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Computers + information = 'informatics'

Two days a week, a group of hospital workers put their jobs aside and go back to school.

They're clerks and receptionists and secretaries and lab techs during the work week, but on Tuesdays and Thursdays they're all students of "informatics," a 50-year-old, 50-cent word for the science of automatic information processing.

"We're learning a lot about computers," said Jennifer Monteith, a lab technician at Three Rivers Community Hospital in Grants Pass when she's not in class. "We're learning how the core of a computer works. We're learning all the things we'd ordinarily have to call the IT (information technology) department about."

Monteith and her colleagues are enrolled in a program funded by a $433,000 grant secured by Rogue Community College and Asante Health System, the parent company for Three Rivers and Rogue Valley Medical Center. When they finish their training they'll have learned how to help nurses and other caregivers manage patient information on computers and keep the computers running smoothly, too.

"Each department has its own special work flow and computer system," said Mark Bony, chairman of RCC's computer science department. "They'll be like a go-between for hospital personnel and information technology services."

"We'll be 'super users' of the programs they're using," Monteith explained.

Fundamentally, they'll be problem solvers, said Mike Hancock, Asante's director of education and human resource support. They'll be working on "things as basic as logon problems or frozen screens, or (helping) somebody who can't input patient information," he said.

Asante and RCC received one of nine grants awarded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in its "Jobs to Careers" initiative, a program designed to give front-line health workers training that will help them land better-paying jobs and simultaneously improve the quality of health care.

The grant emphasizes work-based learning, in which students acquire skill by solving real-work problems. Monteith, 28, said she originally took a hospital job with the intention of becoming a nurse, but she jumped at the chance to work with computers.

"It was an opportunity I couldn't pass up," she said. "As soon as I read about it I thought 'I could do computers. That would be cool.'"

Asante pays for the students' education, including tuition, books, fees and use of a laptop computer, plus up to 16 hours a week of release time from work for study. The grant paid for course design work, planning and on-the-job mentoring.

Students will need two years to complete the program, which will qualify them for a full-time informatics job with Asante or a full-time job that includes part-time work in informatics. Starting pay for those jobs will range from $12.39 to $17.25 per hour, and the maximum hourly wage will be $19.

If state education officials approve the training program, students will be eligible to earn a certificate in health care informatics. Plans also call for developing a two-year associate's degree program for informatics specialists. Starting pay for the jobs that require an associate's degree would range from $16 to $22 per hour, with a top hourly wage of $24.

Asante invited some 1,500 workers to apply for the program, and 80 submitted applications. Twenty-three were selected. Half of them started class work this fall; the others will begin during the winter term.

Many of students have worked in relatively low-paying jobs and never moved up because they couldn't make time for education on top of their work and family responsibilities. Brandy Cotton of Medford applied because she saw the training as a way to go to school while working and raising three boys on her own.

"I need to make sure I can afford to put three kids through college," said Cotton, 32, who works in the emergency department at Rogue Valley Medical Center. "This gives me a way to continue my education and put me in a better financial situation."

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail bkettler@mailtribune.com

Asante employees listen to a lesson on computer security during a class session of the informatics program developed by Rogue Community College and Asante Health System. Jim Craven 10/30/2007 - Jim Craven