The field of Health Information Technology is booming — but are there enough people to meet the demand?

For skilled professionals working in clinical care, business and management, information technology, and other related fields who are interested in taking their career to the next level or breaking into a new one, Health IT represents an untapped opportunity.

Busy professionals aren’t always in the position to pursue a master’s degree or PhD in informatics, or might not be certain they want to. That’s why the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Columbia University created the Certification of Professional Achievement in Health IT as an expert, immersive program that offers students an effective alternate path.

“For me, Columbia’s HIT Certification was the perfect first step into the world of Health IT,” says Paul Terwilliger, an MD who wanted to change career paths. “It helped me determine that HIT was the direction I wanted to go in.” Paul now works as an Epic Clinical Analyst in upstate New York.

Through a blended online and in-person experience, the two-semester part-time program is flexible enough to accommodate the lives of busy working professionals, but rigorous enough to ensure they’ll hit the ground running upon completion. The instruction is interactive, innovative, and conducted by world-class professors and industry experts.

The HIT Certification teaches not only a conceptual framework and foundation, but also practical workforce skills that emphasize hands-on training, team-based problem-solving, and real-world application. “So much of the day-to-day life of working in healthcare and technology is not published in textbooks or in research papers or taught in seminars,” explains alumnus Bishoy Luka, who works as a Pharmacy Director.

“The field of Health IT is continually changing because both healthcare and technology are always in a state of flux,” explains Program Director Virginia Lorenzi. “Understanding how to integrate the old with the new and use interdisciplinary thinking”, she adds, “is the key to keeping apace and advancing the field.”

For Luka, the experience was life-changing. “This program allowed me to reinvent myself as a pharmacist,” he says. “There is no question it helped me become an indispensable part of the healthcare team, giving me a better understanding of how other disciplines interact with each other and how pharmacy can harness available technological resources.”

Gina Maman had no healthcare experience when she joined the program. After a 13-year career hiatus to raise her children, the program enabled her to update her skill-set and its supportive alumni network helped her successfully land in a high-demand job market. Today, she works at the Columbia University Medical Center’s Physicians & Surgeons Office of Development, where her training is a daily asset.

By meeting in-person at monthly intervals, HIT students are able to be more fully engaged than they would in programs that are strictly online or offer few opportunities for face-to-face interaction. At the in-person sessions, students work together in a highly interactive classroom setting, benefiting from meetings with numerous faculty, field experts, and the program’s supportive alumni community.

And because the students only meet monthly, the program attracts students from outside the city and state. Terrie Hamlin, now Vice President of Nursing Informatics for a school-based EHR vendor, traveled to class from New Hampshire. She felt it was worth the trip. “The wealth of knowledge obtained from the Certificate of Professional Achievement in Health Information Technology program at Columbia is truly amazing. It helped me achieve professional goals I didn’t know I had.”

Trainees come from myriad backgrounds, including technical, clinical, business, legal, and sales. Some trainees are already in the field of Health IT and simply seek formal training to enhance their career opportunities. Diana Kohlberg explained her motivations for enrolling: “I took the Columbia University Health IT program to bridge my gap in knowledge of Health IT that was not covered during my MPH program.” Diana now works in Health IT innovation.

According to Virginia Lorenzi, “The program’s diversity is key to its success. We use a training method called Team-Based Learning (TBL). Students work in interdisciplinary teams to complete quizzes, assignments, and large-scale projects. The students learn from each other’s strengths and develop important soft skills such as interdisciplinary communication and teamwork, which we believe are essential for this field. They also develop innovative ideas by blending their perspectives.”

Alumna Audrey Akins is employed as a principal trainer on Epic EMR software for a consulting company. She provided insight on her team-based learning experience: “The group projects were key in gaining clarity from my peers’ perspectives on how they saw HIT. Some were medical clinicians, while others were in advanced data IT roles. The projects enabled us to work cooperatively and lead by leaning on each other’s strengths to succeed.”

For some students, the Certification Program is just the beginning of their educational pursuits in informatics.

Wilson Ramos joined the program with a background in engineering and no healthcare experience. After completing the certification program, he decided he wanted to study the field in greater depth, so he applied and was accepted to the Master of Arts degree program in Biomedical Informatics at Columbia University. After completing his master’s degree, Ramos went on to work for Columbia University’s ​International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Program (ICAP), an organization devoted to “delivering transformative solutions to meet the health needs of individuals around the world.” Through his work at ICAP, he traveled to several countries across Africa and used his informatics knowledge and skills to make an international impact.

But for most students, the Certification Program alone is enough to open doors to new opportunities.

Craig Budzynski worked in home healthcare management but wanted a change. He was able to change his career trajectory thanks to the Certification Program. Now he works as a Business Intelligence Architect. “The Columbia HIT program opened my mind and career to the vast arena of technology in healthcare. I would not be where I am right now without the program, and I owe a lot of the happiness in my current career to the program and the passionate instructors.”

Interested in enrolling in the HIT program? Applications are accepted each Spring for the next Fall’s cohort.
Want to learn more? Sign up for the next open house event.

Dr. Raul Rabadan: Blasting Cancer

Glioblastoma is one of the most common, aggressive, and challenging forms of brain cancer to treat in adults with nearly 10,000 people in the US diagnosed every year. With the current therapeutic approach, median survival is little more than a year.

DBMI'S Raul Rabadan is making breakthroughs in glioblastoma research.

DBMI’S Raul Rabadan is making breakthroughs in glioblastoma research.

Now, a computation genomics group led by Dr. Raul Rabadan together with an experimental team led by Drs. Iavarone and Lasorella at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center at Columbia University Medical Center, is bringing new hope. In two studies, one in Science in 2012, and a new study published on August 5, 2013 in Nature Genetics, the group revealed that several glioblastoma patients they studied had the same specific gene mutations, which could potentially be treated with currently available FDA-approved drugs. “We found complex patterns of mutations in brain tumors,” Rabadan explains. “However, behind the complexity, there are novel approaches.”

While every tumor has dozens of mutated genes within it, identifying these genes and using the right drugs to attack them has always been difficult. The secret, according to Rabadan, is the latest technology available for reading cancer genomes. “The last two years we’ve been very involved with the analysis of genomes for cancers, and the technology has changed dramatically: how we can approach the cancer, how we identify these mutations,” says Rabadan. “With these sequencing technologies we are able to read cancer genomes, and readers of cancer genomes can develop a cure.”


Glioblastoma is an aggressive form of brain cancer.

Once the cancer genomes are read, the genes that enable the cancer – called driver genes – can be identified and treated. With glioblastoma, the team found eighteen new driver genes affiliated with glioblastoma. “We’ve been wondering which of the patients get this cancer, and we’ve realized several things,” says Rabadan. “Every cancer is a different beast, and knowing how to read the cancer genome can give us a better understanding. It’s like turning on a microscope and having all of the [tumor’s components] right there.”

Previously, Rabadan collaborated with Dr. Falini in Italy and Dr. Pasqualucci at Columbia to study the genome of a rare type of leukemia called hairy cell leukemia. The collaboration uncovered a dramatic discovery: 100 percent of patients had the same mutation in the same gene. Interestingly, the same mutation occurs in melanoma where new drugs have been recently approved. “We were very excited when we realized all the patients have this same mutation,” says Rabadan. “It really was an astonishing discovery.”

New drugs are getting tested in clinical trials by Rabadan’s fellow collaborators in Italy, who did the first samples for the research. From here, Rabadan is confident that genome reading will become a part of all cancer treatment. “I think now this will happen in the future,” he says. “Just sequencing cancers will be part of the technology of what every doctor will know. I think for some cancers it will be soon.”

Vimla Patel to Receive 2014 Hind Rattan Award

Congratulations to Vimla Patel, who will receive the 2014 Hind Rattan Award. It is a prestigious award that recognizes her professional service and contributions to her field:

The Hind Rattan Award (translated “Jewel of India”) is awarded annually to select members of the worldwide Indian diaspora (NRIs and Persons of Indian Origin) by the NRI Welfare Society of India at a ceremony at its yearly conference, held since 1981 on the eve of Republic Day of India (January 26).

Congratulations to Nicole Weiskopf and Janet Woollen

Congratulations to Nicole Weiskopf and Janet Woollen for their awards at the annual NLM training meeting. That’s two out of five total awards given out.

Best Talk, Day 2: Nicole Weiskopf, Columbia University. Defining Completeness of Electronic Health Records for Secondary use: How big is Your Database?

Best Poster, Day 1: Janet Woollen, Columbia University. Engaging Hospitalized Patients with an Inpatient Personal Health Record