An HIT Moment with ... is a quick interview with someone we find interesting. Lawrence M. Pawola, PharmD, MBA is Associate Dean of Academic Practice and Program Director, Health Informatics, Operations and Curriculum, at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Describe the MS in Health Informatics at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), what kinds of students are attracted to it, and what graduates are doing.
As one of the oldest programs in the industry, the HI/HIM programs at UIC have a long history of excellence, consistently preparing graduates who become leaders in the Health Information Management and Health Informatics professions.
The HIM program was established in 1965 and has graduated many of the top contributors to this profession. Coursework in health informatics was originally built in the early 1990s, with the Master of Science in Health Informatics degree formally established at UIC in 1999. We are by far the largest and one of the oldest health informatics graduate education programs in our industry. Our multidisciplinary program is housed in the Department of Biomedical and Health Information Sciences in the College of Applied Health Sciences, which is one of the six primary health discipline colleges located on our campus just west of downtown Chicago.
UIC, being one of only several universities having all medical disciplines on one campus, is recognized as a national hub of medical research, being designated by the Carnegie Foundation as 1 of 96 “Very High” Research universities, as well as consistently ranking in the top 50 of national universities in federal research funding.
The Master of Science program has been delivered in an online fashion for the last twelve years. Courses have been built to better understand the social and behavioral attitudes and issues that inhibit the effective use of information technology in healthcare organizations. Our faculty guides students to assimilate theory and apply it to everyday activities. Many times, the students work in groups, sharing their professional perspectives, as they discover new knowledge.
Our goal is to produce graduates who can assume higher-level staff, management, and other leadership positions in a variety of healthcare, supplier, payer, and consulting organizations; they will lead their organizations to achieve greater value from their systems investments. UIC’s HI/HIM alumni are highly coveted and have created an elite network of industry leaders. They have been hired by a number of leading healthcare providers, leading supplier companies, and consulting firms. Their achievements are recognized by their individual companies, organizations and agencies, as well as national industry groups such as AHIMA, HIMSS, and AMIA.
Keep in mind that our Master of Science degree is not our only online program. Our highly-respected BS in HIM is a blended program, offering students the opportunity to combine classroom instruction along with online courses. We also offer an online Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Health Informatics that consists of three courses, as well as a seven-course Post-Master’s Certificate in Health Informatics that offers those with a graduate-level degree an excellent credential signifying they are highly proficient in the analysis, evaluation, implementation, and control of healthcare information systems and related technologies.
We are very excited about the launch of our new online Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Health Information Management that will permit healthcare, business, and IT professionals to be eligible to sit for the RHIA certification exam. We will begin accepting applications for that program in late April.
Students from all of the health disciplines are attracted to our programs. We have physicians, nurses, pharmacists, medical and radiology technologists, therapists, technology and computer science professionals, engineers, and other professionals in our programs. Because we are online, students come from all over the United States and the world. Military personnel serving overseas, as well as professionals from India, China, Korea, and several other countries have participated in our courses.
Studies have indicated that there aren’t enough people trained in health informatics to advance electronic medical records. Do you agree it’s a problem and, if so, what’s the solution?
Yes, this is definitely a problem, but frankly, this has been a problem for a long time. The recent stimulus bill will set a number of activities into motion during the next few years, which will further increase the demand for informatics-trained professionals.
At UIC, we have been scaling our HI/HIM programs and preparing to educate even greater numbers of students while maintaining quality at all levels of instruction. Industry-experienced faculty have been hired in anticipation of increased enrollments and we have modified our student enrollment/registration, research, and advising processes to accommodate this growth. We emphasize quality and service, which are hallmarks of our programs. Furthermore, our courses continually change as the industry demands new knowledge and experience, so keeping an eye on what is needed for success is critical to maintaining an edge on what the industry requires.
People working in healthcare information technology must realize their customers are highly educated individuals who demand the best of customer service and response. Clinicians, for example, are trained to assess evidence as an essential element of any decision-making process. The ability to research an answer and support one’s conclusions and recommendations with evidence has become a critical skill set in today’s healthcare society. This is also a requisite skill set for people who support information technology and electronic medical records.
Having worked in this industry for almost thirty years, I, like others, realize the evolution toward electronic health records is a series of long-term projects that change culture, processes, attitudes, and jobs. Organizations need to grow into most effectively using EHR capabilities; these aren’t “slam-dunk” solutions. As a result, there will be a need for trained informatics professionals through the next 10 to 20 years and beyond.
While the government’s stimulus program may provide a jump start, the solution requires formal training and continued education over many years. The industry needs experience. Educational programs like UIC represent one of the tools of a total solution set required for the long term.
Are you seeing increased interest in your program because of economic conditions?
Yes, our enrollments have significantly increased during the last two years. We have more applications for our programs at this point in our summer and fall enrollment cycles than we have ever had before. I have talked to others here at the University of Illinois at Chicago and they said that the “hot areas,” such as engineering during the last major economic downturn back in the 1990s, have always been good arenas for individuals to reinvent themselves for new careers and employment when the economy begins to pick up again; health informatics is definitely "hot”.
This economic downturn is not any different than any past one. The current conditions have forced many workers to think about their futures, to assess new working careers, and to try something different. This is a definite opportunity to retool oneself to be eligible for a position that is in high demand in a growing industry, and will have a tremendous impact on all of our futures. With the new administration’s desire to emphasize electronic health records, the future is bright for individuals who have requisite skill sets in informatics.
What surprises me is the intense interest we receive from physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and other clinical professionals. In spite of having relatively stable employment through most economic downturns, a number of clinical professionals are students in our programs, partly because they not only desire to take advantage of opportunities in their current positions, but also to become educated to take on even greater responsibilities and leadership.
Though our program is not specifically meant to attract just healthcare professionals — in fact about half of our students come from backgrounds other than clinical — our curriculum emphasizes skills that will give everyone rounded backgrounds to be successful in healthcare. We need to remember that these are complex software systems and to successfully use them, a number of issues must be understood, dealt with, and solved. One does not need to be a clinician to be successful in our informatics programs and in the healthcare information technology industry.
Economic stimulus funds will likely change the healthcare IT industry. Do you have any predictions on what will happen?
I have talked with a number of consultants, supplier representatives, providers, and students during the last few weeks, and as expected, there is a wide variety of opinions. But in spite of the best of intentions, I don’t believe there will be a mad rush for systems in the next few months. Like other segments of the economic recovery plan, the stimulus is somewhat vague in many areas; wise providers will wait for some period of time until there is better definition of what demonstrates success under the stimulus. The plan will result in incentive payments for those providers who demonstrate meaningful use of their EHRs. We will see a last minute push to purchase and implement new systems as we get closer to deadline dates, with a resulting crush on experienced resources, and a cry to change the legislation and move the deadline.
Most everyone agrees there will be entrepreneurs developing and pushing their ideas as the best available solutions, so one needs to exercise caution as they purchase. Historically and generally speaking, healthcare organizations have had difficulty realizing value from their information technology investments. Because of the push for new systems during the next two years, and with many new users implementing complex functionality into resistant cultures for the first time, there is tremendous risk that money will not be spent wisely.
My advice for any organization is to conduct thorough planning and evaluation, make well-thought-out selection decisions, and understand how your business operations will be affected by new technology. Build on the available experience in the industry and seek high value and return from the investment you are making. While the money may be available and the “candy store” is now open, spending it wisely requires thought and careful effort. As I said earlier, these are long-term projects that require significant cultural, behavioral, and process modifications for every organization to achieve success.
Do you enjoy working in higher education after a long career as a management consultant?
Yes, very much. This is the right spot for me at this point in my career.
I spent over twenty years as a management consultant and have a plethora of stories about client situations and business travel difficulties. I have never regretted my many years in consulting at American Hospital Supply Corporation (remember it?) and with Dorenfest & Associates. I respect the people I worked with and learned much from them. I worked hard to achieve good results with my clients and always gained additional knowledge from each one of them. These experiences have helped position me to lead and grow this academic program.
Higher education is not without its own set of problems. With decreasing budgets and increasing competition for students, academia is very much like any other business. An understanding of basic business principles, such as strategic planning, marketing, and management is as critical to success in the academic environment as it is to any healthcare consulting or software business. My additional experiences as a consultant have taught me to appreciate these challenges, to be patient with the change process, and to respect others for their attitudes, personalities, and agendas. While a large university like ours may appear to be slow to change on any given day, comparing a snapshot of today to one taken a year ago will illustrate tremendous changes. My organization has smart, committed people. We have terrific students with the maturity and desire to learn. The Dean in our college and the campus administration support me, providing me with the opportunity to build something I truly believe in to be a leader in our industry. What more can I ask for?