By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
Already a leader in the field of health information management, the College of St. Scholastica is expanding its online program.
The Duluth school previously offered a bachelor's degree that was predominantly earned online, said Ryan Sandefer, chairman for Health Informatics and Information Management. Beginning this fall, students will be able to earn the degree without ever visiting campus.
"Before, we always required a one-week intensive on-site experience," Sandefer said. "We've moved that ... to 100 percent online to be more flexible for students."
One of the students benefiting from that flexibility is Daniel Ramos, who works for an agricultural trade association in Phoenix and has never been to Duluth. At 49, Ramos said he seeks to grow from the associate's degree he earned at Phoenix College (not to be confused with the online giant University of Phoenix). He plans to graduate with a St. Scholastica bachelor's degree next June, but he hadn't taken the one-week course in Duluth yet. Now he won't have to, Sandefer said.
St. Scholastica stood out among several other online possibilities, Ramos said, because it had a much more informative website than the others. Because he works full time, the traditional classroom experience wasn't an option, he said. But telephone conversations with professors and advisers and classroom experiences via a computer program called Wimba have made him feel as if St. Scholastica is his home.
"You come to feel that you are part of the family," Ramos said.
The health information management program has about 100 students in its online undergraduate program, about 60 in its traditional on-campus program and about 200 in its master's program, Sandefer said. The latter can be done largely online, but it still requires a two-week on-campus program.
Meghan Hagedon is working on her master's degree while working full time in the information technology department at Riverwood Health Care Center in Aitkin.
Hagedon, 25, said at times she has been able to work toward her degree by arriving early or staying late at her workplace. Other times, she sets up at a coffeehouse or works from her couch until the early morning.
"All of the professors St. Scholastica has employed have been very adaptive to online learning and using new techniques," said Hagedon, who hopes a master's degree will enable her to move into an administrative position.
She mentioned live chats online and conference calls as some of the helpful opportunities.
Scholastica isn't the first school to offer a fully online bachelor's degree in health information management, Sandefer said.
But Bill Rudman of the Chicago-based American Health Information Management Association said most previous schools to offer it were for-profit institutions. Adapting to online learning enhances St. Scholastica's reputation as a leader in the field, said Rudman, who is the association's vice president of education visioning."When you think of St. Scholastica you think of creativity and innovation," Rudman said. "This is an area where they're taking the leadership."
The school's faculty are nationally known in the health information field, he said. Among them are Shirley Eichenwald-Maki and Kathleen LaTour, who wrote the textbook that's "basically the bible for the baccalaureate program," Rudman said.
St. Scholastica's involvement in health information management started early. The St. Mary's Training School for Record Librarians won conditional approval from the Association of Record Librarians of North America in late 1934 and was fully approved in 1935 as the nation's first baccalaureate program in the field. That was the precursor to today's health information management program at St. Scholastica, which is still the only such program in Minnesota, Sandefer said.
But it has changed dramatically from the 1930s, when one of the required textbooks was "Medical Shorthand," and from 1919, when the medical records department at St. Mary's Hospital was a parlor equipped with a desk and a typewriter, according to a 2009 publication celebrating Scholastica's 75 years of health information management.
Health information management now consists of more than 150 job titles, including trainers, coders and application specialists, Sandefer said. And it's only growing with new requirements under the Affordable Care Act, Rudman added.
"The opportunities for folks with this degree are just blowing up," Sandefer said.
Job placement for on-campus students is between 90 and 95 percent, he said. It's harder to tell with online students, because most of them already have jobs.
Rudman said a recent survey in Mississippi showed starting pay of $40,000 and $55,000 for health information management professionals with an associate's degree; $55,000 to $65,000 for those with a bachelor's degree; and about $70,000 for those with a master's degree.