Online Master’s in Health Informatics
By Kat Campise, Data Scientist, Ph.D.
Are you interested in an analytics career that has an impact on the healthcare system? Would you prefer to take courses online rather than driving to campus? An Online Master’s in Health Informatics may be the perfect choice if you’re seeking to enter a sector where the demand for qualified candidates is expected to grow by an astounding 17% over the next decade.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) puts the median salary for health information technologists at $55,560 as of May 2021, but the most experienced and knowledgeable professionals often make more than $98,490 per year. Some health informatics experts enter more advanced roles as:
- Health Informatics Analysts
- Healthcare IT Project Managers
- Clinical Informatics Specialists
- Health Informatics Managers
- Public Health Informatics Scientists
Each of these specialized careers come with their own personal and professional growth opportunities. Earning an online Master’s degree in health informatics can help you discover them for yourself.
What is Health Informatics?
The summarized version of defining health informatics is “IT for health care.” Extending this a bit farther out, a health informatician combines information technology and computer science to manage the extraction, storage, and retrieval of health care information. While retrieving the right information at the right time is crucial for all organizations, since the emphasis in health informatics is the health care industry and the quality of patient care relies to some extent on the availability and accuracy of information, your decisions as a health informatician can impact patient outcomes.
Preparing for an Online Master’s Degree in Health Informatics
Now that online degrees are more commonplace and widely accepted as a viable alternative to on-campus degrees, there are far more online options for pursuing a graduate degree in health informatics. But, you’ll still need to do some research to determine each university’s admission requirements, their curriculum, total cost, and program length. Additionally, make sure that the university is accredited; the U.S. Department of Education has readily available information on accreditation, including lists of accredited schools, at their website.
Step 1: Decide whether an Online or an On-Campus Program is the Best Fit
The main divergence between an on-campus and an online Master’s in Health Informatics is logistics. Do you want to drive to campus and sit in a classroom? Do you prefer in-person interaction with your instructor? Or do you need a more flexible coursework schedule in terms of viewing pre-recorded lectures and forum-based discussions?
Instructional technology has evolved quickly over the past decade. Certain online programs require scheduled lectures delivered by live video, and your attendance may be mandatory. But, you’ll also save travel time not having to make your way to a classroom. Plus, most online master’s programs are populated with working professionals. So, online lectures are generally scheduled after the traditional 8 am to 5 pm work schedule.
Online courses are far more convenient. Tuition-wise there is little to no cost savings beyond not having to pay for transportation (e.g., gas, wear and tear on your vehicle, public transportation, etc.). The decision comes down to personal preference and your current life circumstances. Students who have family and/or work responsibilities (or both) find that online master’s degree programs are more accommodating as they can attend to the coursework from anywhere, at any time.
Step 2: Review the Online Health Informatics Program Curriculum
Depending on the university, the type of health informatics master’s degree may differ in emphasis. For example, Stanford University offers an online Masters in Biomedical Informatics. Meanwhile, Northwestern University provides an online Master’s in Health Informatics. The difference between the two becomes clear when you review the course requirements. Stanford’s curriculum includes courses such as “Representations and Algorithms for Computational Molecular Biology” and “Computational Molecular Biology.” Northwestern focuses on “Health Care Operations” and “Health Analytics Leadership.”
If you already have a STEM undergrad degree and you’re interested in extending that knowledge into health informatics, then Stanford’s online masters (or a similar degree from another university) may be the best selection. Alternatively, if you’d prefer more emphasis on health informatics in general, and less math and science intensive coursework, then a Northwestern type of program is more suitable for that purpose.
Step 3: Determine the Cost and Length of an Online Master’s in Health Informatics
Returning to Stanford University as an example, if you were to choose this program, then expect to pay $1,342 per unit for each quarter. There are additional fees not included in the per unit tuition cost. Northwestern’s per course tuition is, as of this writing, $4,468, which works out to be $1,482 per unit with a total program cost of $54,792. Both are high-quality programs at outstanding universities. But, if you view this from the perspective of a yearly salary (on the lower end of the salaries listed above), you’ll be paying the equivalent of a starting salary for a health informatician. Also, the per unit costs don’t include books or other required materials for each course.
The cost consideration is particularly important if you’re planning on funding your education with school loans. Even though federally subsidized loans tend to translate into lower interest rates, you’ll still pay more for the degree overall. If you’re currently employed in health informatics (or health care), and there is a high probability of you earning more after completing the degree, then the hefty expense is likely to yield a higher return on your investment. Student loans stay with you regardless of your future financial situation. So, eye this option with caution and quantitative consideration (e.g., calculating current costs and weighing those against future financial benefits).
The average length for an online Master’s in Health Informatics is 2.5 years (usually between 2 and 3 years). But, this can vary based on the program — master’s in science degrees tend to be longer — and the university’s curriculum. The total credits you’ll complete ranges from 36 to 45. Another aspect to keep in mind is that some masters programs are operated within the context of a cohort, which means you’re locked into a specific group of students who are all following a predetermined course succession. This is different from the traditional undergraduate scenario where you’re relatively free to choose the timing of each course.
A final word on tuition: universities tend to raise their fees for each academic year. This is something you need to be aware of as what’s quoted here (or anywhere else except the university’s tuition and fees website) has a high likelihood of shifting upward.
Step 4: Consider the Admission Requirements for Each Program
By now, it’s ideal for you to have a list of at least three online Master’s in Health Informatics programs. Your list may be longer but narrowing it down to a minimum of three is recommended. Why? The application process is time-consuming. Many universities require that you take the GRE, which means extra financial outlay and study time. Some universities give priority consideration to those with higher (total) GRE scores. Read the admissions section closely for each program on your list.
Additionally, don’t be surprised if you’ll need 2 or 3 written recommendations from prior instructors and/or employers. A majority of the universities also require a personal statement or a Statement of Purpose (SOP) which details your reasoning for choosing to complete a Master’s in Health Informatics. SOPs may be as little as 200 to 500 words in length, but your submission to each program should be tailored to that particular university.
As always, you’ll need to send official (sealed) transcripts. This requirement adds to the cost of the admission application since most universities charge a fee for sending official transcripts to you. Even if you can submit unofficial transcripts for the initial application, the Graduate School department will need the official transcripts to finalize your admission.
A large portion of the universities offering an online Master’s Degree in Health Informatics view the degree as a professional program. So, they often require that you send a resume or a Curriculum Vitae (CV) as part of your admissions application. This doesn’t mean that you won’t be considered as a viable candidate for admissions. If you submit a high GRE score and a stellar SOP, those can weight in your favor. However, if you’re applying for a program similar to Stanford’s Master’s in Biomedical Informatics, the admissions committee will need to see that you have either the academic background or experience in the biomedical (or biology) field.
For international students, proof of English proficiency will be required. This is most commonly demonstrated by passing the TOEFL or IELTS exam. Some universities prefer one vs. the other (TOEFL vs. IELTS). As such, a thorough reading of each university’s admission requirements is a must.
Finally, expect to pay an application fee. While some universities might waive the fee, this isn’t standard practice. Application fees tend to start at around $60 and reach as high as $125.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for health information technologists reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed January 2023.