Health Informatics with a Non-traditional Background

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UIC Professor Sanket Shah and UIC student Cathryn Pierson share how they came into studying Health Informatics from a non-medical background.


Hi, everyone. We would like to take a moment to welcome you all to the University of Illinois at Chicago information session that will focus on students that come to us with a nonclinical or sort of IT background.

So, today, we will begin with our questions for Cate, a current student, and for one of our faculty members, Professor Shah. At the end of the presentation, we will have a Q&A session and if we don’t get to your questions, as enrollment advisors, we will follow up with you directly after the webinar.

So, I’d like to take a moment to introduce myself. I’m one of the enrollment advisors. My name is Shanell. We also have Rachel, who is one of the enrollment advisors here and of course, we do have two others. I’ve mentioned Joan and Camille, who are also enrollment advisors.

Our speakers today are Cathryn Pierson, who is a student in the masters of health informatics program, and professor Shah, our clinical assistant professor in health informatics. So, thank you and welcome.

Cate, what was your profession prior to enrolling in our health informatics program?

So, when I enrolled at UICs health informatics program, I was a manager at a large healthcare payer in Chicago. My team really deals with healthcare data management, our data operations, as well as some healthcare application design and deployment to our customers.

Why did you decide to study health informatics?

This is a good question. It took me a long time to figure out where I wanted to go with my career and healthcare was really my sweet spot. I learned a lot about the healthcare industry on the job itself, and having a passion for healthcare data, I just wanted a way to formalize my knowledge of the healthcare business in terms of technology and analytics. So, after hearing some high praises from colleagues of mine who had completed the program, I actually felt that healthcare informatics was likely the right program for me to round out my business and technical knowledge in the healthcare arena.

Tell us what you like most about the program.

Sure. So, one of the things I enjoy most about this program are the networking opportunities and the broader perspectives it’s brought to my profession. I’ve really only worked on the payer side of the healthcare industry, so I had really limited insights into the provider aspects of healthcare. These online … most of the courses have online discussions throughout the week, and these have really helped me to gain some insights and learn new perspectives of healthcare professionals across the spectrum and I’ve been able to apply these new perspectives, not only to thinking critically about the course work, but also to solutions to applications I’m working on at my occupation at this healthcare payer. So, joining this program really has introduced me to some of the brightest and sharpest people I’ve met in my career so far.

For someone who has never studied online, can you describe what the class structure is like?

Sure. Generally, most of the classes are built around discussions on healthcare topics within just the scope of the particular course. So typically, you’re posting a response to a question related to that week’s course work and you’re normally posting those on a Monday or Tuesday and then you’re having open discussion and conversation with your classmates Wednesday through Friday. Typically, I do most of my reading in the evenings or over the weekends, and that’s one of the key features of this online program, is that you can really participate from anywhere around the globe. I’ve done homework from the beaches in Mexico and from my home back in Cleveland. So, that’s one of the beauties of taking an online master’s program.

What would you tell someone who is worried about taking the step toward starting their degree because they are afraid of the time and financial commitment?

That’s a good question, something I certainly struggled with before I began the program. The time and financial commitment are certainly daunting and I’ve found that the first step was the hardest. I had to commit myself and my fiance and my family that support me to completing this master’s program and dedicating my time outside of work to complete the course work. I think you’ll find that you’ll learn time management pretty quickly and then soon after, for me, it just kind of doing my schoolwork and participating in my full time job and still getting out and exercising and seeing family and friends, it just kind of naturally folded into my daily life and I was able to adjust accordingly. I think for anyone who’s really already working in the healthcare industry, you’ll find that you’re pretty familiar with a lot of the cirriculuum.

For me, I’ve found that exposure to my existing career, I had experience with many of the courses and the subjects within the courses and really, this program has just refined my existing knowledge in the subject area.

In terms of financial commitment, I highly recommend any potential students to explore tuition assistance options at your employer. I personally didn’t realize my employer offered this benefit until I started reaching out to my HR teams and kind of exploring what kind of benefits I have available to me through my work.

Also, UIC is very good about sending out information on grants and scholarships, and they send these quite frequently right to your UIC email and so I think applying for some of these could also help lessen some of the financial burden of enrolling in a master’s program.

Lastly, I’m seeing that my degree with translate to salary increases over time, so for me, this made the upfront investment worth it for me to commit to this UIC master’s program.

Cate, before choosing UIC, did you compare schools, and if so, why did you end up choosing UIC’s program?

Once I got past that fear of commitment to working on a master’s program while also working full time, I did explore other schools before choosing UIC. So, I wanted to make sure I’m choosing the right program for me and one that offers all of the amenities and aspects I’m looking for in a master’s program. But, I found that most of the alternative options, they didn’t really have the program tenure flexibility or the cost that UIC offered. UIC’s master’s of health informatics program is one of the most established that I’ve found, as well as being CAHIIM-accredited. It’s a very respected program within the country and one of the top health informatics programs.

Also, the fact that the master’s of health informatics is 100% online, I really needed the flexibility because I work full time, I work long hours. I travel often, so I need to be able to work from anywhere and not be constrained to being in a classroom throughout the week or on the weekends. So, UIC ended up being the right choice for me.

Professor Shah, if a student does not have an IT or clinical background, how would you define health informatics?

Yes, health informatics is a very interesting term. In fact, I think it’s certainly expanded as we see the industry evolve, quite frankly. Health informatics really is a multidisciplinary, looking at healthcare data, healthcare information, the collection of these assets and assimilating it to really provide insights and understanding within the healthcare industry and the continuum. We’re talking about using this foundation of healthcare data to really understand, as I mentioned earlier, various different facets, including population, health quality and cost, and how that’s really trending within the industry. So, that’s how I would describe health informatics as a term.

Our next question is, how would a non-clinician benefit from studying health informatics here at UIC?

A non-clinician would benefit studying health informatics at UIC from a variety of different aspects. First and foremost, I think a nice thing about this particular program is it introduces a variety of different areas within the industry. So, not only from a health IT/informatics perspective, but you’re also looking at getting exposure to the actual business side of things, quite frankly. And a non-clinician, somebody that’s not really familiar with some of the medical terminology that’s out there, or healthcare data specifically, non-clinicians get that exposure through the program from a variety of different faculty that have experience within the industry across all spectrums. So, you’re getting, actually, information from all different experts, subject matter experts. Not only from the IT side of things, but also we have clinicians, we have epidemiologists, we have folks that have really worked as chief medical officers in the program that are bringing you really up-to-date information as it relates to what the industry’s experience is on the business side, not just IT.

Okay, so Professor Shah, students will tell us that they have no healthcare or IT experience, but want to work in the healthcare IT field because they hear it’s booming. So, if they choose our program, how can they compete with those who are already in IT, or have clinical experience for jobs?

That’s a very good question. You know, over the years I’ve had a variety of different students that have come through the program with all different types of backgrounds, anybody ranging from a CIO data analyst, an IT expert within the healthcare industry, to folks that are from nontraditional “healthcare industry” backgrounds such as lawyers, psychiatrists. We’ve had some individuals who have come through that had nothing to do with the healthcare industry and really wanted to dabble into this program to get a better understanding both from a clinical side of things and also from an IT side of things.

To answer the question on how can you compete, it’s just like with anything else that you do. It’s all about the amount of effort and what you put into the program is what you’re going to get out of it. In other words, the amount of time that you have that you can dedicate outside of just a traditional unit that we assign or the courses that you’re enrolled in, to really immerse yourself with all these other different information points that are available to you, either through the UIC library or quite frankly, networking with your other classmates that have similar experience or reaching out to our tenured faculty here in the program, you’re going to be able to really source from a vast amount of information and resources that can get you really up to speed and inline with some of those traditional folks that have come from IT or clinical backgrounds and that puts you right there, step by step, with them in the program.

Great, thank you. What kind of jobs can our students pursue after completing a master’s degree here?

There are a variety of different jobs that are available, or careers, that can be made available through UIC and attending the health informatics program. First and foremost, I have to provide a plug to the career placement services. In fact, my current organization that I work with along side as a faculty member, we’ve placed individuals at my organization using that particular resource. So, I certainly encourage the students that are thinking about enrolling into this program to take advantage of those types of resources available through the university and the program.

But, as it relates to the careers that could be an option for folks, that can vary. We have specialties that really focus in on healthcare vendor’s side, the payer side, as you’ve heard from Cate earlier. Also, you can see folks that are entering the healthcare industry in terms of the provider space, so looking at hospital systems, looking at claims processing, electronic medical record, review and creation. There’s a whole host of different areas where you can start your career, or quite frankly, expand your career through this program.

One thing that comes to mind also is looking at newer technologies that we cover in the program, technology such as Blockchain, machine learning, health data science, as we mentioned a little earlier as well. This is where I think the industry is heading and we’re doing a really good job in preparing our students to focus in on these kind of new emerging areas within healthcare IT or healthcare informatics, so there’re some options that are available there as well for those that are really interested in pursuing a career through the program.

Okay Professor Shah, last question. What are some changes taking place in the industry and how does UIC’s health informatics program prepare students for working in today’s electronic health record environment?

Sure. There’s a few courses that cover this in detail. First and foremost, the industry is changing quite rapidly. We already are aware of the shift in looking at the ACA, or the Affordable Care Act, and watching folks really enroll in this individual market and seeing the impact on the industry as a whole. You’re seeing a lot of changes within the population health space, where many industries are looking at a fee for service type of arrangement with hospital system and providers, and now are kind of moving toward a more quality centric or value based centric approach. So, these are changes that are happening all the time within the industry and our program does a very good job in keeping in touch with the latest trends and changes within the healthcare space.

So, as it relates to what are some of the changes and how does the program prepare you for them, we certainly update our curriculum on almost a daily basis, depending on which class you’re taking. As I mentioned, the industry is evolving quite rapidly. From a technology perspective, we’ve already talked a little bit about some of the advances that are happening within the technology side of things and that includes looking at artificial intelligence, machine learning, as I mentioned a little earlier, so keeping our students really informed and educated on these emerging trends in the industry from a technical side of things as well.

For the EHR and the health record areas, that continues to evolve as we really start to include and incorporate more mental health and chemical dependency and more standardization as well and interoperability amongst different various health records as well.

So, we cover all these types of topics, really hot-bed topics, in our various courses in the program and really get you familiar from who are the key players in the industry, who is leveraging these electronic medical records and health records, whether it be the government or the state or the local industries, and how are we leveraging that information to really make informed decisions. Those are some of the topics that we cover in the program at UIC.

So, I’d like to take this time to thank you both for attending the webinar and answering those questions. Now, I’d like to move it into the question and answer section for the audience. So, we’re looking forward to hearing from you and sending your questions over. It looks like we have a few coming in now. The first one is actually for Professor Shah. Can you share with me the names of some of the employers who hire our graduates?

Absolutely, and I can certainly speak personally as we have placed a few of our students into the organization that I also work for, which is a company called Blue Health Intelligence here based in Chicago. It’s an independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. So, that’s one example, but there are many other companies out there that are hiring from our program. I talked about the career fairs and taking advantage of that, but just to name a few, you’re looking at the consulting side of things, a lot of the big firms like Deloitte, KP&G, Huron Consulting, to name a couple.

From the provider’s side of things, you’re looking at academic medical centers here locally. We talked about UIC medical center as one of the possible destinations for our students. We also have Northwestern and Rush University Center looking out broadly. Organizations like the Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic, just to name a few.

Then, looking outside of just that and the provider and payer perspective, you have the Life Sciences Organizations, Eli Lilly, ABVE and not to also take credit away from some of the smaller firms, or the local niche markets as well, that serve in each market, I should say, they’re also hiring. So, there’re options out there, especially when it comes with the master’s of health informatics degree, because you become a little bit more versatile in your positioning and many organizations, big or small, are really looking to fill those gaps internally and they certainly look to UIC as a talent pool to pull from.

Great, thank you.

Hi. The next question, I guess it’s a Cate question. I think that you touched on this a little bit during the interview, but do you have any tips or any advice to share with someone to help ensure their success in the health informatics program?

Yeah, you know the number one tip is time management. That’s going to be your key to success in this master’s program. I recommend, if it helps, to get a planner, schedule your study times, and also schedule your time with family and friends. You don’t need to sacrifice all the joys in life to complete this program, and time management is how you’re going to make sure that you still have a nice work/life balance.

Academically speaking, I would just encourage any prospective students to be ready to be doing the course work, committing to doing the readings that you need to do each week and giving yourself plenty of time to respond critically to the discussion forms, because that’s really the bread and butter of this program.

Lastly, UIC’s health informatics program is going to challenge you, but you need to realize that you’re not alone in this quest for this master’s degree. Don’t hesitate to lean on your classmates, because I found that more times than not, there’re others experiencing my same sentiments and normally, your classmates are willing to offer words of encouragement and advice of how they’re tackling the course work and the high credit hour courses when you’re undergoing those throughout the program.

Awesome. I have another, just one came in for Cate. They want to know, what would you say to someone who is unsure if pursuing the health informatics program would provide a good return on their investment?

Sure. You know, I think really any investment in your knowledge base within the healthcare industry is going to put you a leg ahead of your peers. So, with health informatics being a relatively new subject area in the healthcare space, being an early adopter of a program like UIC’s is going to help you to begin establishing yourself as an industry leader. I’ve personally found that my ability to communicate with executives in my organization and my colleagues has really improved substantially and I’ve really experienced as a return on this investment in my education and my knowledge base has proven itself in the forms of bonuses and promotion at my existing employer.

The next question is for Professor Shah. Why would you recommend that somebody pursue the MSHI program versus an MIS or an MBA or maybe a master’s in healthcare administration versus …

Yes, there’s no right or wrong answer here, to be perfectly honest. You know, it really depends on what you’re trying to get out of the program, and quite frankly, what you’re trying to get out of your career or your long-term goals as well. So, each one of these different types of post graduate degrees and certificates are unique. There are some overlaps, of course, especially when you’re talking about healthcare IT and the business aspect of the industry as well. The MSHI, the master’s of health informatics program at UIC, certainly has a lot of advantages. As I mentioned earlier, it is very attractive on a resume, mainly because employers that are hiring managers look at that and understand that this is an individual that has a very sought after skill set that is pretty rare or pretty hard to find, depending on what part of the country you’re from and even if you’re in an urban area where it’s very populated, or metropolitan area, it’s still very hard to come by as it is a scarce resource.

Again, we do our due diligence to keep ahead of the industry from a technology perspective to arm you with the right skills to get out there in the workforce or continue to expand your career. So, for MSHI, ultimately, how is it different from an MBA or a master’s of healthcare administration? There are certainly some differences, but at the end of the day, it’s what you want to do as an individual, what you want to do for your long-term career, and how you believe the industry is going to evolve and I think if you’re looking at a technology as that foundation, then I would certainly recommend the master’s of health informatics program through UIC as your choice.

Great thank you. The next one just popped up for Cate. From a student perspective, what if I’m struggling in a certain class? What kind of help will I get, or what’s available for me as a student?

That’s certainly something you’re going to wonder as a prospective student within this program. What I would say is UIC is kind of unique in that first off, you have a very robust online library. UIC does have licenses with many of the popular scholarly journals and you have access of a wealth of information to support your education and your journey through this master’s degree.

But, beyond that, the online forum and this feature of the program, is really going to enable students to receive help from not only their professors, but also their classmates. Most often, the faculty running these courses will set up a discussion board solely for student collaboration and students are able to post questions or if they’re unclear about something, they can discuss it amongst themselves kind of outside the actual discussion boards within the course work to help one another. So, I’ve really enjoyed that aspect of this program.

Additionally, any time I’ve had a question or struggled with any courses, I could email my professor, I could post a question on the question board, and it’s always been answered within 24 hours, even over the weekend. So, the professors, the faculty, are super responsive and your classmates are going through this with you. They’re going to help you and support you along the way.

Okay great, thank you. Our next question is for Professor Shah. The student is asking if there are any classes in particular that would benefit somebody with a non-clinical background or if there’re any classes that would benefit somebody who has an IT background specifically. What classes will help them compete with students with backgrounds in those areas?

Sure. The program is really set up from a high level and then kind of gets into a drill down approach to really some of the specific technical and business competencies and I look to really two courses to really start off with, and those are your prerequisite courses that most students will need to enroll in, depending on your background. For those that are non-IT and non-clinical, as you had asked, very good courses to start off with and a good primer to the program and the two courses I’m talking about really is BHIS406, which is a medical terminology for health information management course, and also HIM486, fundamentals of health information management.

These are our foundational courses that really get you geared up for what’s to come in the program and then you can start to branch out into different specialties or sub areas. So, some of the core courses that we offer that are very important for those non-clinical or non-IT folks is starting with BHIS437, and that’s a healthcare data course, really focused in on all different types of healthcare data and different sources that are coming into various industries and how do we leverage that data to make those informed decisions.

Going into some other courses, BHIS503, communications skills in health informatics. We also cover ethics and legal issues in health informatics in BHI505. Going into a little bit more technical framework, in 510 for example, is another course that focuses on healthcare information systems and architecture. So again, you can get into some of the really detailed, technical aspects of healthcare IT or healthcare informatics in some of the core courses that are being offered.

Then, the electives are very important as well, because that’s where we get into a little bit more of a specialized approach. For example, I teach a course called BHIS554, which is business intelligence and applications, looking at more of the software side of things and applying some of the visualization techniques that we are hearing a lot about, especially with modern dashboarding and other client facing type of analytics. We also have courses such as 527, knowledge management.

So again, there’s so much to choose from, to be honest with you. Then, you’re actually looking at another aspect of things, which is the track of health data science that we’re also offering and expanding here in the program, which gets into some of the machine learning, AI aspects of healthcare and IT. Quite frankly, that is really one of the more emerging topics in the industry. So, there’s a lot to choose from, but I think as a non-clinical and a non-IT individual, we do set you up for success through various pathways and have a great support system here through the faculty, the fellow students and the advisors, which I need to also mention, as they are very accessible and guide you through what makes the most sense for you and what would be the most beneficial to you to enroll in, depending on your aspirations.

Great, thank you. I think we have time for one more. This one just came in and it’s for you as well, Professor Shah. What transferable skills will I gain in the program or could potentially bring to the program to help ensure my success?

Well, I think from a foundational perspective, you’re gonna get a lot of knowledge about the industry in general, how it’s evolved and where it’s heading. Then, in addition to that, you’re also going to get some exposure to some real tangible skill sets such as applied statistics, various programming languages and business intelligence tools, visualization tools, looking at ETL, or extract transforming and loading, of data and understanding how data structures work in architecture. So, there is a lot to be gained from the various courses that we offer that are very much tangible and attractive to employers as well.

Then, looking at a broader aspect, and Cate covered this a little bit in her discussion earlier today, but just improving some of your, what I call operational skill sets, and that’s your time management, your communication skills, your written skills, because that’s often overlooked by many individuals. So, really focusing in on those foundational core components and enhancing that as well so you are better prepared and better positioned in your ascent of your career.

Again, you’re looking at a variety of different transferable skills and it’s not only transferable within the healthcare industry, I think it’s actually really transferable in the broader sense across all industries.

Great, thank you.

Well, that concludes the Q&A section of the webinar, but I want to take this time to thank you all for attending and let you know that you can reach out to your advisors for any further question. The number’s there on the screen, 866-674-4842. Our advisors would be more than happy to assist you with your questions moving forward.