Thoughts on HIT (technical) certifications vs. graduate degrees

July 3, 2013

These days I’ve been getting an increasing number of questions from some very smart readers of this 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 and those are worth reviewing:

The last post in the list above goes into specific detail about what I think about certifications but I didn’t talk much about graduate degrees so I’ll elaborate a bit more on that here. There are obvious pros and cons to both sides of the debate but it’s a “win/win” scenario — you can’t go wrong with either choice but one is more expensive than the other (in terms of dollars and opportunity costs).

Those who champion for others to get a degree commonly reference its most obvious benefit — you’ll never have to worry about meeting the education requirements of a job when you’re walking in the door with a Master’s degree. Another major benefit with a getting a Master’s degree is that it’s “out of the way,” so to speak. Getting the degree now, even when a certificate may be all that’s required, is planning for the future. 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. 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.

The main drawback of a degree, though, is it takes considerable time and money to get a degree. If you have time time and cash available without going into considerable debt then degrees are probably worth pursuing. However, certification can be completed in a matter of several months instead of several years because you learn the basics what you need in a shorter period of time for a fraction of the cost. “The basics” part is key — don’t think that certifications will prepare you for everything that comes down the road (only experience does that).

What I like about certifications is that you’ll learn not only core and somewhat advanced concepts of IT, but also about very specific knowledge such as ICD10 (the latest medical billing coding system), particular clinical software packages, the key points of HIPAA, as well as a variety of other acts, organizations, and acronyms in 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). Contrast that with some of the more academic and theoretical concepts you might find in higher education degrees. If you enjoy theory, going into more depth of subjects, and being more broadly prepared for the industry then the degrees are quite helpful. One more thing to keep in mind, though, is that 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.

In summary, here are significant pros of obtaining a Master’s degree:

  • Education and training received is all encompassing.
  • Prepares you to meet any education 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 you’re doing it full time or through full-day weekend classes but that time can go up to 4 to 6 years if you’re going 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 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.

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