Diverse student group pursues better healthcare through data

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Diverse student group pursues better healthcare through data

Informatics creates a wave of interest; innovative UW Public Health program was ahead of the curve
Ashlie Chandler

As a child, Mahlet Takele wanted to be a doctor or scientist. She collected a variety of leaves and roots from her neighborhood, which she imagined were possible cures for HIV/AIDS. 

Growing up in Ethiopia, Takele saw firsthand the challenges people faced in accessing quality health care. “People were dying because their needs were unmet by broken health systems limited by a lack of resources and an overburdened staff,” says Takele, from Bahir-Dar, a city with one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the early 2000s.

Ethiopia also struggled with high maternal- and child-mortality rates. “My grandmother was pregnant 14 times, but lost two babies at birth and two soon after birth,” Takele says. “Mothers, newborns and children in developing countries are the world’s most vulnerable people, and I want to change that.” 

informatics illustration
Health informatics is the “science that defines how health information is technically captured, transmitted and utilized.”
illustration of digitized human shape touching electronic fields of data

A 2016 graduate of the University of Washington School of Public Health, Takele wants to strengthen health systems to address public challenges. She plans to use the leadership skills gained while pursuing her Bachelor of Science in Health Informatics and Health Information Management, a unique, experiential undergrad program. 

Health informatics is the “science that defines how health information is technically captured, transmitted and utilized;” health information management involves organizing and protecting digital and traditional health information vital to quality patient care, according to the American Health Information Management Association.

“We are seeing more, and more rapid, transformation in the healthcare industry than we have in the past 20 years,” says Jeffrey Harris, professor and chair of the School’s Department of Health Services. “There is increased emphasis on improving quality of care and population health while lowering costs.”

The program has a diverse student population in ethnicity, gender and age. Eighty-five percent of students are nonwhite, identifying as Hispanic, Native American, Asian, African-American, Pacific Islander or Hawaiian or biracial. The number of international students has doubled since 2014. About 63 percent of students are female. 

Graduates of the program are qualified to manage and analyze healthcare data, implement electronic health-record technologies and evaluate privacy policies. UW launched the program in 2001. More than 230 students graduated between 2008 and 2015, Peterson said.

The school also offers a master’s degree where students can deepen their expertise. And it partners with UW’s Professional & Continuing Education to provide a certificate program designed for professionals who have a bachelor’s degree and are interested in a career change. 

Informatics duo
Mahlet Takele, left, graduated from the program; Adele Kroeger is pursuing a professional certification.
pictures of Mahlet Takele and Adele Kroeger

“My husband and I spent the last 20 years raising three children, but now we’re transitioning to life without soccer tournaments, mock trial competitions and golf matches,” says Adele Kroeger, a certificate student. “As a returning student, I love the stimulation that going back to school has brought to my life.”

When she wasn’t a stay-at-home mom, Kroeger did systems analysis and marketing for Boeing, IBM, AT&T and Sprint. She thinks her experience can help healthcare organizations tailor offerings to meet customers’ needs. “I love to promote a cause I believe in, and I'm sure that element will be part of my next career,” she says.

Takele shares the same conviction. She is committed to eliminating health disparities for poor and disadvantaged populations. 

She plans to continue her education in hospital administration or international health, and dreams of running an NGO to set up clinics in developing nations that would provide quality care for families and safe childbirth sites for mothers.

“Healthcare is a human right,” Takele says. “Your race, income and where you’re from should not impact the quality of care you receive.”