Consider Pursuing a Career in Health Informatics

Arlene Weintraub

Olga Strachna was considering medical school, or perhaps a Ph.D., after graduating with a biological sciences degree from Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University in 2009. But neither avenue felt quite right.

Then she discovered a brand new master's program in health informatics at Weill Cornell Medical College in her hometown, New York City, designed to turn out pros who will work on the leading edge where health care meets information technology.

Since the program focuses on how to implement electronic health records and how to crunch -- and make use of -- data on quality of care and insurance reimbursements, it satisfied her varied interests in tech, research and health.

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Before graduation in December 2013, Strachna, 27, had secured a job as an implementation specialist for the New York eHealth Collaborative, an organization helping doctors install and operate the new records, known as EHRs.

"This field is exploding," says Charles Friedman, director of the health informatics program at the University of Michigan--Ann Arbor, which enrolled its first master's class in the fall of 2012. "Access to health information on the Web is taking off at a meteoric pace. It's creating enormous employment opportunities."

A number of universities have launched similar programs to fill that pipeline, responding to rapid changes forcing health providers to greatly expand their use of technology. The Affordable Care Act is ensuring, for example, that systems be implemented for transmitting patients' test results to their EHRs, so their physicians can use them effectively at the point of care.

There are now more than 70 advanced degree programs in the field, according to the American Medical Informatics Association. Most combine the necessary technical instruction with courses in medical practice and on-the-job training.

Programming classes are geared toward teaching students to build medical applications such as EHRs; other courses cover such topics as patient privacy legislation, health care policy and health economics.

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Time to degree is one to two years, depending on the school and whether a student attends full or part time.

Some schools, including the University of Illinois--Chicago and its neighbor Northwestern University in Evanston, have put their health IT master's entirely online to cater to employed students.

Hands-on experience of some sort is typically a key part of the curriculum. Strachna shadowed doctors and nurses using EHRs in the emergency department at New York-Presbyterian Hospital to research a paper suggesting how the system might be improved. University of Michigan students complete a 400-hour summer internship at such companies as BlueCross BlueShield, First Databank and Lockheed Martin.

An advanced degree is valuable, says C. Martin Harris, chief information officer at the Cleveland Clinic, because the problems health analysts are being tasked with solving are only getting more complex.

"If I know that my visit rate of patients with common cold symptoms is doubling and it's October, I'm going to be able to predict from that what the rate of actual influenza is, and the implications that will have on the number of in-patient admissions," Harris says.

His staff of data crunchers now numbers 10 people who have their master's degree and 10 who are in the process of getting their degrees online, and he expects the team to double in size over the next five years.

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Because specialists in health informatics are in such demand, new grads can expect a relatively short job search. Many of "our graduates have had job offers before they got their degrees," says Steve Zilora, associate professor and chair of the information sciences and technologies department at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, whose program is operated jointly with the University of Rochester.

Data collected by the job-search site Simply Hired puts average salaries for the profession at $69,000, though it's possible to get much more.

Daniel Mayer of Clarkston, Mich., 26, graduated from Michigan's master's program in December 2013 -- after also earning his undergraduate degree there in biology and economics -- with an offer from the Detroit office of consulting firm Deloitte. He had been working for a software company that developed EHRs when he decided to buff up his credentials in what was clearly going to be a growth industry.

"Getting the master's exposed me to a broader range of areas," he says. Mayer accepted the Deloitte position, which came with a salary in the low six figures plus a signing bonus.

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Graduate Schools 2015" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.