Many people go to university with the desire to help people. However, not everybody is suited to being on the ‘front lines’ of health care.
For those who want to make a difference in the health system from outside the operating theatre, La Trobe’s Master of Health Information Management qualification could be the perfect fit.
Merilyn Riley, who has over 20 years’ experience working at the Department of Health, is the course coordinator and one of the lecturers for the Master of Health Information Management. We spoke to Merilyn to find out more about the course.
Can you give us a simple definition of what health information management means?
Simple is difficult, because it’s got a huge number of applications!
Health information management is a qualification that equips graduates with the skills to collect, maintain and analyse health data in a wide range of health-related settings. It’s all about health data management, which takes many different forms in the current industry.
We have four main streams of teaching around that concept: health informatics, which is the computing side of things; health data analysis, which is related to research; clinical classification, which is the method by which hospitals are funded; and then management itself, which involves management of health staff. All students do all areas, so they are very employable.
What is the employment market like for graduates?
It’s competitive in Melbourne, and that’s because this is where we train them. We are the only currently accredited Masters of Health Information Management in the country.
The top 50% of our students have jobs before they graduate, and then about 90% have jobs within about four months. The job market is very good – particularly interstate. These skills are really plugging a gap in the industry.
What caused this gap in the industry?
National case mix funding is the reason. Case mix funding means that hospitals are financed on the basis of a combination of the types of patients they treat, the diagnoses they have and the procedures patients receive. In Victoria that’s been going on since 1994, so we are experts in case mix funding and coding auditing. National case mix funding only began in 2014, so other states are quite far behind Victoria in their ability to keep up with the requirements.
The other issue is the advance of electronic medical records and the need for professionals to actually fill the void in the market.
What might a Health Information Management graduate’s job look like?
Health information manager (HIM) is your traditional role, which is working within a health information service, managing patient records. Another traditional one is a clinical coder. The HIMs, once they get some experience, can often become coding educators and auditors, and these roles can be very lucrative.
You have also got roles like data manager, research officer, quality officer, and electronic medical record project officer. We’ve had graduates employed in these kinds of roles at organisations such as the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre, the Australian Stroke Clinical Registry, the Royal Children’s Hospital, Peninsula Health, and the Victorian Cytology Service, and in private companies. There is a very broad spectrum of really interesting opportunities available.
The great thing is, you’re not stuck. If you choose to go down one pathway, you’re not stuck in that one path; you’ve got opportunities to actually change where you work. It’s almost endless in terms of application.
Who is this course most suited to?
The course is really well suited to someone who has a clinical background and wants to change their profession, or the direction of their profession. A large portion of our GEM – Graduate Entry Masters – students are people such as nurses, pharmacists, occupational therapists, physios, lab technicians…anyone who has gotten to a certain point in their profession and found themselves stuck without an alternate career pathway.
We do also have some students with IT or accounting degrees who want to get into the health sector. They can do it, but they have to do a bridging course in anatomy and physiology (available at La Trobe) before they start.
We also have an undergraduate program for people who don’t have a prior degree.
Can you tell me a little about how the course works?
Well first of all, we’re very practical, and that’s the comment that I’ve had from so many of the GEM students that have come through. They really appreciate that it is a practical course – we’re not just teaching them airy fairy theory.
It’s also a small course, so you get to know the students and the academic staff.
This means that when I send students on their placement I can take a very considered approach, taking their skillsets and matching them to the agencies that I know. It’s very labour-intensive but it’s very productive. Dependent upon availability, we try to channel final year placements into the students’ specific area of interest.
How long are the placements?
There are two placements, which we call placement subjects. The first placement subject is in first year, where students go to a hospital and work in a health information service for 15 days. That gives them the chance to learn the core or fundamental skills that underpin health information management.
They then do a second placement subject that is worth 45 credit points – the equivalent of three subjects – in their final semester of the second year. They are on placement for 45 days at either one or two agencies, where they are actually applying and learning more skills within the particular areas of interest they have within the profession.
Generally the final year placements are project-based, so the students are brought into the agency to run with a project under the guidance of a supervisor and they actually get to complete a substantial piece of work, which solidifies all of their university-based theory in the workplace.
For example, we had a student who did a placement at the cancer genetics centre at a hospital. They wanted her to do a gap analysis on the best practice data collection standards, compare how they actually collected data against best practice data collection standards, and make recommendations on how they could improve their data collection methodology and processes. That was a big project, and really useful for both her and the agency in terms of the results.
It sounds like this is something that is really going to improve people’s healthcare.
It absolutely improves the collection of data for those purposes.
We call ourselves the heart of health behind the scenes, which sounds funny, but it’s very true.
We’re a low profile profession in the sense that not many people know about us, but what we do has a big impact on patient care in the sense of providing evidence based data, good evidence based data for policy development and health service provision.
If you really want contact with patients then it might not be the right course for you. But if you want to work in the health field and help people using other skill sets, then this is the course for you. You get such a sense of satisfaction out of what you’re doing.