Designing a Graduate Program in a New Academic Discipline

By Stephen Burrows
08:19 AM

As an academic discipline, healthcare information technology is still young. In a past blog, I wrote about the emergence of bachelor’s level healthcare IT programs. As a program director for a new graduate program in HIT, I’ve been faced with many challenges while preparing to launch the program in September 2012.

Primary among these problems is determining a curriculum. While interviewing for the position last year, I was asked about my experience in developing higher education coursework. My immediate thought was “I’ve been a student in enough classes, this should be relatively straightforward.” Boy was I wrong!

Starting with a high level listing of courses for the program, I had to first determine if this docket of courses made sense. The first constraint I faced was that only moderate changes could be made to these courses as the state department of higher education had given its approval to what had been submitted. Final accreditation would take place in a few years, and it would not be appropriate if there were significant changes from what was originally submitted.

The journey to a finalized, publishable curriculum began with a review of currently listed courses followed by an analysis of other, similar programs. This is where the beauty of the Internet really shone through and where Google continued to be a trusted friend! A search brought up numerous hits from programs across the country. The depth of the information varied but many universities publish their catalogs listing course titles and descriptions. A number even had publicly viewable syllabi.

Thus began the trek toward a complete course listing for the program. This is where the infancy of HIT as an academic discipline became both a blessing and a curse. While I was given a partially fleshed out curriculum as a starting point, it was basically still a blank slate. The blessing was that I could mold the program into virtually anything that was acceptable to the higher education department, my university and what the industry is currently looking for in a graduating student. The curse? That very same blank slate!

My program is one of several within the College of Health Professions. The others include Nursing, Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy, and Speech Language Pathology. Each of these programs has highly proscribed coursework and approval process from their accrediting organizations. Conversely, there isn’t yet a dominant accrediting organization for healthcare IT programs. Some might consider having to work within these guidelines a curse as it requires operating within a very narrow framework and adhering to strict standards. Frankly, I wouldn’t have minded a bit of ‘official’ guidance along the way.

After the initial review, it was reassuring to note that many graduate HIT programs offer a majority of similar courses. After speaking with numerous healthcare CIOs, informatics specialists and drawing from my own experiences, a final curriculum was forged for the program’s first year. As the field of healthcare IT is ever changing, I don’t want to say the curriculum is written in stone. Perhaps ‘slowly drying concrete’ is more accurate!

Stephen Burrows, DPM, MBA, is Chair & Program Director, Healthcare Information Systems, at Sacred Heart University’s College of Health Professions.