1. Moore-Cox, Annie MS, RN

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It happens every autumn. I get a whiff of a marble composition notebook and I am itching to go back to school. If your thoughts have been turning in that direction and you are wondering about your options in informatics education, there are many possibilities to consider. Whether you want to stay at home or travel, or live abroad and wish to study in the United States, there probably is a program that will suit your needs.


Whatever your reasons for seeking education in informatics, you first need to determine your education goals. Ask yourself the following types of questions:


* Do you want to get a new, better, or more interesting job?


* Are you looking to move into a different aspect of healthcare from care provider to vendor, for instance, or from staff member to manager?


* Are you a faculty member who sees the need to bring informatics education to your curriculum?


* Are you an informatics nurse already, figuring that you might as well have some credentials?



Your answers will provide the starting point for deciding what sort of degree or certification you should pursue.


Another helpful strategy is to take an informatics nurse to lunch, as Susan Newbold always suggests! Seek out a nurse who is willing to talk with you about job possibilities, both local (specific) and nationally (more general); about educational requirements for these types of positions, which may differ from one community to another; and about salary expectations. Ask her how she prepared for her position and what she thinks your best bet is in terms of education. Join informatics e-mail lists and watch for people discussing educational options and requirements for jobs. Be forewarned, there will always be "sour grapers" on any e-mail list who have a gripe against a specific institution. Take those complaints with a grain of salt. Some may be legitimate, but it is always better to gather your own information.


Gathering information leads us to your homework. (Already, you say?) While you are still trying to pin down your goals, be sure to pay attention to the e-mail lists for job postings. Go to meetings of informatics groups in your area (see accompanying article for organizations); subscribe to an informatics journal (may I suggest CIN: Computers, Informatics, Nursing); and read the want ads. Go online and explore the Web sites of informatics organizations. Try to find out as much as you can about job opportunities as well as degree or certification requirements in your geographic area. If you are thinking about moving, find out about the proposed new area, too.


If, after doing your "homework," you find yourself still in need of guidance, you may want to spend some money and seek recommendations from a professional career counselor. The upfront cost may seem expensive, but going through the process with a good counselor may save you thousands of dollars and untold anxiety in the long run. My point is this: Be sure you have done a thorough job of determining what you want and what you need before you enroll in any program of study.


You must decide not only what sort of degree or certification you want, but also whether you want to move to get this education, whether you can study full-time or part-time, and how much money you can spend or are willing to borrow to reach your goals. If you need to continue working, will your employer provide any tuition reimbursement? Does your family, spouse, or significant other support your decision to return to school? Do you have a place to study and a computer at home? Is there anything huge or expensive looming in your personal or professional life? All these things need to be put in that big pot of considerations you have been developing during this information-gathering phase.


If you have never taken a graduate course, it is important to understand that for every credit hour of a course, you must plan on spending 1 hour in class and 3 hours of preparation each week for 15 weeks. Most American universities use this guideline for determining the scope of a course. Therefore, whether you are taking a course on campus or online, plan on 12 hours per week of coursework for each 3-credit course you take. Full-time students in graduate school generally carry a 12-credit load per semester, in other words, up to 48 hours of school work per week. Think seriously whether you can you realistically do this with a full-time job and other responsibilities.


If you think an online program may work for you, you will find that some of the characteristics that make a good traditional or campus-based student (eg, motivation, organization, and preparation) also make a good online student. There are some skills that seem particularly well-suited to online learning, however.


Online courses generally do not rely on lectures to provide information for students. Usually, online courses are more like guidebooks for self-study. Readings, links, audio and video clips, and faculty written introductions of the subject matter are provided, but it is up to the student to study the course material and then explore it with the faculty and fellow students online. Most likely, there is some mechanism for discussion within the course's learning platform (ie, the computer program designed to deliver the course to the students) with the faculty and other course participants. The responsibility for contributing varies from course to course, but there is an expectation that students will participate. Consistent participation, posting of comments and questions early and often, and the development of online study groups all help to keep the knowledge ball rolling.


There are several different places to discover your readiness for online learning. Figure 1 lists a few sites of online self-evaluation quizzes to help you decide whether online learning is the right thing for you.

Figure 1 - Click to enlarge in new window Self-Evaluation Quizzes to Assess Readiness for Online Learning

Once you have done all your homework, you are ready to start exploring your options. The following program descriptions represent examples of the many types of programs available. This is not meant to be a comprehensive guide to programs in informatics, but rather a representative sampling. It is meant to get you started exploring on your own because ultimately it is you who will have to do the work of getting a degree or certificate.


Several things should be kept in mind. A few of the programs that focus on online course delivery, such as those offered by Duke University, Excelsior College, and the University of Colorado, mention their interest in accommodating students from outside the United States. Also, the focus here is on graduate level courses, but a few programs such as the one at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania offer an array of undergraduate courses in informatics as well.



Table 1 provides information about some of the graduate programs that offer master's degrees in nursing with a major concentration in nursing informatics. Almost all American nursing master's programs have a foundational core of general nursing courses such as research, theory, role, ethics, and healthcare systems. Students then specialize to gain mastery in a given specialty.

Table 1 - Click to enlarge in new windowTable 1 Master's Programs With a Nursing Informatics Major*Schools are not always consistent in their reporting of costs. Some use a trimester or quarter system that does not lend itself to reporting tuition on a per-credit basis.

Most schools now use some form of Web-based course delivery, often as an adjunct to the classroom. Large numbers of schools are moving courses entirely to the Web every semester. Although the schools listed in Table 1 have been categorized as on-campus, online, or both, in actuality, this represents a judgment regarding how the courses for the programs' courses are predominantly delivered according to the Web sites of the colleges.


The University of Colorado Health Sciences Center at Denver offers a master's degree program that offers students not one but two concentrations, decision support and health communications, for their focus within the informatics major. In this program, the identified nursing core courses comprise approximately 14 of 36 credits. The remaining credits are devoted to the in-depth study of core competencies in informatics.


The program offers many courses online, and the school has a well-proven track record in online course delivery. In-state cost per credit at this public institution is quite low, whereas out-of-state tuition is quite a bit higher.



The programs presented in Table 2 contain the core courses of most other graduate nursing programs as well as a specialized track within which a student can choose to minor or subspecialize in informatics.

Table 2 - Click to enlarge in new windowTable 2 Master's Programs in Nursing With an Emphasis or Minor in Nursing Informatics

The Master's in Clinical Systems Management offered by Excelsior College located in Albany, New York, is among the least expensive options for obtaining a master's degree with a minor in informatics. The informatics content comprises 12 of the 44 credits in this program. Because this program is delivered almost entirely online, students from all over the United States and beyond can participate. Students are required to travel to Albany for a final 3-day Capstone Experience at the end of their program. Faculty members are experts in their respective fields drawn from campuses all over the country.



Table 3 lists schools that offer graduate level certificate programs in nursing or healthcare informatics. Generally, when a school uses the term "healthcare informatics," it means that students other than nurses may be enrolled in the certificate program. Credit requirements vary widely, as do costs. Some of these programs are offered completely online, and many enable students to transfer credits from the certificate program to the school's own or another school's master's program in nursing.

Table 3 - Click to enlarge in new windowTable 3 Certificate Programs in Nursing or Healthcare Informatics


At least two doctoral programs, one at the University of Maryland and the other at the University of Iowa, offer a PhD as a focus of coursework in informatics, whereas the University of Utah allows doctoral students to pursue informatics as a focus of research. The contact information for these schools is presented in Tables 1, 2, and 3.



Many of the colleges and universities listed also allow students to take their courses on a stand-alone or nonmatriculated basis. This means that you take the course through the university, usually enrolling via some fast-track admission procedure, and receive credit from that university for the course. You then can transfer these credits to another program if the program allows such credits to count toward your degree. If you are in a program and want to take a course at another university for transfer, be sure to speak to your advisor first and get permission in writing before enrolling in the outside university's course and paying any fees.



Going back to school, whether for a degree or just to take a few courses, is a rewarding and enriching experience. If your interest is in informatics, educational opportunities available to you have increased exponentially during the past decade. Take the time to do a self-assessment, gather data, and do your homework. Think carefully about online options. These types of courses provide great flexibility but do require a high level of self-directed learning and motivation on the part of the student. Likewise, think carefully about the type of program and the depth of informatics education. But remember, when all is said and done, all education is beneficial. Enjoy learning!