A common question when entering the field of health information technology is whether to pursue a certificate program or a Master’s degree. There is not one right decision for everyone, but when making your choice you should be considering the following criteria. What are your future and short term career goals? What is your current and previous work experience, and what is your financial situation?
A recent college graduate with a health information related bachelor’s degree and limited work experience, may find that it makes sense to gain hands on work experience with an entry level job such as a health information technician. However, in order to advance to a manager or director level it will be necessary to earn the Master’s degree. Many times it makes sense to get the Master’s degree knocked out, so that you will be fully prepared for any possible future opportunities. Lastly, pursuing higher education at this early stage of your career may be an opportunity to build lasting relationships with your teachers as well as network with other healthcare IT students.
On the other hand, if you are already a healthcare professional, such as a nurse, with a goal of transitioning into a health IT role, then a certificate may be the best option. The certificate programs cover the core concepts of IT, along with specific coding skills such as ICD-10. Employers are seeking job candidates that have clinical backgrounds, who understand medical work flow and patient care. Many of these employers are more than willing to train candidates on the required IT skills. In addition, certificate programs can be completed in between 6-12 months, and usually cost far less than a Master’s degree.
With the high demand for qualified health IT professionals, someone with an IT background and health related work experience may not even need to earn a certificate or a Master’s degree, depending on the job they want. It is possible to gain on the job experience, working in a technical support role or customer service position for a healthcare organization. This enables them to use their IT skills while gaining a better understanding of the medical workflow process and patient care. In addition, other IT professionals, such as software developer’s can gain experience by helping to design and code open source electronic health record projects.
In conclusion, your decision to pursue a certificate or Master’s degree program is a complex one. It should be based on your career goals, work experience and financial resources. For the majority of younger, less experienced candidates, it is best to complete your Master’s degree as soon as possible. The rationale for this strategy is that most of the higher paying positions require this advanced degree. However, as mentioned earlier, if you are a current healthcare professional, seeking to transition into an IT role, then a certificate program may be adequate. Lastly, if you have a strong background in IT, it is possible to make the switch to health IT with on the job training.