How To Break Into Healthcare IT

University degrees and certificate training both are valuable, but you must think strategically when choosing between them.

Paul Cerrato, Contributor

July 11, 2012

4 Min Read

11 Super Mobile Medical Apps

11 Super Mobile Medical Apps

11 Super Mobile Medical Apps (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

There's no end to the debate about the best way to break into healthcare information technology. One of the most contentious issues facing job candidates is the university degree versus certificate debate. Put another way: Are you more likely to land a position--and be better qualified to work in health IT--if you get a master's degree in the field or complete a shorter certification program?

Students I've spoken with who are enrolled in master's programs at major universities have many positive comments about what they've learned. But some also complain that there's too much theory and high-level conceptualization, and not enough hands on training.

With those concerns in mind, I recently spoke with Michael Shannon, a security specialist and IT consultant, who has done a lot of IT training, including course work for CBT Nuggets, which offers training programs to prepare people for certification exams in a variety of IT areas.

One of his latest projects is a program to prepare candidates for the CompTIA healthcare IT technician exam, which might help some newbies get their foot in the door. To pass the exam you must know IT basics, such the difference between XML and HTML, and understand acronyms such as DNS, DHCP, and FTP. But it also covers areas specific to healthcare, including healthcare security, medical business operations, and the long list of regulations that apply in this area.

[ Most of the largest healthcare data security and privacy breaches have involved lost or stolen mobile computing devices. For possible solutions, see 7 Tools To Tighten Healthcare Data Security. ]

This training can help students handle sections of the HIT technician exam that cover ICD10--the latest medical billing coding system--and get up to speed on various types of clinical software, including EHRs, PACS, and CPOE. On the regulatory side, it familiarizes newcomers with HIPAA, Meaningful Use, and important acronyms such as ONC (Office of National Coordinator of Health IT), CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services), and ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act).

In Shannon's view, "If I were a young person wanting to get into health IT, I would probably bypass the university system and try to get certification, do online training." That's not surprising from someone who teaches online training courses, but Shannon's rationale makes a certain amount of sense.

The university system can be pretty slow in adapting to the fast-paced, ever-changing tech world. It takes time to get a master curriculum approved and identify the best textbooks, Shannon pointed out. By the time you have all your ducks in a row, the technology has changed.

Certificate training programs, on the other hand, are more nimble and often take a modular approach, which lets instructors quickly replace outdated sections with new material. Getting school administrators to approve courses for an MS program feels a lot like turning an aircraft carrier around; certification training is more like starting a motorboat.

Of course, smaller programs aren't for everyone. Granted, a certificate program tends to be better for someone who needs to hit the ground running, letting them immediately start working on EHR implementations, whether as a consultant or part of an in-house deployment team. But a master's program, while it might take longer to complete, offers a broader scope, which is why it might be more suitable for managers who are involved with overseeing health IT but won't need to get involved with actual deployment.

There's no one path to success as a health IT professional. Training with firms such as TestOut, CBT Nuggets, CED Solutions, the American Society of Health Informatics Managers (ASHIM), or at a major university will only get you part of the way there.

Equally important are the right interviewing skills--usually a blend of self-confidence and humility. Likewise, job candidates must not only keep abreast of the latest technical developments but also stay current on HIT policy and politics. It's the combination of training, personality, and industry insights that will turn even the greenest newbie into a seasoned veteran.

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About the Author(s)

Paul Cerrato


Paul Cerrato has worked as a healthcare editor and writer for 30 years, including for InformationWeek Healthcare, Contemporary OBGYN, RN magazine and Advancing OBGYN, published by the Yale University School of Medicine. He has been extensively published in business and medical literature, including Business and Health and the Journal of the American Medical Association. He has also lectured at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons and Westchester Medical Center.

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