March 04. 2013 9:00AM

New program prepares students for careers in health care IT

Health Care & Employee Benefits

By Dan Shafer

  
A new graduate degree program at Marquette University is preparing its students for a long-term career in health care information technology, an area of the health care industry seeing significant change as hospitals and providers work to improve outdated systems and embrace electronic medical records.

The new program, Start IT, offers the opportunity to earn a master of science in computing over the course of two years. It focuses specifically on health care information technology, and Marquette is partnering with area health care employers such as Aurora Health Care and Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital to provide this new opportunity.

Start IT addresses a skills gap in the field of health care information technology, providing a direct path for people to pursue a career where quality employees are in demand.

"There's a very strongly identified skills gap across the nation in health care IT," said Thomas Kaczmarek, director of the Master of Science in Computing program, who started the program.

Start IT also offers an opportunity for people who have earned a Bachelor's degree, but may be unemployed, to change careers.

"Adult education and career transition is something there isn't a whole lot of," said Kaczmarek. "There aren't many programs really attuned to helping people make the decision to (change careers). This is an important way to look at it that's pretty unique."

To get this unique program started, Kaczmarek identified the availability of state and federal funding specifically aimed at helping people move into careers in health care information and technology. State funding comes from the state's Workforce Investment Act (WIA), which provides up to $7,000 per year in job training assistance for the unemployed for those who qualify.

Federal funding, also at $7,000 per year in assistance for those who qualify, comes from the CareerWorks Healthcare Training Institute (HTI), located at 334 W. Brown St. in Milwaukee. CareerWorks is an organization that helps provide education and training in the health care field. HTI started in May, 2011, after the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board received a $3.4 million Health Professions Opportunity Grant (HPOC) funded by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Kaczmarek worked directly with the Institute to get Start IT off the ground, holding an open house there in November, 2012, where the program's first students were recruited. HTI director Linda Jaskowiak is optimistic about the new program.

"Health care systems are clamoring for this type of credentialed employee and they can make really good money at the end of the program," she said. "There's so much expertise needed in this area."

Expertise is not only provided by Marquette University and the Healthcare Training Institute, but also by health care professionals in the area. By working with Aurora and Froedtert, the program offers real world experience in the form of part-time work and internships. Students in the Start IT program will work directly with these employers, as a minimum of six credits of work experience is a requirement of the program.

"I proposed that the company that was going to offer the internship should also provide part-time employment while they're in school full time," said Kaczmarek. "And they loved the idea and joined in on it because they think it's a great way to introduce people gradually to what they need to know to succeed in health care."

Bob DeGrand, vice president and chief information officer at Froedtert Health, agrees. He said they were immediately interested in the program since it offered an opportunity to not only work directly with Marquette University, but also bring potential long-term employees through the program.

"If we get an intern in here before graduation, we get to understand the attitude and perspective of that person and whether they understand the health care environment," he said. "I think that's very important."

Health care professionals will also be resources to the program, teaching classes and helping structure curriculum. Compared to other career paths in information technology, having a health care-specific skillset is a big plus for job seekers in the industry.

"The health care industry, probably more than any other IT field, seems to only want people with experience in health care," said Kaczmarek. "Other organizations are OK with transplanting people, it seems, more so than in the health care industry."

DeGrand agreed, saying new employees and new leaders "can't consider themselves to be in the business of IT, they have to be in the business of health care."

Beyond learning practical skills currently applied by health care providers, the program takes a forward-thinking approach to anticipate the skills that will be utilized down the road.

"What we try to do in a graduate program like this is teach people how to anticipate where this is going to go and what is the next thing," said Kaczmarek. "A program like ours really prepares people for a longer term career in information technology that's focused on health care."

Start IT's pilot program, currently with five students, began this year at the start of Marquette's spring semester with what's being called a "Boot Camp." In the "Boot Camp," students meet with Kaczmarek on a daily basis to learn basic concepts and skills in information technology. By working with CareerWorks and the MAWIB, "Boot Camp" is no cost to veterans and the long-term unemployed.

"Boot Camp" is followed by a full year of full-time study, which is then followed by work experience directly in health care. For students currently in "Boot Camp," internships will take place in the summer of 2014. One final semester is scheduled in the fall of 2014, and students will graduate in December. Kaczmarek is aiming to start a second boot camp this summer and is hoping to find veterans to join the program.

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