Why a Physical Therapist Decided to Earn an Online Master's in Health Informatics

Online MSHI student Laxmi Velankar

Laxmi Velankar loves her work as a physical therapist, but she's frustrated by some of the systemic problems she faces in her practice. After all, there's only so much a single clinician can do to address health services disparities among patient populations or medical records management inefficiencies.

Addressing those problems falls under health informatics' domain, which is why Velankar set out to add a Master of Science in Health Informatics to her list of already impressive accomplishments (Master of Physical Therapy, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven; Post-Graduate Diploma in Rehabilitation (PGDR), AIIPMR, Mumbai; Bachelor of Physiotherapy, University of Mumbai). She is currently enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh's top-ranked Online Master of Science in Health Informatics at Pitt's School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (SHRS). She doesn't yet know how she'll apply her developing expertise in medical informatics, but she is confident it will combine her physical therapy practice with her passion for quality improvement.

"I wanted an online degree program because I didn't want to quit my day job... I wanted to study and apply what I was learning to my work right away."

University of Pittsburgh's online MSHI will prepare her well. The 36-credit degree program culminates in a capstone project or internship, just one of the ways in which it delivers "assignments and projects based in real-world situations" to graduate students "ready to go, with all the tools [they] need." Four optional certificate programs offer students additional opportunities to bolster their credentials.

We recently sat down to talk with Velankar about her reasons for pursuing a health informatics master's degree at the University of Pittsburgh.

Do you plan to incorporate health informatics into your practice as a pediatric physical therapist, or will earning an MSHI degree represent a new direction for you?

Honestly, I don't know. I've been a physical therapist for a while. I see a lot of disparity, a lot of gaps where the system fails my patients. It's just frustrating when you think, "Wait a minute, why is this not covered? Why did this not work out the way we planned?" I'm constantly busy providing therapy services, so I have to move on—but, at some point, you realize, "I need to get to the bottom of this. I need to know why this didn't work."

I'm already using evidence-based medicine in my physical therapy, which is all data-based. So if things aren't working, there has to be some other reason. It took me a while to gain the experience to know where the answers could be. At first, I thought about going back to do a PhD, thinking maybe that's how I find the data I need to solve these challenges. That's the conventional advanced degree route: you do a bachelor's degree, you do a master's degree, you do a PhD and you've reached the end of the line—then that's it.

Eventually, I decided that was not the way to go. So, I spent some time exploring my options. A Master of Science in Health Informatics touches health care and health information technology; it captures the data in health care. I knew I was interested in pursuing quality improvement in the health care industry. All indicators pointed to a health informatics program.

I wanted a health informatics online degree program because I didn't want to quit my day job. I love it too much. I wanted to study and apply what I was learning to my work right away.

What about health informatics specifically appeals to you?

Informatics covers so much. No matter what your interests are, you can make health care informatics work for you. There's one branch concerned with reimbursement and payers, one branch concerned with quality improvement, another branch for analytics. Think about predictive modeling and how it's applied to the COVID-19 pandemic. That's all based on data analysis of electronic health records and other health care information. The variety of health informatics career options means you can start even before you've figured out your niche; you can study until you find your sweet spot.

In the online master's program, so many assignments and projects are based in real-world situations. You graduate ready to go, with all the tools you need. It's like when you cook a recipe for the first time, and you think, "well, maybe I'll add a little extra spice to make it my own." Pitt's MSHI degree program gives you the recipe and the skills you need to add your own spices.

What do you think are the most promising areas of development in health informatics?

It's impossible to say because informatics touches so many aspects of the health care ecosystem. Hospitals need it to implement quality improvement; that's always a work in progress. There's so much disparity in the quality of patient care provided to different populations; that's another area informatics can improve. Health informatics impacts HIPAA, transparent pricing in hospitals, cybersecurity—there's so much happening, and informatics is relevant to all of it. All health care professionals benefit from informatics.

What makes online study the better choice for you?

I'm a working professional, so I couldn't make an in-person commitment. I can't be in two places at the same time, and I didn't want to overextend myself driving to wherever the classes might be, parking, all that.

I value in-person learning, but online made the most sense for me because I didn't want to take time off to commit to a full-time, in-person program. And this way, I can apply what I'm learning to my work as a physical therapist, providing data-based services. In addition, I can use what I'm studying in this degree program in my progress monitoring. And, of course, I've got to pay the bills—so that's another argument for continuing to work while completing my graduate degree part-time.

Tell me about your online classes. For example, how do faculty use their online live sessions to supplement asynchronous course materials?

The faculty members do an excellent job. They post the modules a week before, so you have time to look at them, prepare and complete your coursework. Readings are posted with notes, instructing students to focus on a specific chapter or a range of pages—so you know how much work you have to do and you can plan. Then, there are live Zoom sessions, or synchronous classes, to discuss the material and clear up any confusion.

Live classes are discussion-based, and because of the variety of students in our class, you get to hear different perspectives. For example, one student might be a clinician, and then you hear from a non-clinician with a different approach.

The program has added a new class: Quality and Performance Improvement in Health Care: Methodologies, Core Skills, with the added option of Lean Six Sigma Green Belt Certification. This has really helped me narrow down my study focus to be quality improvement (QI) in health care. The data analytics that I learn in the Data Science track will provide the strong background I will need for QI.

Tell me about some of the different backgrounds of your classmates.

Quite a few are nurses. We have a couple of physicians and a few students fresh out of college. Some are biology majors heading to med school but earning an informatics degree in between, which makes sense because you use health data as a clinician. We have a mechanical engineer interested in health IT because he's already working in information technology engineering and manufacturing. He wants to repurpose his engineering skills into health care delivery. So we have students from all different interests and work experience.

Pitt's online health informatics master's program offers four tracks: data science, health care supervision and management, registered health information administrator (RHIA) and general health informatics. Have you committed to a track yet?

I committed to the data science specialization because I want to learn how to apply data analytics methodology to quality improvement. I should note that the program has evolved a bit since I started. Some of the tracks weren't available when I started. They've been added as the program has grown and more students have requested new areas of study.

The registered health information administrator track focuses on business systems, the revenue cycle and management, and reimbursement and payment. The health care administration track looks at HR and talent management in health care. The general track allows students to pick the electives they want. The program facilitates various career paths.

How is the curriculum balanced between core courses, track courses and electives?

Three or four courses make up the core foundation that everyone takes. After that, if you're on the data science track, you have a set menu of track-related courses in computer science, clinical informatics, data management, data mining, that sort of thing. It’s the same for supervision and management or RHIA. General students get to pick nine electives.

I had my entire program planned out when I started. The Pitt MSHI website provides a good description of each class and what kind of information it teaches, so you know what you're going to learn and you understand where the course is headed. That's how I picked data science as my track. It focused a lot more on analysis and machine learning and the kinds of things I was interested in learning.

Why did you choose Pitt? Did you consider other programs?

Honestly, I didn't feel the need to look beyond Pitt. I mean, there was this wonderful program right here in my home city. It's very highly ranked, it's an excellent program. I'd rather spend my money locally.

Until this point in your academic career, you've mainly studied on-campus. But now you're an online student. Are there ways in which online is better?

I like meeting face-to-face to talk to people. Maybe that's because I'm a physical therapist, so I'm used to working one-on-one. I prefer to see the whole body and the body language and everything; it tells you so much.

That said, online learning made it possible to continue studying through COVID-19. Also, as a working professional, studying on-campus just isn't practical—especially when you have a family to feed and dinner to make on top of your job and everything else. So at this point in my life, online learning is best for me.

Would you recommend the program to others?

Absolutely! First and foremost, the professors are extraordinary. They know you by name, and they know what to expect from you. They are very empathetic. I was nervous about getting lost in the crowd in an online program, but I can assure you that won't happen. The faculty are very engaged and very understanding.

To learn more about Pitt's Online Master of Science in Health Informatics, consider attending one of our upcoming online events. If you have questions about admissions, tuition and financial aid or anything else, reach out to an enrollment advisor at any time at healthinformaticsonline@shrs.pitt.edu or (412) 274-5540.

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