Ph.D. in Health Informatics – Guide to Choosing a Great Program
Undoubtedly, everyone in the U.S. will access the health care system at some point in their lives. Moreover, we’re in an era where the large population of Baby Boomers and elder Gen X’ers are increasing their health care utilization. This translates into a greater need for massive data and information collection, storage, and dissemination on the part of health care providers, agencies, and organizations. A Ph.D. in Health Informatics is designed for students looking for a career in research or academia. For those hoping to a pursue a career in industry, a master’s in health informatics is probably a better fit.
Furthermore, the Federal government has established regulatory controls over data privacy and limits who can access medical records (i.e., HIPAA), and there may be additional state laws that require adherence as well. As a consequence, those who handle or manage medical data need to have specific knowledge, skills, and abilities in HIPPA compliant database and information systems.
On an additional note, HealthTech and InsurTech are industries that will experience substantial growth as electronic medical records become the norm. The continued uptick in medical and general health wearables, which will transmit real-time or batched data, will also push more data into health care databases.
For these reasons, the need for health informatics professionals is growing at a pace that is faster than average when compared to other professions. Although the demand for health informatics isn’t as widely advertised as data science or software engineering, the career opportunity does exist for those who are interested in helping to improve the health care system from a technological and informational perspective.
Health Informaticians: What Do They Do, Exactly?
While each employer may have a different title within the framework of health informatics, there are essentially two primary roles: health information technician (HIT) and the health information manager (HIM). Both positions have important responsibilities that help health care providers and the overall health care system to deliver high-quality health care.
Health Information Technicians
Per the Bureau of Labor and Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, health care technicians “organize and manage health information data.” Health information technology professionals may assist in building the information system, documenting patient data, determine the best method for managing information transmitted by each health care stakeholder (e.g., doctors, nurses, pharmacists, patients, etc.), and ensure the accuracy of patient/provider data as it funnels through the information system.
Typically, health information technician is an entry-level position that frequently requires at least an associate’s degree or certification in health information technology.
Health Information Managers
Health information managers oversee the HITs (specifically) and the health information management department (in general). Moreso than health technicians, health information managers are likely to assist with the design and implementation of health information systems. They have the added responsibility of managing budgets which means that candidates for this position will need to have the knowledge and practical experience within the business side of health care.
Familiarity or expertise with the existing database and information systems utilized within the health care field is also an employer expectation. Many employers require either a Registered Health Information Administrator (RHIA) or a Registered Health Information Technician (HRIT) certification along with a Bachelor’s Degree in Health Information Technology and 5 years experience in an HIM capacity.
A Ph.D. in Health Informatics may override the certification requirements and place employee candidates at the top of the application pile. One pro tip is that, if you’re determined to enter the health informatics career path, networking with those already in the field tends to yield higher responses during your job search.
The upside of a Ph.D. is that most programs require submitting academic papers and presenting research at industry conferences. This is a prime opportunity to make connections with potential employers.
4 Steps to Choosing an On-Campus Ph.D. in Health Informatics
Ph.D. programs are arduous, and a Ph.D. in Health Informatics is no exception. Everyone who is considering the completion of a Ph.D. needs to understand that reality before they commit the next 4 to 7 years saturating themselves with research and writing. There are many hoops to jump through at each stage of the Ph.D. journey. Since Ph.D. level education is geared towards churning out academics, meaning that graduates stay in academia as a career, many Ph.D. graduates have a challenging time trying to transition from academia to their target industry.
You’ll still need to market yourself to employers just like everyone else. Having a Ph.D. doesn’t magically bring employers to your door, but it can signal that you’ve attained in-depth expertise in the field. It will largely be up to you to clearly communicate the value you can provide to the organization, and how having a Ph.D. helps support that value.
Step 1: Determine your location and time availability
Even in the age of online degrees, Ph.D. programs continue to be primarily campus-based. Added to this is the fact that not all universities carry the same Ph.D. programs, which holds true for a Ph.D. in Health Informatics. Therefore, you’ll need to do some research to determine whether or not any of the local universities offer this degree program. If not, and you’re specifically focused on health informatics, then it’s highly likely that you’ll be faced with the possibility of moving to another location to complete the degree.
Likewise, most Ph.D.s are full-time undertakings. Not only should you factor in the total time from start to completion (e.g., 4 to 7 years), but also whether or not you can manage both the Ph.D. requirements and a job. Funneling down a bit further, daily or weekly travel time between home, school, and work (if you do need to also maintain a job), tend to cut into study time. Granted, if reliable public transportation is available, then you can definitely utilize the time for additional study.
Step 2: Review the curriculum
Is health informatics of deep interest to you? You’ll be performing a profound analytical dive into the subject over an extended period, and there may be several different program tracks to choose from. For example, the University of Minnesota’s on-campus Ph.D. in Health Informatics offers four different concentration options: Clinical Informatics, Data Science and Informatics for Learning Health Systems, Translational Bioinformatics, and Precision and Personalized Medicine Informatics.
Reviewing the curriculum of each along with comparing and contrasting the course completion requirements will help for identifying any knowledge gaps that may be the cause for additional “catching up” either through self-study or taking additional courses. Returning to Minnesota’s Ph.D. tracks, both the Bioinformatics and Data Science sub-disciplines have machine learning coursework. If you’ve not yet been exposed to machine learning in any capacity, even though you’re interested in developing that skill, then you’ll need to spend more time and money to achieve a certain proficiency level.
Accordingly, your interest level and the available curriculum are substantial factors in successfully attaining a Ph.D.
Step 3: Perform a cost-benefit analysis
There is a cost trade-off to examine when assessing a decision to invest copious amounts of time and money into continuing formal education. As discussed above, you’ll be focussing a massive amount of energy into navigating the Ph.D. demands: attending courses, performing qualitative and quantitative research, writing extensive academic papers, attending conferences, and preparing a dissertation (which frequently involves assembling a committee). If you’re also employed during this time, especially full-time, it’s very easy to become drained by a lack of work-school-life balance.
Also, you’ll be applying your knowledge within an academic context, which may not directly apply to the work performed at your job. Or, if you’re able to focus on the Ph.D. in Health Informatics on a full-time basis, there is a high probability that you’ll lose earnings potential while you’re finishing the degree.
Then, there are the actual costs of the Ph.D. program itself. If you’re entering a university where you’re an established resident of the state (this is true mainly for state schools), then tuition will be lower. However, tuition and fees even for state residents can range from just below $16,000 to over $35,000, including tuition, fees, books, and living expenses.
Step 4: Analyze the admission requirements
Overwhelmingly, one of the main admission requirements for a Ph.D. in Health Informatics (and just about any other Ph.D. program) will be attaining a minimum score on the GRE. From there, the necessary undergraduate or master’s degree and GPA average will tend to diverge depending on the university. For instance, if the Ph.D. in Data Science and Informatics for Learning Health Systems from the University of Minnesota is your goal, then you’ll need at least a 3.5 GPA, a minimum of two courses in a life or health science (6 semester credits), and the completion of the following college math courses: calculus, linear algebra, statistics.
All of the above is only half of the admission requirements for most Ph.D. programs. You’ll also likely be tasked with completing a personal statement that describes your research interests, letters of recommendation from supervisors who have direct knowledge of prior academic work (usually 2 to 3 in number), and an interview; sometimes, the interview can be conducted via web conferencing, but many universities require an in-person interview. All of this equates to more time and money invested even before you are admitted.