Between her professional credentials and family background, it’s no wonder Lara Khansa sought to design and teach a foundation course in health information technology for Virginia Tech’s master of information technology program.
Khansa, an associate professor of business information technology, worked as a software design engineer at GE Healthcare after earning her master’s degree in computer engineering from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
“My job was to design and program connectivity tools that allowed GE Healthcare to assist their customers worldwide with operating and troubleshooting their medical imaging systems and applications,” she says.
When she embarked on a Ph.D. in information systems, she examined the economics of information security and privacy in various industries, including healthcare, in her dissertation.
She has long had a personal interest as well in the medical and healthcare field: her parents have both been microbiology professors; her brother is a plastic surgeon.
In her course, she covers, among others, three important topics: medical error and patient safety, security and privacy of protected health information, and health information technology infrastructure.
“Avoiding medical errors and ensuring patient safety become more challenging when trying to adapt work processes to new technology,” Khansa says. “Adopting emerging health information technologies or implementing a new electronic medical record system changes a healthcare institution’s socio-technical processes and can, in the short run, negatively impact the quality and efficiency of care and patient safety.”
Privacy fears are a major reason some have been resisting the idea of a nationwide electronic health record (EHR) system, says Khansa, whose course offers students hands-on experience with an actual EHR system.
“For EHR systems to be effective and successful, confidential patient information needs to be exchanged and transferred among many parties and often between not sufficiently secure mediums or clouds. This adds considerable risk to private patient information and requires effective administrative, technical, and physical safeguards to protect patient privacy.”
Lastly, before a nationwide EHR system can be established, a complex infrastructure, which considers data standards and interoperability issues, has to be built. For data to be exchanged between disparate systems, Khansa says, standards or some sort of common language have to be established to allow different systems to communicate with one another.
“We also discuss the costs associated with establishing a nationwide EHR system and ways to streamline existing resources and infrastructure to reduce these costs.”
Benefits and challenges of teaching online
What she most enjoys about the course is interacting with her students through technology and the “anytime, anywhere” quality of “ubiquitous connectivity,” Khansa says.
The interactive forums she designed, which allow students to exchange ideas, ask questions, and respond to each other’s questions, make the course so much fun, she says.
Being unable to see her students, however, is a drawback. “I relate better to people and can connect with them better when I see their faces. Although I have live sessions with my students every week, our current system at Virginia Tech only allows us to communicate via audio.”
Khansa notes that it is sometimes assumed that teaching online is easier than teaching face-to-face, because instructors do not have to be physically present in class. Not so, she says: overall, she has spent much more time teaching her online course than her other courses.
“In reality, teaching online requires much more interaction with students to be effective. From day one, I have made the commitment of being always available to answer students’ questions from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., and even during weekends.”
Her commitment was tested early on. In the summer of 2012, when Khansa was teaching the course for the first time, an extraordinary storm with destructive winds tore through Virginia (the derecho was reported to have affected 11 states in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest).
“I had to talk to many students over the phone to tell them what to do about their project submissions and final exam,” Khansa recalls. “It was a very trying period, but we worked things out wonderfully.” Despite extended power outages, including in Blacksburg and the metro Washington, D.C. area, all her students were able to successfully complete their final exams and the course.
Khansa’s dedication and expertise have earned her appreciative evaluations from her students (see sidebar), some of whom became her research collaborators after completing her course or graduating from the program.
A few of her former students, for example, co-authored two peer-reviewed papers with her that were published in professional journals: "Proposing an Intelligent Cloud-Based Electronic Health Record System,” in the International Journal of Business Data Communications and Networking, and “Leveraging Health Information Technologies for Chronically-Ill Patients: The Case of Diabetes,” in the International Journal of User-Driven Healthcare.
(The papers were based on class assignments they had undertaken: the project options included interviewing a friend or family member with a chronic health condition and proposing ways that health information technology can be used to support and empower the patient or devising an innovative health information technology application.)
Teaching health information technology during a time of frequent change in the industry requires Khansa to constantly update her instructional materials.
“But it also means that my students and I can make a difference in the real world, both with our research and by joining the workforce and helping to establish the nationwide EHR system,” says Khansa, who has used her network of contacts to help some of her students land jobs.
Reflecting on the rewards she has gained from teaching the course, Khansa says she remains very appreciative of department head Bernard W. Taylor for entrusting her with the major task of developing the course from scratch. “I could not have done it without his support and confidence in me.”