What is a Master of Science in Health Informatics?
March 08, 2022
You don't need to go to medical school to improve patient care and patient outcomes. With a Master of Science in Health Informatics, you can become one of the professionals who make medicine better with data.
The volume of data generated by the healthcare sector is enormous, and it's growing—faster in medicine than in other areas over the next seven years, in fact. Finding new and more efficient ways to leverage that data is essential, and not just because making that data more accessible can prevent medical mistakes.
Consider the following innovative ways healthcare data can be used:
- Software can be integrated into medical records systems and healthcare portals to check automatically for allergies and drug interactions whenever a patient receives a new prescription
- Doctors and nurses can obtain the medical history of an unresponsive patient in the ER and modify care as needed
- Big data can be used to predict which patients are more likely to develop certain conditions and should be given early screenings
- Practices and medical networks can use data to determine which operational procedures are keeping patients safe and which aren't
Management of the kinds of information systems that can do all that and more is complex. Data must be handled especially carefully in medicine to protect patient privacy without limiting provider access. Electronic health records (EHR) are now the norm in both small medical practices and large hospital networks, but systems can be challenging to navigate and administrate. There are still relatively few professionals who are qualified to handle the quantity and kinds of data healthcare systems generate.
If you'd like to be one of them, a Master of Science in Health Informatics (MSHI) will deliver the skills and knowledge you need to develop, optimize, and manage health information systems and leverage the data therein. This degree may also recession-proof your career: the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that the number of jobs related to health informatics will grow much faster than average over the next ten years. That's yet another compelling reason to learn more about this particular educational pathway.
In this article, we answer the question What is a Master of Science in Health Informatics? and cover the following:
- What is health informatics, and who typically pursues this degree?
- What are the prerequisites for a Master of Science in Health Informatics?
- What kinds of courses do people pursuing this degree take?
- Do Master of Science in Health Informatics programs have thesis requirements?
- What are the top Master of Science in Health Informatics programs?
- Are there online Master of Science in Health Informatics programs?
- How long does it take to earn a Master of Science in Health Informatics?
- What kinds of jobs can you do with a Master of Science in Health Informatics?
- How much can someone with this degree earn?
- How can I choose the right Master of Science in Health Informatics program?
What is health informatics, and who typically pursues this degree?
Health informatics is sometimes described as the discipline that exists at the intersection of IT and medicine, but the reality is a lot more complex. This discipline encompasses everything from medical records-keeping to electronic health records system design to healthcare data analytics to telehealth technology. It can involve software development, artificial intelligence, database design, and financial management. The work of health informatics specialists benefits not only doctors, nurses, and healthcare administrations, but also patients, insurance companies, researchers, and public health organizations.
Students who pursue Master of Science in Health Informatics degrees come from backgrounds as diverse as computer science, medical administration, engineering, and analytics. What they typically have in common is a desire to help improve medicine by improving the way healthcare information is handled and the way it's used.
What are the prerequisites for a Master of Science in Health Informatics?
Colleges and universities with Master of Science in Health Informatics programs nearly all require applicants to have bachelor's degrees. Beyond that, prerequisite requirements vary widely. Some programs require applicants to submit a GRE score while others don't. Some accept applications from students with all educational and professional backgrounds, while others only accept applicants with degrees in computer science or healthcare degrees. And some programs prefer or even require that applicants have professional or educational experience in healthcare administration, health sciences, information science, or other clinical or technical fields. If your background doesn't include any relevant education or experience, don't fret. There are plenty of MSHI programs designed to help students coming from other disciplines transition into health informatics careers.
What kinds of courses do people pursuing this degree take?
The curriculum in health informatics master's degree programs typically includes courses covering health informatics management, health data analytics, IT in healthcare settings, and medical records management. Students in the Online MS in Health Informatics program at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, for example, take classes like:
- Anatomy, Physiology, Pathophysiology, Pharmacology, and Medical Terminology
- Data Analytics and Machine Learning in Health Science
- Data Science in Health Informatics
- Database Design and Big Data Analytics
- Digital Health
- Financial Management and Health Care Reimbursement
- Foundations of Health Informatics
- Health Information and the Health Care System
- Health Vocabulary, Terminology and Classification Systems
- Leadership and Project Management
- Practical Research and Evaluation Methods
- Practical Statistics and Programming Using Python and R
- Security, Privacy, Legal and Ethical Issues in Health IT
- Talent Management and Human Resources
Students in health informatics programs also typically have the option of choosing a specialization track. Concentrations vary by program, but these are examples of actual specialization tracks available to MSHI students at different colleges and universities:
- Biomedical Informatics
- Clinical Informatics
- Data Science
- Health Care Services
- Health Care Supervision and Management
- Health Data Analytics
- Hospital Management Informatics
- Information Technology
- Nursing Informatics
- Organization Development and Leadership
- Population Health Informatics
- Registered Health Information Administrator
Do Master of Science in Health Informatics programs have thesis requirements?
Many MSHI programs require students to complete clinical internships, practicum experiences, community-based capstone projects, and/or a traditional master's thesis. These graduation requirements can seem overwhelming, but there are some excellent reasons that schools ask students to fulfill internship and thesis requirements. Capstone projects and other hands-on work that students do outside the classroom lets them flex their new skills in a real-world setting, which demonstrates competency a lot better than a final exam can. This type of work is also a valuable addition to the curriculum of health informatics master's degree programs because many students prefer learning by doing to learning by lecture.
And finally, some colleges and universities—the University of Pittsburgh is one of them—encourage students to submit their original capstone project research for publication. Graduating with a publishing credit can help students find professional placements more quickly.
What are the top Master of Science in Health Informatics programs?
There are highly-respected on-campus MSHI programs at:
- Duke University
- Harvard University
- Johns Hopkins University
- Medical College of Wisconsin
- SUNY Downstate Medical Center
- University of California - Davis
- University of Michigan - Ann Arbor
- University of Washington - Seattle Campus
Are there online Master of Science in Health Informatics programs?
There are many online Master of Science in Health Informatics programs at well-regarded colleges and universities, including:
- Drexel University
- George Washington University
- Northwestern University
- Stanford University
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- University of Pittsburgh
- University of San Diego
- University of South Florida (Main Campus)
How long does it take to earn a Master of Science in Health Informatics?
The answer depends on which program you choose. The majority of health informatics master's degree programs take two years of full-time study to complete, but that doesn't mean there aren't faster and slower options. Johns Hopkins University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill both offer master's degrees in health informatics that can be completed in one year. There are many more 18-month accelerated MSHI programs, including a part-time hybrid program at the University of Washington that's perfect for working professionals. On the other side of the scale, there are self-directed, asynchronous programs that can take three years or more to complete, like the online Master of Science in Health Informatics program at University of San Francisco.
What kinds of jobs can you do with a Master of Science in Health Informatics?
MSHI graduates work in hospitals, medical practices, and healthcare institutions, as well as in software development companies, healthcare administration consulting firms, government agencies, and insurance companies. They hold a variety of titles, including:
- Clinical Analyst: In this role, MSHI graduates analyze healthcare information to help clinicians, practices, healthcare networks, and insurance companies make data-driven decisions about patient care and pricing.
- Healthcare IT Specialist: Patient privacy rules and other regulations mean that healthcare facilities have unique needs when it comes to IT. These professionals are responsible for keeping a healthcare facility's computer system up and running. Also called health information technicians, they oversee digital medical records keeping and may be responsible for database maintenance, creation, or optimization.
- Health Data Resource Manager: Just like doctors care for patients, health data resource managers (also called clinical data managers) care for patient information. They keep it safe, keep it organized, and make sure it's accessible when it's needed.
- Health Informatics Consultant: Consultants who specialize in health informatics may work independently or for a health administration consulting firm. They go from facility to facility optimizing IT systems, record management systems, and other digital data repositories.
- Health Informatics Director: At the executive level, health informatics directors work with clinicians and stakeholders to develop tech protocols, choose and launch new EHR systems, oversee updates to records-keeping driven by regulation changes, and ensure that all patient and facility data is secure.
How much can someone with this degree earn?
Salaries in healthcare informatics careers vary quite a bit. According to the BLS, the median pay for medical records and health information technicians is $40,350 per year. ZipRecruiter reports that the average healthcare informatics consultant salary is more than $100,000. Salaries for health data resource managers, healthcare IT specialists, and other health informatics professionals tend to fall somewhere between $60,000 and $80,000.
If you're thinking that doesn't sound like a lot when viewed in light of the high cost of some master's degree programs, consider that salary averages don't tell you the whole story. Health informatics specialists who aren't earning top dollar may live in areas of the US with a very low cost of living, so their paycheck may feel a lot bigger. High earners might work in major metro areas with a high cost of living, so six figures may not feel like a princely sum. The best way to get a feel for how much you can earn with this degree on your resume is to look at job listings for health informatics professionals.
How can I choose the right Master of Science in Health Informatics program?
Any of the above MSHI programs will give you the skills and knowledge you'll need to analyze healthcare data and use your findings to inform critical decisions about patient care, medical records keeping, and practice or network administration. If you want to explore additional programs or do your own research, here is a shortlist of things you should look for when researching Master of Science in Health Informatics programs:
1. A current focus
The healthcare field is changing rapidly as both medicine and medical records grow increasingly digitized. Succeeding in healthcare, biomedical, and clinical informatics is a matter of staying up-to-date where technology and rules and regulations are concerned. The best Master of Science in Health Informatics programs expose students to the newest health IT innovations, health information management best practices, and ethical concerns in biomedical science.
2. Comprehensive coursework
The best Master of Science in Health Informatics programs acknowledge that this discipline is about more than IT and medical records keeping. Students pursuing health informatics degrees need to study a broad range of topics that includes healthcare law, database design, cybersecurity, patient privacy, and more.
3. A healthcare focus
The best health informatics programs tend to be offered by colleges and universities with robust medicine- and healthcare-schools. Studying at a university that is known for its quality healthcare programs ensures that the faculty will include renowned experts in healthcare delivery and administration and that students have opportunities to complete internships in healthcare settings.
4. Top-tier accreditation
While the Association of University Programs in Health Administration and the Commission of Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education both accredit MSHI programs, the Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education (CAHIIM) is the gold standard accrediting organization for health informatics programs at the associate's degree, bachelor's degree, master's degree, and doctoral degree levels. There currently are only 19 CAHIIM-accredited MSHI programs—you can look them up here—and they're all good options.
Of course, the best Master of Science in Health Informatics program for you may not be the most prestigious or most rigorous one. If you want to launch your career in health informatics as quickly as possible, there are one-year MSHI programs that you should explore. Cost may be a driving factor in your choice of school, in which case you may want to prioritize affordable Master of Science in Health Informatics programs over those at more expensive colleges and universities. And if you need to work while going to school, the best MSHI program will probably be the one that gives you the flexibility you need to keep your job.
The bottom line is that the Master of Science in Health Informatics is a great degree for anyone who wants to work in the data analysis and IT side of healthcare administration. With this degree, you'll have the qualifications necessary to spend your career improving patient care—and patient outcomes—without ever interfacing with a single sick person.
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