What It Takes to Launch a Healthcare IT Graduate Program

By Stephen Burrows
08:28 AM

As I complete the first semester teaching in a new graduate program in healthcare information technology, I am reminded of the enormity and importance of the work that has been accomplished at my University to launch a master’s degree program in Healthcare Information Systems (HIS).


I recently attended a presentation that discussed the implementation philosophy and approach of one of the industry’s leading Health Care Information System (HCIS) vendors. I’d like to borrow a few of their points, add my own and then apply this to the work that’s been done to develop my University’s graduate program to its current state:

1)    Don’t reinvent the wheel

This one seems pretty obvious but may often be forgotten. At first glance, it seems logical but can often be overlooked. When looking to create anything, see who might have done the work before. In terms of the above mentioned HCIS vendor- look to those who have already implemented. Learn from their mistakes and capitalize from their triumphs. When it comes to designing the graduate program, several established health/medical informatics programs were consulted. Curricula were evaluated and compared and the best topics and classes selected.

2)    Stand on the shoulders of predecessors.

We can all remember attending the local Fourth of July parade as a child. If you weren’t fortunate to get a seat up front you might have missed the entire show. That is until you were hoisted onto your parent’s shoulders. The view from up there was staggering! This same concept applies to implementing a hospital IT system or developing a healthcare information technology (HIT) graduate program. Draw on the wisdom of those who have gone before you. When the HIS program was presented to the state department of higher education for approval, the different components (program structure, curriculum, budget, and preliminary schedule) were all placed into a predetermined template containing these critical items that the University had created based on past experience. The template provided a uniform methodology for gathering and submitting theses key pieces of data in order to gain the state’s approval.

3)    Learn from others

As a program director who is new to the role, this one particularly applies to me and for others taking on new challenges. This goes hand in glove with standing on (and leaning against) the shoulders of those who have come before. All too often those in a new role want to ‘put their stamp’ on the work they are doing. My advice – talk to those who have been there and learn from them! Listen to (not just hear) what they have to say. For me, transitioning from a more ‘corporate’ role to one in academia, there was a lot to learn. Fortunately for me, there have been a lot of people willing to share their knowledge. Having been a student for many years, I originally thought that designing a class was pretty straightforward and would not be too overwhelming! I can tell you now that I was wrong! What I’ve found is that each hour of lecture (especially for a new educator) typically represents about 15 hours of prep time! This doesn’t even include the amount of time after the class – reviewing and grading papers and other student work. I was very fortunate to have a number of mentors that helped guide me through this process and were available for consultation throughout my first semester of teaching. I just had to keep my ears open and the questions coming!


4)    Listen to the ultimate customer

In the academic environment, the student is typically thought of as the customer. For the purpose of this discussion, I refer to the ‘ultimate’ customer – the Chief Information Officer (CIO) who will ultimately hire the student graduating with a master’s degree from the program. Since the field of HIT isn’t yet regulated by accrediting organizations such as other healthcare disciplines (nursing, physical therapy, occupational therapy) curricular topics aren’t dictated. Therefore the question: ‘what is to be taught’ in my University’s HIS program largely comes from this group of people.  Preparing for the task of creating the program’s classes, I sought the guidance and input of an Advisory Council. The Council consisted of a number of hospital and medical center CIOs, Directors of Medical or Nursing Informatics and Directors of regional Healthcare Information Exchanges. These are the individuals who are tasked with creating the vision for the use of technology in their organization. Who better to consult when deciding what students should be taught. Again, referring to #3 above – ask the questions and listen to the answer! Take the advice!

There is an adage attributed to a number of different cultures that says: “Treat the earth well. It was not given to you by your parents but loaned to you by your children”.  As citizens of this planet we have been entrusted with the viability of future generations. Reflecting on the work that’s been accomplished to bring my University’s HIS program to fruition, I believe this quote is particularly apropos not only to this new master’s program but to all students, to education in general and to our profession. We are all stewards of the future!


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