Should I Get a Masters in Health Informatics or Computer Science?

This reddit thread continues to be a great source of discussion!

One redditor writes back, asking about whether to get an masters in Computer Science or Health Informatics:

Thanks for the responses. I should have probably given some more background. My current job uses Social Solutions ETO. It’s a case management system. I don’t know if anyone has heard of it. I’m planning on stick with my current employer after I graduate. Obviously, I’m still in the early stage of my education. So I don’t know exactly how I would effectively apply that knowledge, but I do know that no one else in our organization has a health informatics degree.

Is there a particular language applicable to that system (ETO)?


Here’s my reply:

Python / MOOCs

Glad to hear you are enjoying Python! In terms of MOOCs, I think that Udacity really strikes a great balance between approachability while also letting you learn thoroughly through projects. Codecademy, at least the last time I looked it it, was thrillingly fun, but didn’t give enough opportunities to learn on your own, off the rails. So when it comes time to do real stuff, it may be harder to do so without the Codecademy safety net. Coursera/EdX I’m less famiilar with the programming courses, but seem to be more in the “teach yourself” land and offer a great experience if you are highly self-motivated.

HI vs CS

My personal recommendation is CS. In my admittedly biased opinion, HI is mainly industry-specific application of IT. I honestly think that being good at HI is more about spending a lot of time with the technology, the industry, and the lingo so that you can talk the talk and walk the walk. That is, you can learn it without a degree.

CS, I feel, benefits from having more structure or a mentor, as the concepts will be more alien. Still, I think it’s worth the schlep, because CS/programming is a very powerful skill, and programming is one of the few disciplines where employers literally cannot hire enough candidates. Seriously. There will be 1 million un-filled programming jobs in the US by 2020. Some people think the answer is vocational schools, like General Assembly, Flatiron School, Iron Yard, etc. Honest-to-God, the skills you’ll learn in one of those programs are more applicable than a CS degree day-to-day, but I would contend that to be a master musician it’s important to learn jazz improvisation as well as classical theory. Same applies in programming.

Again, it really depends on what your goals are. We’ll touch on this more below.

Masters vs self-learning

This is tougher. I think this is going to be more about your own personality and where you wanna go. I think that the biggest advantage of doing the MS is digging into the ugly stuff that you’re less likely to drill into on your own. Stuff like operating systems, compilers, data structures, algorithms, hardware architecture, are going to be harder to self-learn than the “applied” stuff you’d learn in a vocational class: web programming, mobile app development, etc etc etc.

Again, “harder” but not impossible! I personally feel that anything can be self-learned given enough time and resources. The question is how quickly you need to learn it and where you want your focus to be.

Personally, I don’t have a degree. I took a few classes in community college and I’ve been self-learning the rest. I look at it as a life-long journey.

Radiology, PACS admin, job openings

At the end of the day, you’ve gotta figure out what your “victory conditions” are.

Are you working a job right now? Ah, OK - I clicked your name and saw your post about being a radiology tech. Cool!

If you aren’t married to healthcare, you may want to open yourself up to jobs outside the industry. Or at least on the cutting edge of the industry.

Why? It seems to me that most healthcare companies, from device manufacturers to insurers and hospitals, have a very conservative, old-school attitude to how they run their businesses and treat their people. It’s quite antithetical to the Silicon Valley high-tech culture of startups and sandals. Why do I mention it? Well, look at how companies like Facebook and Google treat their people. They’ve built businesses around innovation and technology, and they know they need to treat their people well to retain great talent.

Big healthcare companies, on the other hand, tend to be hugely risk-averse and innovation-resistant. They have an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” kind of attitude. So R&D suffers, IT becomes a cost center rather than a profit center.

Now, I should halt myself and say: hey, if you know of an awesome job in a hospital, be my guest and take it! But, my experience is that they are a bit hard to find.

Anyway, what do I think might be a cool programming job in healthcare?

  • Work for a research lab
  • Work for a government agency
  • Work for a healthcare software company
  • Work for a healthcare software services provider
  • Work for a healthcare startup

Research Lab

Since you’re in imaging, you should be aware of the NYU Center for Advanced Imaging Innovation and Research. These guys are living on the bleeding edge of imaging tech. The bad news is that they do everything in C++.

D.E. Shaw Research is also very cool. They are among the best in the world in computational biochemistry. As they mention on the site, they’ve actually developed their own hardware architecture (non-Intel, non-ARM) particularly designed for protein folding computations! Remarkable stuff.

Government Agency

I’m primarily thinking of NIH, but I know that HHS also has some interesting things going on. Anyway, at NIH they’re always looking for programmers to help run simulations or extract/mine data from their huge corpus of medical data. Seriously, if you like writing in Perl, you should take a look at them. They do a lot of exciting work in natural language processing to understand patient charts.

OH! And a good friend of mine was actually doing machine learning research over there using MRI data to classify tumors as benign or malignant. I imagine that’s right up your alley.

Software Company

Also, sorry to stay in imaging, but it’s what keeps coming to mind given your background.

Working for a PACS provider, say these guys could be fun. Software companies will be a bit more liberal and avant garde than a healthcare provider, plus if the software is the key ingredient, you’ll be treated much better than if you’re just a part of the IT department.

Software Services

What do I mean? Someone like LogicWorks in New York or Medullan in Boston. These guys are pretty neat in that they try to stay on top of tech trends while doing important work for healthcare companies. They’re like a hybrid, living in both worlds. You’ll get to touch a lot of different projects and get exposure to a lot of different aspects of healthcare. Very handy if you’re person who needs a little variety.

Startup Company

My personal favorite. There’s something of a mini startup boom going on these days, and tech investors are warming up to healthcare startups.

For a fairly complete job listing, you may want to look at Angellist. It seems that most startups are listed on there these days.

If you’re near a tech hub, like SF Bay, Boston, or New York, your odds of finding a good startup to work go through the roof. But there’s interesting stuff going on elsewhere, too!

I hope this was helpful! Let me know if you have other questions.

Written on May 20, 2015

David Kay has realized that The Matrix was indeed a documentary. Let's awaken together. If you found this article helpful, join his newsletter.