What the Data Ordered

If you’re seeking a six-figure salary in healthcare without pursuing a doctorate-level education, the health IT role can get you there through a combination of technical, data and cybersecurity skills.

By SmartBrief Education
Published Winter 2019

There is no question that jobs in healthcare are on the rise. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected that the sector will have grown 18% from 2016 through 2026, adding about 2.4 million new jobs — more than any other occupational group tracked by the federal agency. However, many of those jobs are support-oriented, requiring little more than a high school diploma, an associate degree or a certification, and paying a median of $64,770 in 2017.

What if you want a six-figure salary without having to pursue the doctorate-level education required to become a surgeon, optometrist, pharmacist or dentist? Healthcare IT may be just what the doctor ordered.

Profile of a Health IT Leader

Job titles within the health information technology field include: systems analyst, data analyst, data quality analyst, programmer, software engineer and similar positions. Also included are the top jobs in the field: chief information officer, chief technology officer and chief information security officer. Employers include vendors and consulting firms (which tend to pay better) and hospitals and medical groups (which can offer better work-life balance).

Information technology professionals in the health segment have a number of responsibilities, but most revolve around working with the electronic healthcare record system — whether implementing, maintaining or securing it, explains Lara Khansa, an associate professor of Business Information Technology at Virginia Tech. Khansa teaches courses that make up a health IT module within the broader online Master of Information Technology program.

Succeeding in the health IT field requires three skill sets, Khansa says: having a strong understanding of IT; of programming or interface languages; and of data in general, including privacy and security. But it is data analytics and cybersecurity that are the hot topics right now, she says.

“The data is there in the database, but the ability to give the doctor the recommendations on the fly, in real time, based on this data — this is the most important thing because it saves patients’ lives,” she explains. That requires IT experts to learn how to write algorithms that process the data fast and make decisions, but at the same time, “We have to keep the data secure and private,” she says.

Learning with Practical Studies

Almost all the students in Khansa’s health IT courses are working professionals, many serving in the military now or in the past and many employed by the federal government. She thinks they are drawn to the Virginia Tech MIT program for two reasons. First, the program’s approach offers the flexibility these adults need to succeed.

Because the classes are online, students can tune in when it works for their schedule. Just as importantly, they can choose their own path and combine several modules, Khansa says. While there’s a core group of foundation courses they’re required to take, by mixing and matching “module classes” they can focus on the aspects of IT that are important to their career goals. That could be a concentration or a mix of cybersecurity, AI and machine learning, cloud computing, digital business, software development, big data or one of a dozen other categories.

Second, the MIT courses are practical. Prior to joining academia, Khansa worked as a software engineer at GE Medical Systems designing medical applications and developing GEMS’ connectivity software. She maintains industry contacts as a member of numerous professional institutes and associations. So, like other faculty, Khansa constantly tweaks the courses to keep them current on technology trends.

In the classes she teaches, Khansa emulates the activities students will face in the field of health IT by having them undertake projects akin to what they’ll experience in the work world. As one example, while private offices and clinics around the world use the EPIC e-health record system, Khansa’s students do a lot of homework on a demo version of the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture, a comparable system that’s long been used in the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Students are also required to do deep research on a topic they’ve chosen and develop a paper that’s journal- worthy. In some cases, Khansa encourages them to patent their ideas because she recognizes the potential of the work (see Combatting PTSD with Wearables).

In a Healthcare Data Management course, the students design an interface for a database of their choosing. While the data itself isn’t proprietary (it comes from one of the freely available datasets online), “the models to process the data, the algorithms behind it — this is what students come up with,” she notes.

Combatting PTSD with Wearables

As a requirement in one of Lara Khansa’s health IT courses in Virginia Tech’s MIT program, students do deep research in a topic of their choosing and turn it into a research paper that’s worth submitting for publication. Two students, one a veteran and the other currently serving in the US Army in Germany, focused their efforts on wearable technology, specifically to treat post-traumatic stress disorder without the use of pharmaceuticals.

Published in 2017 in an Elsevier journal, the paper proposes applying a combination of temperature control, aromatherapy and auditory therapy capabilities, all encapsulated in a wearable device, to monitor for signs of nightmares and then either suppress the dream or slowly wake the wearer.

The project concluded that the device would bring together “common, commercially available hardware” with “easily integrated communication protocols,” enabling patients and their healthcare providers “to evaluate reports of aggregated data in order to identify more efficient means of delivering care and aiding in daily alertness.”

The proposal has numerous applications, says Khansa, and not only for soldiers and other trauma victims suffering from PTSD. “Think about rural patients, living in places where they can’t get to their doctors and so they end up getting more ill,” she explains. “There could be a system installed at home that they can attach their wearable to and then the doctor can communicate with them through a telehealth system. Anywhere you want to make sure the patient is controlled at all times, this is when you can use wearables, coupled with other health IT technologies, such as telehealth.”

A Fast-Track to Professional Confidence

Word-of-mouth recommendations have driven students to Khansa’s health IT concentration. Enrollment has risen steeply since she first started teaching the health IT course, a result of the popularity of the MIT program itself as well as that “the students value the attention I give them, they value the expertise, and, I think, they end up with projects that show they did something in the class,” she says.

Yet, Khansa knows that not all the students will end up working in health IT, and that’s OK, she insists. “They learn the concepts, the technology — which is very transferable. It doesn’t have to be the healthcare field. [What’s important] is the way of thinking — it’s the research, the inquisitive mind, the confidence they gain through the course that they can apply in any field.”

Not Ready for a Master’s Degree Yet?

People who are still figuring out the right direction for their IT career may not be ready to commit to a full master’s degree program.  Or maybe they possess an advanced degree but want to accelerate their work in a new field. Virginia Tech’s IT Graduate Certificate in Health Information Technology includes four courses, two in healthcare (healthcare information and healthcare data management) and two in business intelligence and analytics. This graduate credential provides a quick path to expertise, typically within a year.