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BUTTE - Montana Tech is looking to offer a new master’s program as the demand heightens to electronically manage medical records.

Gone are the days when the records filled lined shelves in thick manila folders.

Now, medical professionals are more likely to click a mouse than flip through hard copies.

Tech’s Health Care Informatics program contributed to the cutting edge of the electronic medical records industry when its first class graduated in 2005.

Today, the program has adapted to a rapidly evolving landscape and is mulling a full-scale master’s degree program.

“We’re probably still a couple years out,” said Associate Professor and Department Head Charie Faught.

But offering an advanced degree would give students more options when seeking management or supervisory-level jobs.

The program offers four types of degrees or certifications – a minor, a health informatics technology certificate, a bachelor of science degree and a graduate certificate program. The last option offers some graduate work, but isn’t a full-blown, specific master’s degree.

Part of what fuels the array of options is that professional jobs working with medical records are diverse.

“There’s a huge demand for these kinds of professionals,” Faught said.

Someone who experienced that demand – and diversity – firsthand is Toni Wood, who graduated from the program in 2006.

“It was a very broad range,” said Wood, who works for SCL Health Systems, St. James Healthcare’s affiliate. “We were able to take what we learned and apply that to our industry. It’s definitely rapidly evolving.”

That changing landscape can be attractive for students looking for a different challenge.

“The advancements in technology happen so fast,” said student Craig LaDoucer, a junior in the program. “You’ve got to roll with the punches.”

Wood said that she still stays in touch with professors to offer feedback from her experience. All the instructors in the program have professional experience with medical records as well.

The program doesn’t have a huge enrollment; it had about eight graduates last year, the same as its first.

“Most folks will still say, ‘what is this?’” Faught said. The question is, “how do students find out that this exists?”

Many students switch over from other healthcare fields, like Wood and LaDoucer. He started as a nursing major, but was in part attracted by the technology focus in informatics.

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“I saw it as combining two things that interest me,” he said. “It seemed like a perfect fit.”

LaDoucer will have plenty of chances to find out just how snug of a fit it is; the program requires students to do an internship and practicum.

“It’ll be nice to take all these theories and see where the rubber meets the road,” he said.

Electronic medical records are now well-established, but there’s still confusion over how to use them best.

“Healthcare is actually, and has been, behind in the electronic systems,” Faught said. The focus is on “how do we use that efficiently and effectively.”

When used properly, electronic records can save lives, she said, making it easier to discover what medications patients are on and to refer to their medical histories.

“You can track and trend how well a patient is doing over time,” she said.

It’s unclear if the Affordable Care Act will have an impact on the electronic record industry, Faught said.

But the job outlook is bright regardless.

“I’m very optimistic,” LaDoucer said.

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