Nearly every industry is racing to figure out the best way to utilize data—health care is no exception. As it becomes more plentiful and available, data drives decisions in medicine, medical research and health-adjacent fields. Forbes notes that health providers use data to streamline workflows and lower costs. Medical device manufacturers utilize it to increase accessibility of their products and pharmaceutical companies to enhance research and development. The availability of health care data allowed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) to respond to areas of greatest need during the COVID-19 pandemic. Health care data also helped track the spread of the virus and delivery of the vaccine.
Health care informatics, the science of applying data-driven insights to challenges in health care, is at the nexus of all these innovations. Earning a Master of Science in Health Informatics (MSHI) is a surefire way to take advantage of the opportunities in this discipline while positively impacting patient care, medical administration, public health and scientific research. Online MSHI programs let those already working in health care or IT—which includes clinicians, nurses, allied health providers, health care administrators and health information managers—add skills to their resumes or make a career transition without taking time off work.
Now is a tipping point for health care informatics, as technological progression intersects with health crises and the urgent need to revolutionize how medical systems serve patients and practitioners. The University of Pittsburgh’s online Master of Science in Health Informatics program helps ambitious IT and health care professionals hone deep domain skills at the intersection of information technology and medicine.
Big Data can streamline value-based care implementation, improve patient outcomes and lower the cost of health care. “With the ability to analyze more data, it opens up the possibility for innovation at a scale we have not had in the past,” said Julius Bogdan, North American vice president of analytics for the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS).
However, the health care industry is still building the necessary technological infrastructure to harness the power of voluminous and varied data sets. That means the data revolution in health care is only just beginning, making right now an opportune time to get involved in health informatics, or HI.
According to researchers from the New England Journal of Medicine, more health informaticists and data scientists will be needed to solve challenges in data aggregation, policy and process and management. “It will require stakeholders—providers, payers, pharmaceutical producers, government and policymakers, and the scientific and research communities—to collaborate and innovate to reinvent the design and performance of their systems,” the researchers write.
Well-trained professionals in the field of health informatics will be part of the human capital needed to propel the health care industry forward by figuring out the best way to apply data-driven insights. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that jobs for medical and health services managers—a broad category encompassing HI—will grow by 32% between now and 2030.
If you work in IT or health care and aren’t sure where to take your career next, an MSHI can open up options for advancement. MSHI holders earn upwards of $71,000. In top-paying informatics jobs—which are usually held by master’s program graduates—informaticists can earn well over $100,000.
Compared to early and mid-career professionals in health IT, health administration and front-line health care positions, the earning potential for health care informatics professionals is high. For example, registered nurses make an average of $77,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). HIMSS’ Nursing Informatics Workforce Survey found that 49% of nurse informaticists in 2020 earned more than $100,000 per year.
One of the primary reasons health care informatics is profitable is because it allows health care and IT professionals to learn the digital skills proven to boost salaries. In the University of Pittsburgh MSHI program, students take programming courses using Python and R. Higher-paying roles such as health data analyst, health informatics data analyst and health data scientist often involve programming. Health data scientists earn average salaries of $110,000, while medical software development engineers earn close to $120,000. Some of the top earners in health care information technology can earn as much as $145,000 per year.
Front-line health care workers are burning out. A survey by Elsevier Health found that 47% of clinicians in the U.S. are considering leaving their jobs in the next two to three years. A similar study of nurses by staffing firm Incredible Health found that 34% of nurses said it’s “very likely” that they will leave their roles by the end of 2022. And 44% cited burnout and high stress as the cause.
These statistics sound bleak, but in that same Elsevier Health survey, 70% of clinicians agreed the “widespread use of digital health technologies will enable the positive transformation of healthcare.” Transitioning into health care informatics is one way to create a less stressful environment. Health informatics professionals typically work standard 9-to-5 office hours and their work can improve working conditions for front line health care professionals in the future. For example, health informatics consultants can enhance the effectiveness of Electronic Health Records (EHR) usage at health care facilities, streamlining data management for providers to reduce clinician burnout.
In any field, specializing is a reliable way to earn more money, limit the competition for new opportunities and delve deeper into the most exciting facets of an industry. All of this is true in health care. MSHI graduate programs prepare students to advance along several distinct HI career pathways encompassing leadership, analytics and technology roles.
Pitt’s MS in Health Informatics program has three tracks—Data Science, General Health Informatics and Health Care Supervision and Management—along with four certificate options. Unlike many health informatics programs, Pitt offers these options to let students develop skillsets tailored to their specific career goals post-graduation. With a Certificate in Health Data Analytics, students learn how to utilize machine learning in health science and database management skills like data warehousing, data mining, and the analysis and visualization of data. Comparatively, a Certificate in Leadership in Health Informatics combines data science and informatics know-how with project management skills and an understanding of financial management and health care reimbursement.
There are plenty of opportunities to specialize in HI because employers in patient care, clinical research, health insurance and more hire health informatics professionals with several goals in mind. “Informatics covers so much,” says physical therapist and Pitt MSHI alum Laxmi Velankar. “No matter what your interests are, you can make health care informatics work for you.”
Many people are drawn to health care careers because they want to make a difference and help people. Informatics is ideal if you are looking for meaningful work but don’t feel drawn to clinical care careers. Health informatics can improve health equity, make medication more affordable and improve patient outcomes.
Pitt MSHI candidates often begin to have an impact in health care delivery before they have even graduated. This was especially true during the onset of COVID-19 when HI professionals were functioning as “disease detectives,” explains Valerie Watzlaf, vice chair of Education and associate professor, Department of Health Information Management (HIM). Because the program is 100% online, candidates can use what they’re learning in class to immediately improve their workplaces and respond to health-related situations as they arise.
As health care administration professional and Pitt MSHI graduate Julie Rose Lechliter points out, minor mistakes in health care databases can have grave consequences. For example, if a patient’s name is misspelled and a doctor can’t find their health records, they may not know which medications the patient is allergic to, putting them at risk. “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,” says Lechliter. “Without reliable health data, the quality of health care delivery decreases.”
Specialization offers MSHI graduates further opportunities to make a difference. Students in the Pitt MSHI degree program can pursue a Certificate in Health Information Cybersecurity during the program to learn strategies to defend health care information systems against increasingly common and dangerous cyber attacks. Ransomware and hacking attempts—which occur every 11 seconds on average—put patients’ personal information at risk. The ability to properly manage databases and ensure health information systems using encryption, decryption and other network security measures is paramount.
HI specialists might work with administrative, clinical, financial or patient data, but regardless of focus area, will need a knack for mathematics and statistical analysis. However, there is a difference between data analytics and health informatics. The American Health Information Management Association defines the difference this way: “Data analytics involves the actual analysis of the data, and informatics is the application of that information.”
Health informaticists find the connection between the available data and how it can be used to help people and enhance public health. Pitt’s MS in Health Informatics program combines communication skills specific to health care systems with the technical skills necessary to support clinical and business decision-making in medicine. If you enjoy working with numbers and data and see the possibility of using those numbers to affect change in the real world, health informatics is a great way to leverage your technical mind for the better.
Because health care informatics is a growing field, earning a master’s degree in the subject right now unlocks leadership potential. You will be ahead of the curve and armed with skills hospital boards and private health care companies look for in new hires. Leadership roles in informatics and HIM include director of clinical informatics, director of health informatics, health care chief information officer and medical director of informatics quality and process improvement.
Pitt’s online MSHI program builds on the fundamentals of health care informatics to provide students with a well-rounded and immersive educational experience that contributes to success in leadership and managerial positions. For the capstone course, students accrue experience under the supervision of experienced practitioners. They can apply previously learned skills and theories in health informatics and test what works and doesn’t in real-time. In the course Security, Privacy, Legal and Ethical Issues in Health IT, Pitt MSHI graduate Sam Viggiano said, “we are already being challenged to think like a chief information officer regarding security and privacy issues.”
If you feel that now is the right time to transition into a career in health informatics, finding the right MSHI program is crucial. Full-time working professionals do not have to leave their jobs or take time off work to complete Pitt’s online MSHI program. At a part-time pace of two classes per semester, students can complete the program in 24 months. At a full-time pace of four courses per semester, students complete the program in as little as 16 months. There is no GRE or required work experience requirement to apply. Applicants simply need a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent from a non-American institution.
The curriculum of Pitt’s MSHI program supports career-specific learning outcomes, covering topics related to business management, medicine, data science, leadership and ethics. Candidates learn from expert faculty such as Department Chair and Professor Bambang Parmanto who is also director of the Rehab Engineering Research Center on Information & Communication Technology (ICT) Access and recipient of the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA)’s Triumph Research Award.
Dr. Parmanto and the entire Pitt MSHI faculty department care deeply about impact. His research and innovations in telehealth and disability software “solve problems that real people face like how people use software if they have a disability or how to empower people to take better care of their health,” explains Dr. Brad Dicianno, professor and endowed research chair in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
If impact matters to you, too, consider the myriad ways health care can benefit from increasingly sophisticated technologies. Learning to implement those technologies is less complicated than you might think. The University of Pittsburgh is known for advancements in medical research that change lives and move health care forward. If ever there was a time to apply to an accredited MSHI program and learn to harness the power of data to improve health outcomes globally, it’s now.