Student Spotlight: Toho Soma, Health Informatics Program

Toho Soma is earning his master's in health informaticsToho Soma is the Interim Director and Senior Research Associate in the Center for Excellence in Health Innovation at UNE. He is also the supervisor of a team of evaluators in the Center.

Although he is currently pursuing his Master of Science in Health Informatics, his background is in public health. For ten years prior to coming to UNE, he worked within the City of Portland’s Public Health Division, the last two of which he was the Director of Public Health.

Here, he talks about what motivated him to earn his master’s in health informatics, his experience in the program, and some words of wisdom for students considering this online graduate degree path.

What encouraged you to pursue your master’s in health informatics?

I decided to pursue this degree because I’m interested in health informatics – and I know that this is a field that is only going to grow. I’m also able to apply some of the skills I’ve learned in the program to my current job as well because I work with a lot of data.

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So you saw an opportunity to grow your data analytic skills through this program?

Right. Our department is mostly funded through grants, and I primarily do evaluation work for these grants, which are related to substance use, interprofessional education, and chronic disease. So I collect, manage, and analyze a lot of survey data in my job. I saw the potential for a degree in health informatics to inform that process.

How far along are you in getting your master’s?

I’m in my final semester, currently completing my practicum and doing my final paper. I should be done by December 15th of this year!

Can you tell us about your practicum experience?

I’m doing my practicum at MaineHealth, within their telehealth department. One of the projects that are administered through that department is called Project ECHO, which stands for Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes. It was developed at the University of New Mexico and is a method by which medical providers can connect with one another to address certain health issues. It has proven to be extremely beneficial for providers, especially primary care providers (PCPs) in rural areas where there are not a lot of specialists. Patients ideally have seen a specialist for certain health conditions, but since there are fewer specialists in rural areas, the PCPs have taken on that specialist role as their own.

Project ECHO gives PCPs a platform to connect with other providers, including specialists that might be able to help them with certain cases. It’s a very collaborative system, with multiple ECHO hubs all over the country.

In Maine, we have a sizable rural population and MaineHealth’s reach extends across all parts of the state, especially in rural areas. MaineHealth’s Project ECHO hub has proven to be a nice way for MaineHealth providers and others to connect to each other over specific health topics such as palliative care, integrated medication-assisted treatment, and cardiology.

My practicum mirrors what I do in my job right now, just in a different topic area. There have been surveys around how PCPs have been able to increase their knowledge because of Project ECHO, but MaineHealth would like to take the program evaluation to the next level and see if and how Project ECHO has actually influenced practice. So I have been helping them evaluate that.

What attracted you to apply for your master’s in health informatics?

I graduated with my MPH 16 years ago. I wasn’t necessarily looking to go back to school, but when I started at UNE I saw the opportunity to get another degree, and I jumped at the chance. I’ve found health informatics to be an interesting field that is only going to continue to grow and provide more opportunities.

I also wanted to try online education. I had never taken online classes before, and I wasn’t sure what to expect, so I thought it would be interesting.

So this is your first experience with online classes. How do you like it?

I’ve found it to be a great challenge that has come with some excellent benefits. First of all, the courses are self-paced, so I can do my coursework when it fits in my schedule. But the flip side is… that it’s all self-paced! I have to self-motivate. Assignments are due at reliable intervals, but nobody is expecting me to be in a classroom at a certain time.

Sometimes it’s a struggle, like this past summer when it was nice out and I didn’t want to be inside programming in R or writing a paper. But you just have to look at the bigger picture and focus on that long term goal.

What did you like about the online format?

My Student Support Specialist, Emily Hill, has been wonderful to work with and is always available if I have questions. The faculty has also been supportive and accessible when I have needed to reach out.

Within my courses, I’ve liked that you get a nice diversity of students from different geographical backgrounds. I find it interesting to learn how things work in different places.

I also enjoyed the diversity among everyone’s career backgrounds and among the different stages of everyone’s careers. As I mentioned, I’m primarily in public health, but a lot of my classmates are in healthcare, either in hospital or outpatient settings. It’s been nice to learn about their experiences as well as be able to offer my own public health perspective.

What did you find challenging in the program?

The programming classes have been tougher than some of the other classes. You don’t want to get behind, especially in those classes, because when you’re learning those programming languages every week builds upon the previous weeks. And so if you’re not on top of it starting in week one, you could really fall behind quickly. You don’t want to do that to yourself.

So if I felt myself struggling in a class, I made sure to reach out immediately in the first week to get help. Plus, I took advantage of the tutors that are available through the Student Academic Success Center (SASC) and that has also been very helpful.

Any words of wisdom for potential students looking to get their master’s in health informatics?

If you’ve never done online education before, be prepared to really manage your time. The first thing I do at the start of every class is to look through the syllabus and pull up my calendar. Then I literally put in every due date of every assignment so that I can pace myself. I also figure out in advance how I am going to plan around any events or special occasions.

I would say if time management is not your strong suit, you’re not alone! Your Student Support will work with you to figure out a plan. There are also some online time management resources on the blog that you can use to help you out, or you can make an appointment at the Student Academic Success Center (SASC) to discuss learning strategies that may work for you.

Everyone that I have encountered in my program is already working a part-time or full-time job, and a lot of them have kids, other hobbies, and are just managing life in general. Everyone needs to be managing their time effectively in order to get everything done. You’re not alone – and you can do this!

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