs IT professionals and clinicians on meaningful use, EMR adoption, and health information exchanges, providing students with a certificate upon completion.

"Sometimes you'll see people who have clinical expertise but who need to lead a computerized physician order entry project, and their gap is technology background," he said. "There's a fine line you walk with this stuff, but I often say it's better to have a clinical person learn the technology than an IT person learn clinical, unless the technology person has a lot of time to dive into the clinical side."

Still, some students in these programs come with no background in either clinical or technology work. Jennifer Monahan, a program coordinator at the RECNH, graduated two years ago with a bachelor's degree in English from St. Lawrence University and is currently working toward a health IT consultant/analyst certificate from Southern Maine Community College as well as an MBA. When she finishes her MBA, Monahan will look for a project management job related to health IT and hopes to move into other leadership roles.

"I've grown up using computers, so the technology is not a stretch for me," she said. "With meaningful use I understand the bigger picture; that's what comes together," she said of the coursework.

Those who are seeking work in health IT should realize that many employers are looking for candidates who have related certifications and degrees, said Brock Bauer, managing director of Technisource, a provider of IT services and staffing, including health IT consulting. "What we're seeing is that a lot of healthcare companies are afraid of hiring non-certified talent," he said. "It's really more of a fear factor than a risk factor."

If you're looking to further your health IT-related education and boost your resume, here's a sampling of various master's programs in health and medical informatics available from several U.S. universities and colleges.

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