Saturday, December 8, 2012

Update on the OHSU ONC University-Based Training Grant

It seems like yesterday that the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) HITECH Program was starting up and the funding of the ONC Workforce Development Programs occurred. Now, however, those programs are winding down after nearly three years. In this posting, I will provide an update of OHSU's University-Based Training (UBT) Grant.

As I noted in my last update on the program, we had committed all of our training slots by last summer. For the rest of the grant, we have been and will continue to be leading the students through the program and aiming to launch as many as we can into successful informatics careers.

OHSU was one of nine universities (or consortia of universities) awarded a UBT grant in April, 2010. We were funded to educate 148 students, 135 in the Type 1 (one year) category and 13 in the Type 2 (longer than a year) category. Since we already had existing programs, we ran our grant essentially as a financial aid program for our existing Graduate Certificate (GC, Type 1) and Master of Biomedical Informatics (MBI, Type 2) programs. Because of the time constraints imposed by the ONC funding, we made a condition of admission being completion of the GC program as an accelerated part-time student in one year and of the MBI as a full-time student in one and a half years.

Although both the GC and MBI programs are available online, we chose to require the ONC Type 2 students to be full-time on-campus students. But our GC students have been from all over the US, paralleling the national distribution of all of our online students.

The figure below shows graphically how students have flowed through the program as of this time. A total of 493 students applied for funding, of which we were able to accept 178, meaning a 36% rate of acceptance. It was a challenge to have to turn down so many qualified applicants applying for funding, although all of them had the option of enrolling in the program as self-funded (tuition-paying) students. In fact, 65 (21%) of those who applied but were not funded did enroll in that manner.
Probably the single biggest challenge of the program has been a relatively high rate of student attrition. For most students, this has been due to their underestimating the time commitment of the programs. Even the accelerated part-time commitment to the GC program has been challenging for many students, especially those working full-time or with other (e.g., family) commitments. As a result, 41 students have withdrawn from the program after starting it, although 13 of them have continued as self-funded students on a more part-time basis.

With the fall academic quarter of 2012 winding down, we will likely have a total of 97 graduates (66%) by the end of this term. There are 38 students still progressing through the program. Combined with the 13 who have moved to self-funded status, this should enable us to hit our target of 148 graduates overall for the grant.

Of course, the UBT students have not been the only students in the OHSU informatics program during this time. Even if we were to slightly fall short of our UBT program goals, we have contributed many other people to the informatics workforce. Since the UBT program started, a total of 228 other students have enrolled in the GC or MBI programs, and 96 have graduated.

The UBT grant has also had other benefits to our program. Recognizing that informatics is not a "spectator sport," we developed practicum and internship programs for the GC (one quarter or 11 weeks) and MBI (two quarters or 22 weeks) programs respectively. These experiences have give all of our UBT students real-world experiences in a variety of settings, from healthcare organizations to companies to others. We have even developed a process for our online students to find opportunities and pursue them. Our alumni and other networks have been helpful in identifying these experiences. A second important benefit to the program has been the ability to hire a career development specialist, providing career counseling for the first time in the history of our program.

One of the challenges as the UBT grant winds down is how to sustain these additional benefits. One way we are trying to sustain them is to roll them out to all other (i.e., non-UBT) students in the program. So now, for example, self-funded students can pursue practicum and internship experiences as well as avail themselves to our career development specialist. In the long run, however, we will need the base of enrollment provided by something comparable to the UBT grant to maintain all of these services.

My hope going into the UBT grant was that enrollment in our and other informatics programs would increase initially from the UBT funding and then be sustained by increased interest and career opportunities in the field. As I have noted in another recent posting, there is plenty of data to indicate that the opportunities are there. But as we have always noted, getting out the word about informatics careers has always been a challenge, especially among younger people without much experience in the healthcare system (and knowing why informatics is so important to it). To that end, we are planning to ramp up a marketing campaign to attract more interest in all of our educational programs, which I will detail in a subsequent posting.

As the UBT program winds down, I am confident in its success. I believe it has demonstrated the need for more informatics professionals and provided a foundation for educating them, even if the results might take longer than was hoped to meet the acute needs of the meaningful use program. I am also confident there will continue to be need for professionals working at that interface between healthcare and its information.

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