When you study health informatics with Valerie Watzlaf, you learn from one of the leaders in the field. Not only has she conducted extensive research across the discipline, but she has also led at the national level, serving a three-year board term and as president in 2019 of the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) which represents over 100,000 HIM professionals.
Watzlaf knew from an early age that health informatics was her calling. As a Steel City native, she didn't have to think hard about where to pursue her education. She grew up well aware of the University of Pittsburgh's stellar academics and excellent national reputation. She eventually earned her bachelor's, master's and doctorate from Pitt.
Watzlaf teaches "Practical Research and Evaluation Methods" in the University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences Online Master of Science in Health Informatics program. We spoke with her about her career, her research and the benefits of online learning.
Health information management first grabbed your interest in high school. What initially drew you to the field?
I was toying with social work or medical technology when my sister told me that her friend was studying—I think, at that time, it was called health records administration. She said employers were knocking on her door to work for them as the director of health information management. I thought, "Wow, that sounds pretty cool!" So I looked into it.
It was important to me that my studies lead to a job right when I was ready to graduate. I read up on the field, and I just fell in love with it. I knew I wanted to do something significant in health care, but I wasn't sure I wanted to be at the forefront of health care delivery. For me, it was perfect.
You started your career in the field. When did you transition to academia?
I was always in love with teaching. As a student, I mentioned to one of my professors that I'd love to teach. He said, "Why don't you go for this teaching scholarship that we have at the university? You can help me teach." The following year I was helping to teach seniors.
This professor was so inspiring; he remained a mentor throughout my life until he passed away a few years ago. We taught the quality management course and lab; I primarily assisted with the lab. We also wrote the quality management student workbook together.
I kept it in the back of my mind that I loved teaching and wanted to do it, but I wanted to get some experience first. That's why I wanted to go out and work in the field, so I could come back with real-world experience to impart. At some point, I received an adjunct appointment. After that, a position opened up, and I've been at Pitt ever since—almost 40 years.
How has fieldwork changed over the years?
It's changed tremendously. Back when I started, it was all very much paper-based. Today, it's all electronic, which is a considerable improvement—we can do so much more with that information. Sharing information across facilities to improve patient care and facilitate communication between health care providers is critical. When everything was paper-based, it was challenging.
Was data aggregation even possible back then?
It was possible, but you had to have several employees abstracting that information by hand and putting it into reports. It took a lot longer. It was much more complex and much more expensive.
What are the biggest challenges facing health care informaticians and health care providers in telehealth care?
Our research focused on privacy and security. Some of the issues we still see with telehealth are that the systems people use aren't always private and secure. They might say they are HIPPA-compliant—and believe they are—but they may not be.
You need to let patients know that, as information travels across the internet, there is some risk of information being leaked. We need to incorporate that into the consent for telehealth treatment, and make sure our systems are as private and secure as possible.
That said, telehealth is a good thing, and we definitely should use it. Health care is much more accessible to people if they don't have to leave their homes. The pandemic pushed us toward telehealth, and I think many people will continue to use it beyond the pandemic.
You literally wrote the book on health informatics research methods. Are the students coming into your program properly trained in research methodology?
We see a lot of interest in research from our undergraduate students. We offer a course in our undergraduate program that I teach called "Introduction to Statistics and Research Design." That's where we first introduce them to research methods.
My extended education is in epidemiology, which is all about research and looking at large amounts of data. In our MSHI program, I see many students who love research and want to do more in it. We do offer another course in the subject that focuses on all the different types of research designs you might want to do and then we zero in on doing evaluation methods.
I try to convey to our students that you need to have a passion for your research, but you also need to know the best types of research designs, methods and statistics to reach your goal. As part of the course students are required to write a research proposal that focuses on the use of some type of health information technology. We have found that some of our students have then carried out these research proposals for their capstone/internships or thesis work.
Thanks to the pandemic, everyone is teaching online. What do you think of online education?
I love it. Online students have to arrive in class prepared and ready to go, and they do. That's the flipped classroom. Students can expect to participate in class, not just be passive receptors of information. We understand that students typically have full-time jobs and we are able to accommodate their schedules. All of our faculty are flexible and are there for their students.
An online Master of Science in Health Informatics from the University of Pittsburgh prepares you for a career in health information technology and systems evaluation and management. You'll study statistics, programming, database design and management, digital health records, leadership, financial management, digital security, privacy and legal issues from leading informatics academicians and practitioners. The 36-credit degree can be completed in 16 months, with start dates in the fall and spring. You can start your online application today.