Switching Careers to Health Informatics (While Raising a Family and Working Full-Time)
Julie Rose Lechliter followed a roundabout path to health informatics. She began her professional life as a music teacher before switching over to health care and eventually building a career at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC). Stints in data monitoring and revenue cycle implementation exposed her to the ways health informatics contributes to improved patient outcomes and, more specifically, patient safety—a cause about which she is passionate. Although patient safety has come a long way, she explains, "there's more work to be done." That's why Lechliter enrolled in the Online Master of Science in Health Informatics (MSHI) at the University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.
A full-time professional raising three young children, Lechliter considers the online program perfectly suited to her needs. The online master's in health informatics offers four areas of specialization—data science, general health informatics, health care supervision and management and registered health information administrator—to provide sufficient curricular flexibility. Core courses in biostatistics, health information systems, data management, machine learning, health data analytics and legal and ethical issues in medical informatics ensure online students are well-trained. Flexible scheduling allows her to fit study in amidst her many other demanding obligations.
Here's what compelled Lechliter to pursue an advanced health informatics degree.
Your current job is not in health care informatics, correct?
Yes, that's right, I'm in health care administration. I'm an implementation, optimization and training specialist at UPMC for the revenue cycle. That's my health care work experience (before this, I taught music!). I work at the central location in Pittsburgh. We handle facilities all over Pennsylvania and into New York. Our work is non-patient-facing and involves managing patient movement within the hospitals. I also fix patient accounts behind the scenes.
What drove your decision to switch careers to health care informatics?
As I've advanced along the management path in my current job, I found that the thing that most excites me is patient safety. It's so critical, but there's not a ton I can do about it in my current position. I certainly do as much training as possible, and I make sure I'm doing the right things, but I feel like there's more work to be done. My goal with the health informatics program is to take my knowledge and turn it into something that either can move me forward into a new career path or just make me better at what I'm already doing.
How can health care informatics improve patient safety?
There's a lot that most people don't know about health services or the health care industry. When you're in the hospital, for example, health data, data management, health information technology and other workflows all affect your safety. People who aren't health care professionals don't know (or don't think) about how these things impact health care delivery.
Suppose, for whatever reason, a health care professional misspells my name. Instead of pulling up the existing medical records for Julie Lechleiter, there is no medical record—so they make a new one. What if I'm allergic to amoxicillin and I'm there for an infection? They don't know that now. They might say I'm 'altered mental status' or something like that; they're not going to know. There are just so many critical pieces of health data that you need on the front end to make the patient experience as safe as it can be the whole way through. Without reliable health data, the quality of health care delivery decreases.
And informatics is a vehicle for catching and correcting those errors?
Yes, especially like the EMPI (enterprise master patient index) and other health information systems. Making sure the interoperable system and electronic health records and things like that function properly really interests me in terms of being able to help patients.
And not just for the UPMC system. I mean, what if I could also see health care information for patients coming from the nearby Allegheny Health Network? Do you know what that would mean for patient care long-term? Using information technology to integrate data from different health care organizations—that's game-changing.
So there's a lot of pieces there that can improve health care delivery. There's so much work to be done, and I don't think it'll happen in my lifetime. But, if we start taking the right steps now, we will get there someday.
What made Pitt's online master's degree in health informatics program the right choice for you?
Pitt and UPMC sort of go hand in hand. I have many colleagues who rave about the health informatics program at Pitt. I considered what they learned about data analytics, information technology and health information systems—and who they met.
I take education seriously, and Pitt is a good fit for that. But Pitt also provides networking opportunities—and sometimes, networking is the key.
Are there other aspects of Pitt's online Master of Science in Health Informatics program that make it a perfect fit for you?
The fact that Pitt's MSHI graduate program is part-time and completely remote is, for me, critical. I have three young children below the age of 10. Meaning, I have a lot going on—and I don't want my kids to suffer because I'm back in school.
It was important to me to be able to complete coursework on my own time. A lot of my work happens after they go to bed. Online programs make that possible; I wouldn't be able to do that in a traditional program.
The MSHI faculty members are so understanding, helpful and kind. Frankly, you can't put a value on that. They understand adult learners have hectic, full-time schedules. They're there for us, and that's been meaningful.
Tell me about the online live class sessions. Would you say that the live session is mostly teaching or mostly discussion? Does it vary from class to class?
It varies from class to class. The courses that I took this semester were utterly different from each other. One of my classes involved a lot of teaching and hands-on work, like using various programs to do some learning and practice. I also had an HR (human resources) class this semester, which involved many discussions. The discussions were valuable because doing HR, in theory, is one thing, and doing HR in practice is different. I'm in a management role, so I use a lot of these skills. I could share my experiences, and I could hear other people's experiences and expand on them. That's important to me.
Who are your fellow online students?
The online student body is very diverse. I have classmates from all around the world. I did a group project with a woman from India—we're in entirely different time zones!
"Valuable" is the right word to describe my fellow MSHI students. Most of us come from a health care background, but not everybody. I've met health care professionals like pathologists, physicians and dentists in this program. Then I've met people coming from similar roles as I do, who work in data science, information technology, coding or patient access, things like that. Some work in rehab services. One student in my class has no health care work experience at all. He just wants to find his way in the door.
Those who come from outside a health care background provide a different set of work experiences, bringing something to the table. Sharing experiences means being able to ask, "Why was this good? Why was this bad?" It enriches the online student experience. We learn from the mistakes other people make and move forward.
Has anything about this advanced degree program surprised you?
I don't think I've been surprised by anything because Pitt does an excellent job setting you up for success. The MSHI orientation is thorough in explaining the volume of work in this online degree program. Success coaches talk you through applying and, once you're in, continue to provide support—making sure you're on track and things like that.
Pitt has done everything along the way to make sure that I knew what I was in for with the online MSHI program. Because of that, the volume of work has been manageable.
Pitt's online MSHI was 100 percent the right program for me. I feel so supported—and I feel good about what I'm learning. I'm able to turn around and apply it to my work right now. I don't feel like I'm just learning theories that I'm never going to use. I'm developing in my current line of work while building a better future for myself as well. You can't beat that.
If earning an online MS in Health Informatics is for you, apply now, and it won't be long before you have the knowledge and qualifications you'll need to advance in medical information leadership, technology and analysis.