Health Information Systems Degrees: Master's, PhD & Online Class Info

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What will you learn in a health information systems graduate degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of a master's degree or PhD degree and potential careers.
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Studying Health Information Systems: Degrees at a Glance

Careers in this field typically require at least a bachelor's degree, but employers are increasingly seeking candidates with master's degrees, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Master's degree holders can seek careers as computer and information systems managers in the healthcare industry or as health information managers (part of the medical and health services managers industry) who oversee computer records or IT systems.

Individuals with Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degrees in health information systems can pursue careers as postsecondary professors or in healthcare IT policy/research. According to the BLS, employment of computer and research information scientists was expected to grow by 19% from 2010 to 2020, while jobs for computer and information managers and health services managers could rise by 18% and 22%, respectively. Despite the promising employment outlook, admission into health information systems graduate degree programs can be highly competitive.

Master's PhD
Who is this degree for? - Students with bachelor's degrees, typically in related fields
- People who are interested in making a career change
- Experienced professionals who want to advance their careers/pursue leadership opportunities
- Students who want to work in healthcare policy or research
- Master's degree holders with a background in healthcare or information systems
- People who want to teach at the postsecondary level
- Individuals who want to complement their clinical expertise with technology skills
Common Career Paths (with approximate annual salary) - Medical/health services manager ($96,000)*
- Computer and information systems manager ($126,000)*
- Postsecondary professor, computer science or similar ($80,000)*
- Computer and information research scientist ($103,000)*
Time to Completion Approximately two years (full-time) Approximately five years (full-time)
Common Graduation Requirements - Thesis
- Practicum/Internship
- Research, write and present dissertation
- Qualifying exam
- Teaching or research assistantship, if applicable
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree in a related field
- Courses in statistics and math
- Master's degree
- Relevant work experience
Online Availability Yes Not widely available

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 mean figures).

Health Information Systems Master's Degrees

Students in a health information systems master's degree program study both the technical aspects of information technology programs and their practical applications and uses. Contrary to a computer science degree program that focuses on hardware and architecture, health information systems degree programs typically emphasize the development of communication and managerial skills. Program structures will vary with each academic institution, but are generally formatted as a Master of Science in Information Systems with a concentration in healthcare systems or as Master of Science in Health Information Systems. In a typical program students will take classes in science, statistics, computer science and database management.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Because a bachelor's degree is the most common degree in this field, students with master's degrees are poised to stand out among job applicants.
  • To accommodate students who work full- and part-time, many courses are offered in the evening.
  • According to the BLS, the healthcare industry is expected to greatly increase its information technology resources over the next ten years, which will likely result in job growth.*

Cons

  • Some healthcare facilities may require staff to be work evenings, weekends or overnight shifts to ensure that IT systems are properly maintained.
  • If you have several years of work experience, you may be overqualified for entry-level work.
  • Even with a graduate degree, you may need to take courses throughout your careers to stay abreast of industry trends and new software applications.

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Common Courses and Requirements

To obtain a master's degree in health information systems, you'll need to meet certain requirements. In a typical master's degree program, you'll take qualifying exams, write a thesis paper/perform a research project, complete a relevant practicum and pass academic courses. Master's candidates will study technology project management, systems integration, ethics and legal issues in health informatics, medical terminology and management of healthcare communication. Depending on the program, you may be able to declare a concentration to focus your studies and pursue a thesis topic.

Online Course Options

Online courses in health information systems are widely available. Some schools provide accelerated non-research alternatives that allow students to obtain a master's degree in approximately one year. Other schools may offer hybrid degree programs or single online courses. If you're interested in pursuing a research track (which is particularly useful if you plan to pursue a PhD), you'll likely be required to attend seminars or lectures on campus and have access to an approved research lab setting.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

To showcase a wide range of skills, you may want to obtain a graduate certificate. Postgraduate certificate programs are designed for students who already have a master's degree or are pursuing a master's degree and want to further specialize in a particular specialty or technology. Certificates are also a good option for individuals with programming or technical skills who want to seek management positions within the healthcare industry and clinical practitioners who seeking an understanding of health databases.

Health Information Systems PhD Degrees

PhD candidates in a health information systems program study advanced coursework and prepare for careers in scholarly research, health services management and public health policy. Additionally, a PhD can provide a significant edge if you want to become a subject matter expert in your field or teach at the college level. Some degree programs are structured as a PhD in Informatics with an emphasis in health informatics. Due to the promising employment opportunities and high salaries typically associated with health information systems, admission into doctoral programs may be competitive.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • According to the BLS, careers in computer and information research science offer excellent job prospects.* Combined with growing opportunities in healthcare, occupational outlooks look promising.
  • Financial assistance or graduate assistantships may be available to students with demonstrated achievement.
  • Though competitive, research or teaching assistantships may be available to qualified students.

Cons

  • With changing healthcare policies, professionals must be able to adapt to news privacy and security laws in addition to changes in technology.
  • Acceptance into a PhD program can be challenging, because only a handful of applicants are accepted each year.
  • You may be overeducated for some positions outside of academia.

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Common Courses and Requirements

Courses in a health information systems PhD program may include information security, statistics, data warehousing, project management, healthcare law and advanced health administration technology. There are also several research seminars and projects, along with electives, that shape your area of interest. Students who don't meet certain admissions requirements may have to take placement courses before beginning the program. In addition to coursework, you'll likely perform academic research, take preliminary examinations and prepare a doctoral dissertation. These programs aren't usually recommended for part-time study.

Online Course Options

Because most PhD programs are research-focused, there is minimal instruction, and as a result, fully online health information systems PhD degrees are not widely available. Some schools offer hybrid methods of learning with an on-campus visit for presentations. Students should ensure that the school they choose for distance learning is an accredited academic institution.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

Because professional experience is so important to many employers, obtaining real-world experience while in school can set you apart from other applicants. Here are some ways to stand out:

  • Obtain an internship in a hospital, managed care system or other health organization. Internships may or may not provide a small stipend or wage.
  • Pursue an external fellowship after graduation. Some schools offer these to PhD candidates and typically last 1-2 years and may involve work at clinics, hospitals and health systems.
  • Since internships and fellowships may be competitive, consider alternate volunteer options. If you plan to work in academia or research, you can provide tutoring services while you're enrolled in your PhD program, or if you plan to work in a clinical setting, consider volunteering IT services at a local nonprofit or community organization.

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