Health Informatics Courses

PgC/PgD/MSc in Healthcare Information Systems

PgC/PgD/MSc in Healthcare Information Management

Course Outline for Students

Computing & Maths Programme Area
University of Portsmouth
Lion Gate

September 2001


Health informatics (HI) is the application of information management and information technology (IM&T) to the delivery of high-quality and cost-effective healthcare.

Every developed nation throughout the world is facing serious difficulties with the delivery of healthcare to its citizens. These difficulties arise from ageing populations, the increasing cost of medical technology, higher patient expectations, and general economic and social change. Information is a key element in providing solutions to these problems and health informatics is seen as an emerging discipline to train tomorrow’s decision makers in its exploitation.


In June 1998, the Department of Information Systems (DIS) at the University of Portsmouth successfully validated two new HI programmes:

These programmes fit into DIS's existing MSc framework incorporating the Information Systems and Multimedia Information Systems programmes, among others.

The HIS programme emphasises the technological and systems aspects of healthcare information technology (IT) whilst the HIM programme recognises that the information provided by these systems, and the way it is managed, are key contributors to the quality and cost-effectiveness of healthcare provision.

Both health informatics programmes are available in full and part-time modes. The full-time mode is intended primarily for overseas students since there is no UK undergraduate provision in HI and health sector employees have few opportunities to gain release and support for full-time education. The part-time mode is more appropriate to the needs of healthcare professionals who live within cmmuting distance of Portsmouth. The distance-learning (DL) mode of study widens access to participants who cannot take advantage of either mode. Distance learning is also more economical and convenient for many students whilst modern communications technologies reduce the sense of isolation sometimes felt with this mode of study.

Not all modes of study are offered at each admission point. Full and part-time students may be asked to do some or all of their units by distance learning.


Design Strategy

As mentioned, the full- and part-time modes of the health informatics programmes were validated in 1998 with units designed to fit into the framework of DIS’s existing masters’ courses. The approach to developing the distance-learning mode has therefore been to build upon the validated programmes, retaining the existing material and progression whilst increasing flexibility.

However, the opportunity has been taken to update the units to reflect the many changes that have beset the UK National Health Service and to enhance the international dimension to appeal to overseas students.

A further principle has been the need to reduce the number of units and therefore assessments that students need to take and pass. This reduction is especially important for distance-learning students who can readily be deterred by the volume of assessment that they have to fit into their existing work schedule and additional study.

Relationship with Full- and Part-time Modes

This process of revision has been so successful that the full- and part-time modes have been brought into line with the distance learning programmes so that the health informatics programmes now have a coherent and consistent set of units across the three modes.

Course Objectives and Student Profile

The aims and objectives of the Healthcare Information Management and Healthcare Information Systems programmes are summarised separately. The distance learning modes are intended for students in full-time employment in the health sector. The modes and units are therefore designed for continuing professional development as a means of updating knowledge and acquiring new skills, and as a powerful contribution to career progression. As postgraduate courses, the programmes must also satisfy the academic requirements appropriate to this level of study. The course specifications show how the courses provide relevant opportunities for students to achieve:

The programmes offered by these modes will appeal to a wide range of technical and managerial professionals as well as to clinicians who want to add these skills to their portfolio. Broadly, we can categorise these professionals as follows.

        IT graduates – who wish to extend and widen their knowledge of the use of IM&T in the health sector. Graduates who want to focus on technological issues such as systems design and integration, data handling, or communications should follow the Healthcare Information Systems programme. Others may want to expand their knowledge to see how the information from these systems can be harnessed for better healthcare. These graduates should choose the Healthcare Information Management programme.

        Non-IT graduates – who should select the Healthcare Information Systems programme for a better understanding of the technology behind the information they deal with on a daily basis, or the Healthcare Information Management route to discover how their specialty fits into the wider picture of healthcare management. Clinicians also fall into this non-IT category. The courses are also appropriate for nurses who want to pursue a career in health informatics.

        Non-graduates – who are present in the ranks of healthcare professionals in considerable numbers. Many of these professionals have a range of sub-graduate qualifications and have attended courses up to and including postgraduate level. Their academic pursuits are matched by a wealth of experience and this combination of formal qualifications and experience makes them suitable candidates for the accreditation of prior (experiential) learning, AP(E)L.

Entry Profiles and AP(E)L

Normal entrance qualification for postgraduate study is a first degree or equivalent and this regulation applies in the present case. However, as pointed out above many mature healthcare professionals have entered the health service without a university background and are looking for a way to receive recognition for their often considerable, high-level experience and to further their careers.

In these cases, the first two foundation units, Foundations of Information Technology and Fundamentals of Information Systems, contributing 20 credit points, are taken as diagnostic units for students without first degrees, whatever their background. These students must achieve a Master’s level performance in these units before they can register for an MSc/PgD.

Students with degrees in non-computing subjects and with only limited IT experience normally take the foundation units. However, applicants with a first degree in computing and with additional, current IT experience are eligible for AP(E)L for these units. Students with appropriate healthcare experience may also be eligible for AP(E)L for other units. In all cases, the maximum allowance for AP(E)L is 20 credit points.

Frequency of Intake

Distance learning has the merit that it is not tied to standard intake times (eg September/October start) as required by conventional face-to-face teaching. However, whilst a "start-at-any-time2 operation may be attractive to students, it can create considerable logistical problems for the promoting institution.

Currently, intake for all modes of all courses is at the beginning of the Autumn semester.


Course Structure and Credit Accumulation

The distance learning modes for the health informatics programmes follow the conventional structure for a postgraduate course. Credit-point rated taught units allow students to exit with a Postgraduate Certificate (35 points), or Diploma (70 points). The taught units are then followed by a post-Diploma level project (45 points) and presentation skills unit (5 points) to acquire the MSc award (120 points).

Taught units are classified as either core or option units. Core units are followed in a fixed sequence. Both HIS and HIM start with the same core sequence of three 10-point units and the 5-point Sources of Healthcare Information unit. These units give a combined total of 35 credit points. They are offered over the first year of the course so that students can, if they wish, meet the requirements of the Postgraduate Certificate in one year.

The units are followed in the second year by a 10-point core unit specific to the programme under study and a research methods unit of 5-point rating also geared to programme needs. The taught components conclude with a selection of two optional 10-point units appropriate to the individual programmes. The second year therefore also contains four units totalling 35 credit points allowing any students who wish, to satisfy the requirements of the Postgraduate Diploma.

The MSc research project and dissertation continue into the third year.

The sequences of core and option units for the HIM and HIS programmes are shown separately.

Additional option units for the full- and part-time modes are also available to students if they can attend to study these units. This facility is especially appropriate to the technological emphasis of the HIS programme.

Block Release Operation

The intention is to provide students with a framework for distance learning study by offering four taught units per year in years 1 and 2. The steady progress achieved with this pattern is beneficial to both students and tutors since it offers a measurable rate of achievement, preserves continuity and interest, and simplifies administration.

At the same time, the framework provides a platform for face-to-face contact between tutors and students and between students and their peers. Thus each unit is organised such that students receive the distance learning materials at the start of the unit. Partway through the unit they attend a mandatory block session at the University or another convenient centre. This may be 1, 2 or 3 days in duration, or combined with the session for other unit(s). This session contains presentations by experts in the field and other relevant activities. It also includes opportunities for assessment (section 4.4), for discussion with tutors, and for students to attend Boards of Studies meetings.

Block release has a participant (and employer) commitment of a maximum of eight days per year (based on four units a year)

Study Timings

The strength of distance learning courses is that students can proceed at their own pace. Nevertheless, it is useful for students to have an approximate idea of the length of time they should spend on various aspects of study. The times shown in Table 1 are flexible recommendations for a typical 10-point distance-learning unit.

Table 1: Typical Study Hours



Unit study and self-assessment questions


Literature/Internet search, directed reading


Block release study


Contact with peers and tutors          


Assignment preparation and submission




Unit Assessment

Unit assessment for all 10-point healthcare units (those prefixed with HI unit codes) normally comprises a supervised work session (50%) and a single, 1,500-word review (50%) negotiated between the student and the unit tutor. The work session is a group activity in which students develop solutions to case studies relevant to the unit. The session is held during the block release component.

The review topic reflects the aims and objectives of the unit. Its individual nature allows students to select topics of relevance to their interests and work situations.

Assessment for the 10-point, Web-site Design for Interactive Environments, unit comprises a supervised work session (50%) and coursework (50%). The 5-point units, Healthcare Research Methods or Research Methods, and Sources of Healthcare Information, are also assessed by a supervised work session (50%) and coursework (50%).

Finally, the 5-point Presentation Skills unit is assessed during a block release session by a short oral presentation in which the student describes their project work.

Course Delivery

Most students will have ready access to the Internet and e-mail. Even these students are likely to prefer to study mainly from printed materials, however, and text-based materials are a common lingua franca.

However, standard lecture notes do not have sufficient opportunities for self-evaluation, reflection, and interaction, and simply reproducing such notes in electronic format does not produce the required quality of student learning experience. Text-based materials have therefore been prepared for all offered units with the required levels of interaction via in-text assignments, case studies and small projects. These materials have been evaluated for both distance learning style and appropriateness of content.

The text materials have also been written with the World Wide Web in mind and in due course all materials will be able to take advantage of the benefits offered by this medium.

Student Support Mechanisms

The advantages to students of study at a distance from an educational establishment are often offset by a sense of isolation. This sense can be reduced by a combination of techniques such as store-and-forward e-mail, web publishing, and peer-to-peer and student/tutor contact offered by the block release sessions. Each student also has a designated course tutor who can be contacted by e-mail or by telephone at prescribed times.

These methods of contact are used to identify and solve general problems and to discuss the in-text assignments of each unit. Of equal importance in this context is a database and exchange of contact addresses between students to develop a peer-to-peer support network. Most students are healthcare professionals and collectively have a great deal of experience that no academic tutor can match.

The distance learning materials make extensive use of in-text assignments and case studies and it is intended to direct students to collaborate on the more open-ended and complex of these exercises so that they can engage as a group in on-line discussions with tutors.


The full-time, part-time and distance learning modes are equivalent ways to obtain the appropriate Certificate, Diploma, and MSc qualifications. Hence the award does not specify the mode of study or the time taken to achieve it.