A joint venture between St. James Healthcare and Montana Tech in Butte would create a new degree program - and possibly spur construction of an 8,000-square-foot building on the hospital campus.

The program, called Health Care Informatics, meshes clinical health care and information systems skills.

The program will benefit health-care workers who want to start a new career, hospitals and other health care facilities, Tech and the Butte economy, according to officials on both sides of the venture.

But the biggest winner could be the patient, who will benefit from better management of the medical information that surrounds him, officials say.

"The integration of information that surrounds the patient is the focus of diagnosis and treatment," said Pat Dudley, director of human resources for St. James. "He will have better health care with more efficient management of the information. That's the real crux of this program."

If approved by the Board of Regents, Tech will create associate and bachelor degrees in Health Care Informatics, with classes planned to start in fall 2002.

The two agencies have also asked for federal funding to build a National Center for Health Care Informatics on the St. James campus, which would serve the students, and also a resource and continuing education center for health care workers. Exactly where the new building would be located hasn't been determined.

The center would carry the "national" moniker because it would be the first in the country to offer undergraduate degrees in health care informatics, Dudley said, although some specialized masters-level programs do exist.

"It's very cutting edge," Dudley said. "We thought, well, why couldn't Butte be the center for health care informatics for the country?"

The idea for an informatics program began in Dudley's mind about three years ago, while he was trying to find a solution to the hospital's shortage of on-call workers. When patient loads are higher than average, hospitals rely on a "per diem pool" of workers, Dudley said, who are called in on an as-needed basis. But he had never been able to establish a large enough pool in Butte. And, St. James also felt the shortage of health care workers across the country.

Dudley came up with a plan, which he called Quality through Workforce Transitioning.

"Many people in health care are tired, burned out, and want new careers," Dudley said. "That gave me the idea for the Quality through Workforce Transitioning. The bait was not St. James, but Montana Tech."

The premise is that, while health care workers attend Tech to transition into a new career, St. James could get two or three years of quality work from them.

"The hook is, we would support them in scholarship as long as they were in our per diem pool," Dudley said. "And they'd be good scholarships - $7,000 to $10,000 a year, maybe more if they're from out of state."

As the plan took shape, Dudley thought it was a shame for health care to lose skilled workers, and another idea started forming - to merge clinical skills and information systems skills in a new degree program.

"In general, (information systems) and clinical workers don't talk to each other much," Dudley said. " 'IS' people talk information systems, and clinical people talk clinical."

The new degree program will create a liaison between information systems and clinical workers, Dudley said.

Dudley approached Ray Rogers, director of college relations and marketing for Tech, last fall.

"It took me about 15 minutes to be convinced that the idea was an absolute winner," Rogers said. "It could be a high-growth area. It could bring a lot of students to Tech."

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