Importance of Project Management within a Health Informatics Masters Degree

Question:

How important is it to take a project management class while earning my master's degree in Healthcare Informatics? What other opportunities would you have taken advantage of while earning your degree?

Answers from Brenda Herrmann:

Like most questions about what is essential exposure for a Healthcare Informaticist, the answer begins with "it depends what you want to do."  As a project manager, my initial response would be, “Take advantage of every project management experience or class you can get your hands on!”  However, after a bit more consideration, I’d say expose yourself to as many different things in school as you can.  Pragmatically speaking, taking a project management course may make sense, but college provides unique opportunities to explore and experiment in ways you will never have in “real life”. 

For example, if you plan to go into research, the project management class may not be as beneficial as others like Advanced Information Retrieval or Data Mining.  After graduation, you can always take a week long dedicated project management course at a conference (like the week before the Summer Institute in Nursing Informatics at the University of Maryland), and it will be as comprehensive as a semester-long course in school. 

If your plan is to focus on systems implementation or to work for a vendor, the project management certification is highly valued.  Ironically though, you have to have several years of project management experience before you can sit for the certification exam.  project management, as important as it may be, is something you can pick up down the road.  Ultimately, the academic discipline of project management is quite different from the real-world skill of managing a project.  It's unlikely that a one-semester course will significantly improve your standing as a potential employee.

Before leaving the friendly confines of academia, if you have an opportunity to intern with a company that looks promising as an employer, jump on it.  It’s kind of like working as a nursing tech while in nursing school.  The real world experience is worth far more than the classroom or clinical practicum you get in school.  Now, that is easier said than done.  Vendors and consulting firms are just beginning to realize the desperate need for clinical informaticists in helping healthcare to meet all the government mandates and to provide systems that are clinician and patient friendly!  I think this is where our real challenge is today in informatics – linking the clinical informaticists with the vendors in a useful way.  Wouldn’t it be fun to have a student intern “clearing house” that hooked up students with their desired work areas and employers with future leaders?

By the way, as a student you can join many organizations for a greatly reduced fee.  You should join as many as you can afford, and take advantage of going to conferences as a student volunteer.  HIMSS should be at the top of your list if you are interested in vendor or consulting jobs, and AMIA if you are interested in academia or research.  The Alliance for Nursing Informatics is the NI group that links both of them, and is strong on public policy comment.  ANIA-CARING is a must for every NI student – very inexpensive, and the networking is phenomenal!  Good luck!

Answers from Jeanette Polaschek:

I agree with the advice that Brenda has outlined in her response.  The answer to your question very much depends on your planned career goals.  Having said that, project management is a skill that lends itself well to learning in a real-world environment. The basics of project management are actually planted as you developed your skills as a clinical staff nurse.  The patient is your project - you have deadlines to meet (times when treatments and medications are due), you have resources to assist (ancillary staff, physicians) and you are responsible for the overall management of the project (while that patient is assigned to you during your shift).  As nurses working at the bedside we learn to prioritize our work, pay close attention to detail and be diligent in follow-up and documentation.  All of the skills make up the essential toolset of a good project manager.

In terms of what classes to take while in school, as Brenda has said, it again depends on your career goals.  Do you want to develop your technical skills – perhaps become involved in actual systems installation or administration?  Or maybe work for a vendor as a solution architect or developer.  If that is the case, then learn a programming language and take some basic courses in design and system architecture. These types of classes will provide an education on how software is developed and fundamental components of a range of system environments.

If you are interested in sales or marketing, then you should look for classes that cover the fundamentals of business, market research, competitive strategy and statistics.  All of these topics have a much broader perspective that will take you outside the world of health care but the concepts are important and very much applicable to the current health care market.

For the more pure informaticist perspective, classes on decision support, probability theory and knowledge bases would definitely be of interest.  This is an exciting area and the opportunities for careers in this area are growing as most health care organizations are finally at a point where the basic information systems are in place.  Now that the registration system, ancillary services and other essentials are in place the focus is shifting to the more interesting applications where information integration, clinical decision support and analytics will play a key role.

Good luck with your education and career!

December 2011