Conestoga College is debuting in September a degree program in health informatics management inspired by a dearth of professionals in the field across Canada.

The curriculum of the four-year program will center on health

sciences, information technology and business management, as well as co-op terms and clinical practicum experience.

At the end of the course, the Kitchener, Ont.-based College’s Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning will award to students a bachelor of applied health sciences degree.

According to Canada Health Infoway and Smart Systems for Health Agency, organizations concerned with electronic communication among health-care providers, Ontario alone needs to fill 2,000 positions in health informatics management, said Dominic Covvey, a professor at Ontario’s University of Waterloo and director of the Waterloo Institute for Health Informatics Research.

“”Now the program at Conestoga will probably graduate some small number — 20, 30, 40 — over four years,”” said Covvey, who developed the curriculum for the new program.

“”We have a huge gap in the health field of people well-trained in health informatics. So all the training programs are gearing up, and we’ll barely touch it for a while.””

The medical profession has fallen “”a little bit behind”” other fields in developing IT systems that work for both parties –– that is, the IT staff and other professionals within the organization, added Paul Osborne, Conestoga’s marketing director.

“”We hear of cases where the person in the head of IT may be a nurse who knew a little bit more than anyone else on the computer, and she’s all of a sudden evolved into that role. Or someone in IT who has a little bit of understanding of the medical, and they’ve kind of evolved.

“”And what they’re saying is we need someone who has both ends of understanding to make this work.””

Conestoga believes program graduates will be equipped to work immediately in:

– developing an electronic patient-records system for a hospital;

– managing a computerized information system for tracking infectious diseases;

– designing and maintaining databases for medical labs, hospitals and pharmacies;

– evaluating clinical trial results for pharmaceutical companies; and

– creating software for use in drug research and discovery.

Graduates may join hospitals or pharmaceutical companies as part of a research team, and be assigned the set-up of a database to help doctors “”make sense of their research,”” said Osborne.

In trying to attract high school students, Conestoga explains its new degree will help them secure a job similar to those filled by characters on the CSI crime investigation television shows, he said.

“”So the person who graduates from our program would run the fingerprint database or the DNA database.””

Government jobs would also be up for grabs, he added. For instance, someone will immediately create and manage a system in an outbreak like the SARS crisis.

The top of the class, Covvey said, may quickly parlay their degree into junior management positions such as programmer-analyst, internal consultant, group manager or team leader.

“”But most people start at or near the bottom”” as an analyst, developer or implementation manager, he said, adding the skill sets they acquire in a health informatics management program will let them quickly move up the ladder.

Covvey believes a person with a business background may have general knowledge about computing, such as Word, Excel or database programs, but will have a weaker understanding about health care.

“”So the person with the general background will be, I think, at least a couple of years behind a person who comes in with this background.””

Although Osborne believes Conestoga will attract both high school graduates and older professionals, he believes the latter will be more interested. He said he’s already fielded calls from technicians and nurses.

To ensure Conestoga is teaching relevant material, particularly with respect to electronic patient records projects already in progress, Osborne said the college will have program advisory committees comprised of health and IT experts meeting twice a year to review curriculum and meet students discussing their program experiences. Programs will then be adjusted based on needs.

College and university programs similar to the one Conestoga will debut already exist, said Covvey. The University of Victoria has had a health informatics program in research and development for about 30 years that is the “”grandaddy of the programs.””

He said George Brown College in Ontario and Red River College in Manitoba are also trying to launch programs.

The cost of Conestoga’s health informatics management program will be $5,500.

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