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UM's Montana Tech Offers
Health Care Informatics Degree
by Vikki McLaughlin
Ray Rogers has never seen anything like it. In all his time as director of college relations and marketing for Montana Tech, never has he seen such interest in a new degree program. The new program is Health Care Informatics — the nation’s first such undergraduate degree — which began this fall, starting its first group of students on the road to a specialty career that merges clinical health care and information technology.
“I typically get one or two calls or e-mails every day, and that’s been going on for months now,” Rogers says.
Graduates of the program will be able to retrieve and interpret data to track trends, costs and other information useful to hospitals and other health care facilities. Their work will update the health care industry through the world of technology.
“The bottom line is, it will improve health care – improve both the quality and efficiency,” Rogers says.
Montana Tech has partnered with Butte’s St. James Healthcare in the informatics venture, which includes not only the new degree program, but also a National Center for Health Care Informatics to be built on the St. James campus.
“In time, it will have an impact on the cost of health care, which is important to everyone,” says Pat Dudley, human resources director at St. James.
While the two projects are related, they’re moving forward on parallel paths, Rogers says.
The center, a self-supporting, stand-alone entity, will cover about 8,000 to 10,000 square feet and house three classrooms with multimedia capabilities, as well as administrative offices. It will function as a nonprofit corporation with affiliations to both Montana Tech and St. James.
Though the two institutions will not provide funding for the center, they will provide expertise and professional skills for students and faculty to draw on.
A $400,000 federal grant was awarded to the center in April, but funds are restricted and must be reprogrammed to be spent for planning and design, Dudley says. That money should be available later this year. Meanwhile, Montana Tech and St. James have requested a congressional appropriation of $1.5 million for fiscal year 2003 to build the center and purchase hardware and software.
Dudley and Rogers say they should know about the $1.5 million request, which has the support of Montana’s three congressional representatives — Sens. Conrad Burns and Max Baucus and Rep. Denny Rehberg — by the end of the year. They plan to request additional funding for fiscal year 2004 to complete the center.
“We hope by the end of the third appropriation year that it will be able to sustain itself,” Rogers says.
The center’s goals, stated in the funding request submitted to Congress this year, are to establish:
The center’s continuing education component is crucial, Dudley says. “The key to functioning in the IT (information technology) world is to be kept up to date.
“We also have a huge need for continuing education in health care in general. The center would have the infrastructure to provide that education through distance learning, especially to small, rural facilities with small budgets.”
Dudley and Rogers, who eventually will become directors of the center, are not thinking small. They believe the facility could become a national reference and research center, drawing on the knowledge bases of Montana Tech and St. James, as well as professionals in the information systems industry.
A recent article in Nurse Week magazine discussed the health care technology need and how the industry is lagging behind in that area. In a Business and Health magazine survey of information technology specialists in hospital systems, HMOs and physician group practices, nearly two-thirds of those responding said their organizations’ top priority for 2001 was the need to deploy Internet technologies. The top five priorities listed by respondents had an information technology component.
The informatics program has benefits for Montana Tech, for St. James, for Butte, for Montana and for the country, says Dudley, who initiated the project. What started out as an idea to solve the hospital’s shortage of on-call, per diem workers blossomed into plans for the degree program and the national center. Dudley’s original plan was to offer scholarships to Tech for health care workers who were burned out and wanted new careers. That would be good for St. James, as those students would work in the per-diem pool for the two or three years they were attending the college.
As his plan took shape, the idea of merging clinical and information systems skills began forming in Dudley’s mind. He took the idea to Rogers in fall 2000, and the birth of the informatics program was on its way.
The informatics degree program, which was approved last November by the state Board of Regents, had more than 20 students accepted by mid-May.
“We’re happy with that,” Rogers says. “We got a late start getting the word out. ... But we’ve had a tremendous amount of interest.”
Danette Melvin, who has been at Montana Tech for four years, was named interim department head for informatics in April. Melvin, who finished a nursing master’s degree in clinical systems management, teaches nursing classes at Tech’s College of Technology.
The first two years of informatics classes will be delivered mostly online, Melvin says. Other classes in the informatics curriculum, such as psychology and chemistry, already are offered at Tech through other departments.
Tech offers degree programs in health care, technology and communications fields. “We can pull from the courses we already have toward a health care informatics degree,” Rogers says.
He says, however, that he wants to bring in more experts in informatics, and he hopes to have five faculty members in the program within the first few years.
Students may be straight out of high school or health care professionals seeking a career change. Health Care Informatics offers a two-year associate degree or a four-year bachelor of science degree.
Montana Tech and the center will help fund internship programs for students in their senior year and during summers. Students also will be placed in various health care sites so they can see what particular jobs are like, Melvin says.
The program could have as many as 150 students within three years. But Rogers doesn’t want to proceed too fast, to ensure that quality remains high.
“It’s an incredibly exciting program,” he says. “The interest from the health care industry really has been exciting for us. The jobs are out there, and they’re good-paying jobs. We’re hitting this at a good time. The industry needs these people, and they needed them yesterday.
“Right now,” Dudley says, “we’re the best thing around.” V
Vikki McLaughlin, a UM journalism school graduate, is a freelance writer and part-time copy editor for the Montana Standard in Butte.