OHSU Distance-Learning Course Attracts Worldwide Participation

09/20/00    Portland, Ore.

First-Ever Online Medical Informatics Certificate Program Draws Professionals.

They are bankers, scientists and librarians and live in Oregon, New Zealand and Bangladesh. They are brought together in a virtual classroom to learn the emerging field of medical informatics, taught by faculty from Oregon Health Sciences University.

This fall OHSU is launching a graduate certificate program in medical informatics for anyone in the world with a bachelor's degree and a computer. Already, more than 60 people from locations around the world are signed up for the four fall courses. Medical informatics is the field of acquisition, storage and use of biomedical information using computers and other information technology. Professionals in the field work in hospitals, biomedical companies and libraries, and are sought after for their medical and scientific knowledge as well as their technical expertise.

"We have had incredible interest in our classes," said William Hersh, M.D., director of the Division of Medical Informatics and Outcomes Research in the OHSU School of Medicine. After offering two pilot online courses last year, Hersh put together a certificate program consisting of eight courses - a shortened version of the division's master's degree program. "A certificate allows people to learn the basics from our master's program and gives them something tangible to begin a career," said Hersh. He said most of the students in the distance-learning courses are professionals seeking a career change and are attracted to the flexible schedule of the online program.

Mary Langdon, M.D., is an American psychiatrist working at a community health clinic in New Zealand. She took a one-week medical informatics introduction course a year ago and was interested in the field. "Needing a change in focus from all clinical work, I had been looking around for a career change for the past six or seven years such that I could still use my medical training, then I stumbled onto the OHSU program," she said. Langdon is taking her third course this fall and said if she cannot find employment after obtaining a certificate, she will continue in the master's program.

Students in the program register at OHSU through traditional means, then log on to a special Web site for course materials and pre-programmed lectures. "I took my regular master's course lectures and developed Power Point presentations that are accompanied by audio, so students can get the lecture-hall feeling," said Hersh. To help him with the growing program, he has hired a new faculty member, Zoe Stavri, Ph.D., who lives and works in Arizona. "Since this is an online course, there was no need for the teacher to live in Portland," Hersh explained.

Students are graded on homework assignments, term papers and a final exam (take home). While there is no roll call for attendance, Hersh said he gives points for group participation. "Anyone who says online education lacks interactivity has never been part of online discussions," he said. "Because people can write complete thoughts on their own time, we get some very in-depth postings on our discussion boards that I think are more stimulating than the discussions I hear in the classroom."

Online classes begin Sept. 20, the same day the fall term at OHSU begins.