Educational Path for Healthcare IT Executives


Is there a specific educational path that strengthens your chances of becoming  a C – suite healthcare IT executive?

Answers from Russ Branzell:

I truly believe the simple answer is NO!

No Clear Path

If you look just at the Chief Information Officers that serve on the CHIME CIO Bootcamp there is no clear educational path.  Bachelor degrees vary from anthropology, business, human resources, sociology, and numerous others.  Master Degrees also vary from psychiatry, aerospace science, business administration, and numerous others.  Some have PHDs, but they are specific areas such as computation biology and healthcare informatics. 

The one truth of formal education is that you need one!  The ownership of a diploma is a key starting point for any career track in today’s healthcare industry, especially healthcare information technology.  Why? In most organizations today, there are minimum education standards for most director, supervisor, manager and other middle management level positions (usually bachelor’s required).   This is key with the thought that these are the feeding points for vice president, Chief Information Officer, Chief Technology Officer, and other related HIT executive positions. 

In most organizations today, senior executive position require advanced level education.  Specifically, they require a master’s level.  Some still have the master’s preferred requirement, but most of the competition already has their master’s degree, so you will be at a significant disadvantage without one.

Fast Track

With all this being said, there does seem to be a fast track process into the executive ranks in many healthcare organizations: post MBA/MHA fellowship/residency programs.   In larger organizations, post MBA/MHA fellowship/resident program students are exposed to a full year of executive level experience.  Often the fellow/resident rotates thru all the senior executive positions and is assigned key projects to analyze, plan and complete. 

As a particular example, one the residents was assigned to the CIO division in our organization.  He completed key projects including a balanced scorecard system, productivity reviews, and air-flight business plan.  During his program, we had the Director of Health Information Management retiree and placed the resident/fellow in that position as an interim.  Post his program position, he moved into the position permanently and made major contributions to the entire IS division thru his unique leadership skills.  Today, he is the COO at one our hospitals, but it all started with his IS position. 

Certifications and Professional Affiliations

 Another key factor of educational path is certifications and professional affiliations.  In particular, the CHIME and HIMSS education programs are invaluable for professional advancement.  The CHIME CIO Bootcamp is a significant investment by an organization in the preparation and succession plan for future HIT leadership roles.   Only around 100 students are accepted into this program annually, but a significant percentage have seen major advances in their professional positions, including rising to the ranks of Chief Information Office and/or Vice President.  

Additionally, the certification programs offered through HIMSS and CHIME are extremely valuable and require a defined commitment to education and career knowledge.  Those include CAHIMS-Certified Associate in Healthcare Information and Management Systems, CPHIMS-Certified Professional in Healthcare Information and Management Systems, CHCIO-Certified Chief Information Officer.  All require dedication to the career field and continued education in addition to practical experience.  Refer to the HIMSS and CHIME websites for more information. 


The last area of education prevalent in most HIT executive leaders in the experience gained with professional organization volunteerism.  Most HIT executive leaders are actively involved in their respective professional societies, but the movers and shakers take this to much higher level of dedication – sacrificial service.  They volunteer to serve the organization, like HIMSS and CHIME, in whatever capacity is needed.  Many rise to the ranks of Board of Directors.  They do this while maintaining full-time HIT leadership positions and busy personal lives’.   The educational experience gained thorough this experiences springboard these individuals in their respective organizations and often into advanced positions in all areas of HIT. 

A Never Ending Process

The final truth to education is that, with all successful HIT executives, it is a never ending process.  Successful HIT executives are lifelong learners.  They read continuously trade magazines, books, and online content.  They attend HIT education conference to stay current and advance their respective organizations.  They share and collaborate with their peers to share their knowledge and educational experience. 

With the basic premise that you must have a formal education to advance in the HIT profession, but maybe not a specific degree-you must invest in yourself!!!   The certification process thorough HIMSS and CHIME  are valuable education investments for advancement.  Finally, real-life experience, whether fellowship or volunteerism, is important for self-development.

I would be remiss if I didn’t give one final educational pearl of wisdom – know thyself.  Invest in all parts of your life: personal, physical, spiritual, and professional.  Find a healthy balance and commit to your true priorities. 

One of my favorite quotes is from Theodore Roosevelt.

“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

David Miller adds:

Russ has covered the landscape very well in regard to your original question, especially in regards to the formal approach to education that involves academic and professional pursuits. I would like to expound in a little bit more detail around the non-formal education and personal growth.

All About Leadership

To Russ's point, many of us come from non-technical backgrounds. One of my favorite hospital CIOs, who has moved on to the vendor space, has a bachelor degree in theater. My own route to the executive suite has definitely been nontraditional, but has better prepared me for the job than I ever could have imagined. Because, at the end the day, being an executive is all about leadership. And I believe that you cannot lead in business without a deep understanding of how that business functions.

A Circuitous Journey        

My own journey has been a very circuitous one. My career in health care spans over 33 years in length. I began on the clinical side, is a medical technologist, which has given me a baseline understanding and vocabulary that continues to serve me today. Subsequent to that, I got involved with a disease management organization, ultimately managing a hospital-based diabetes treatment center, which gave me a good background from which to understand hospital operations. My first venture into information technology was with a financial decision support vendor. During that time, I was able to immerse myself in the world of healthcare finance, from cost accounting to contract modeling. Cost accounting in particular gives you a deep understanding of how resources flow throughout an organization.

I then spent over 20 years in consulting, both for information technology as well as management consulting, before leaving that space about eight years ago in taking over the reins as head of IT for a community hospital. The information that I learned in consulting, especially during my time in a couple of Big 4 firms, exposed me to a lot of best practices that I have been implementing ever since.

Many Ways to Learn

You need to take every opportunity to learn all aspects of the business of healthcare. You can do that through formal mechanisms such as a graduate degree in health services administration, or through spending focused time shadowing individuals in their various job functions, which is a practice that I continue to do today. Your value to an organization in an executive position is directly correlated to your ability to apply the resources that you control to create solutions to problems and challenges that the organization is grappling with. There is no shortage of problems and challenges, especially in today's tumultuous environment.