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The idea for the new Doctorate in Health Informatics (DHI) program came to Dr. Susan Fenton when she started noticing a curious silence from some of the students applying to the PhD program in biomedical informatics at UTHealth in Houston.
“When I’d ask some of them about the research they wanted to do, I’d get crickets,” said Fenton, who has been Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the UTHealth School of Biomedical Informatics since 2014. “They didn’t want to do research. They were working for health care organizations and wanted to keep doing so. They typically already had Master’s degrees, but the traditional research-oriented PhD programs weren’t quite right for them either. There was something missing.”
Fenton began floating the idea of a totally new kind of doctorate that was targeted not toward future researchers but toward professionals who expected to continue to work in health care. The response she got was enthusiastic. Not only from prospective students but also from employers, faculty, and local and state health agencies. There was a shared feeling that the health care system, and the technology underlying it, were transforming more rapidly than the current workforce was equipped to handle. There was an urgent need for training high-level executives to not only understand new informatics technologies, but to grasp how to implement them in the context of complex organizations and rapidly changing policy and regulatory landscapes.
“We need people who can function at that executive level who have a full appreciation for everything that is going on in the broader environment as well as in their organization,” said Fenton. “That means understanding health policy, social dynamics, health informatics, and privacy and security law, as well as how these all relate to each other.”
After doing the groundwork to establish the genuine need for a new program, Fenton and her colleagues next had to figure out what it would look like, and whether they had the resources to offer it.
“We couldn’t model it on anyone else’s curriculum, because there was no one else,” she said.
They did focus groups, conducted analyses of workforce trends, and examined curricula of related and overlapping programs, and then developed a new curriculum that was viable to support with existing resources.
The program, which accepted its first cohort of students this fall, includes a mix of courses that are already taught in the existing graduate program with newly developed, more business-focused courses like “Evidence-Based Health Informatics Practice,” “Advanced Project Management,” and “Vendor Relations and Contract Negotiations.” Instead of a traditional thesis or dissertation, the program concludes with a translational practice project that students are expected to implement and evaluate within a real organization.
“It could be something like leading a major EHR overhaul at a company,” she said. “When students apply to the program, they have to include a letter of support from an organization stating that it is willing to work with them on a project. It can be their employer, but it doesn’t have to be. From the letters I’ve seen so far, employers are extremely supportive, and in some cases have indicated that they will allow the student to complete that project as part of their paid work time. That says to me that the employer sees the value in this.”
In order to enable working professionals to earn the degree, most of the coursework is online, and can be done on the students’ own schedule. In the first year of the program, students have to come to campus five times for additional instruction and cohort building. During subsequent semester they’re required to spend one long weekend on campus.
Among the first cohort, which has 11 students, are a diverse array of professionals, including a Chief Medical Information Officer, a VP for analytics, and a senior consultant for an EHR vendor. Most of the students are coming from Texas, but a number are from other states, which surprised Fenton.
“We haven’t done any hardcore marketing for the program,” she said. “It’s mostly word of mouth. There are just people out there who really want this.”
The long-term plan is to expand to 30 students per cohort, and to hire additional faculty to meet the need.
“The ultimate goal is to improve the quality of patient care via the effective use of health information technology,” said Fenton. “Think about something like the St. John Sepsis Surveillance Agent, which was developed by Cerner to predict which patients were at risk for developing sepsis. Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston was one of the places where that program was piloted, and it’s now in use broadly. It has had a huge impact. It has saved lives here in Houston. Good informatics can save and improve lives, but for it to do so there have to be people within organizations who can take new technologies and implement them within actual, complex organizations. Those are the people we are training.”