Advanced education in healthcare information technology (HIT): certifications vs. graduate degrees

I have recently received an increasing number of questions from readers of my own blog about whether or not graduate degrees or technical (HIT-specific or otherwise) certifications are worth the effort. I’ve written a few posts recently on similar topics which may be worth checking out:

The last post in the list above goes into specific detail about my thoughts on certifications, but I didn’t discuss graduate degrees as much, so I’ll elaborate a bit more in this current article. There are obvious pros and cons to either choice, but it’s a “win/win” scenario; you can’t go wrong with either, but one is more expensive (in terms of dollars and opportunity costs).

Those who champion getting a graduate degree commonly reference its most obvious benefit — you will never have to worry about meeting the education requirements of a job when you’re walking in the door with a Master’s degree.  While there are certainly exceptions, a certificate or two alone will be fairly prohibiting when it comes to advancing into a senior position if you choose to do so in the future.  Therefore, while you may be satisfied with acquiring an entry level healthcare IT job for the time being, a managerial position could be something that you become interested in pursuing down the road.  Getting the degree now, even when a certificate may be all that’s required, means planning for this possibility in the future.  However, the main drawback of a graduate degree, is that it takes considerable time (several years) and money to get a degree.

On the other hand, certification can be completed in a matter of several months, because you learn the essentials of what you need in a shorter period of time — for a fraction of the cost.  And while certifications won’t prepare you for everything that comes down the road (only experience does that), you’ll learn not only core and somewhat advanced concepts of IT, but also very specific knowledge such as ICD10 (the latest medical billing coding system), particular clinical software packages, the key points of HIPAA, as well as about a variety of other acts, organizations, and acronyms like HITECH, ONC, ARRA, and CMS. Certification, to me, seems to be an efficient way to teach you specifically what you need to know to enter the healthcare IT industry (in a “just the facts ma’am” style).  This contrast with some of the more academic and theoretical concepts you might find in higher education degrees, which would be helpful if you are interested in being more broadly prepared for the industry.  In addition, new laws, updated regulations, and changing technology in healthcare are often not incorporated as quickly into university curricula, and graduate programs are slower to adapt and modify their courses.

Here are the significant pros of obtaining a Master’s degree in bullet-form:

  • Education and training received is broad and all-encompassing
  • Prepares you to meet any educational qualifications that might be needed in the future
  • Ability (time/resources) to network and build job connections while still in school
  • Better access to teachers and educators to assist you with the material

And some significant cons of obtaining a Master’s degree:

  • The cost of obtaining a Master’s degree maybe prohibitive without some form of financial assistance. This amount can vary wildly depending on any financial assistance and the school, but the average costs for an under/graduate resident are around $5,000-$6,000 a year for your average state school. That doesn’t include room and board and all the associated costs with living and pursuing a degree (unless you’re doing an online degree program which can eliminate those costs).
  • Time required to obtain the Master’s degree is typically 2 years if full- time or through full-day weekend classes but up to 4-6 years if part-time with limited courses per semester.

So, should you go for a degree or certificate? If you want to hit the ground and make money on your investment as soon as possible — the certificate option is best. As of this writing, it costs $999 to purchase the exam materials for CHISP and the “course” is designed to be completed in 12 weeks. The cost covers taking the CHISP exam as well, so it’s pretty affordable. For about a thousand dollars out of pocket and roughly three months of self-paced education you can become qualified for a job that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, pays on average around $32,000 a year (and growing). That’s a pretty good return on your investment.

Two things are clear — (1) there’s plenty of opportunity in health IT but (2) it takes some work to grab the opportunities. If you want to find more information about obtaining employment in the healthcare industry, plus more discussion and insight on the degree vs. certificate debate, visit ACHE.org, HealthCareAdministration.com, and HealthcareManagementCareers.org.

This blog post was modified from a recent publishing on Shahed’s blog.  

 

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