According to the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), the need for innovation in health informatics—which AHIMA describes as the “management of all aspects of health data and information through the application of computers and computer technology”—has never been greater. The transition from paper-based to electronic medical records has, the organization says, “vastly increased the volume of available health information and the speed at which it is communicated.” It has also increased the available data health care providers, medical researchers and policymakers can draw upon when evaluating the efficacy of treatments, developing new medicines and medical devices, and looking for ways to reduce the cost of health care.
Informaticists (also known as informaticians) are health care professionals who typically don’t engage with patients but nonetheless have the power to enhance patient care and even improve treatment outcomes. They are experts in leveraging the power of the thousands of exabytes of data generated each year in medicine, medical research and billing. They use strategies and skills in data science, computer science, data management, business administration and health information technology to make valuable contributions to procedural efficiencies and improvements to prescriptive treatment and emerging trends in public health.
If you’re intrigued by the possibilities that electronic data brings to health care, you’re not alone. The emergence of informatics as a distinct health care discipline with its own subdisciplines has inspired the creation of dedicated degree programs for informaticists. The University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences‘ 36-credit hour online Master of Science in Health Informatics (MSHI) program is for clinicians, businesspeople, data scientists and IT professionals excited to take advantage of career opportunities at the intersection of health care, business management and technology.
A bachelor’s degree in health informatics, health information management, computer science, data science, information systems or a related field can get you started on the road to becoming an informaticist. However, you’ll eventually need an MS in Health Informatics to rise through the ranks into positions like health data scientist or director of informatics. Most employers seek master’s-level candidates when filling informatics positions because health informatics requires broad expertise associated with graduate study. Effective health informaticists understand not just data science and business administration, but also health care industry practices and regulations, patient care standards and medical management.
Pitt’s MSHI multidisciplinary curriculum illustrates just how much informaticists need to know to do what they do. Students take courses such as:
- Anatomy, Physiology, Pathophysiology, Pharmacology and Medical Terminology
- Practical Statistics and Programming Using Python and R
- Health Vocabulary, Terminology and Classification Systems
- Health Information and the Health Care System
- Foundations of Health Informatics
- Security, Privacy, Legal and Ethical Issues in Health Information Systems
- Talent Management and Human Resources
- Leadership and Project Management
- Data Science in Health Informatics
- Data Analytics and Machine Learning in Health Science
- Financial Management and Health Care Reimbursement
- Database Design and Big Data Analytics
- Digital Health
A health informatics master’s degree can lead you down many different career paths because informatics has applications in clinical care, pharmaceutical development, medical device manufacturing, public health, population health, medical research and health insurance. There are positions for informaticists in specialty areas of medicine such as nursing, pharmacy, dentistry and health administration. Some informaticists work for government agencies and non-profit organizations, supporting public health initiatives. Others work in infrastructure-focused roles, designing, building and maintaining the technologies that make informatics possible. Most health informatics jobs fall into one of three silos: analytics, technology or leadership.
Salary expectations for health informaticists vary widely based on education, experience, location, title and responsibilities. Entry-level salaries in informatics range from $50,000 upward, with some positions paying significantly higher. The pay scale increases considerably with a master’s degree. The 2018 Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) Compensation Survey found the average salary for digital health professionals was close to $110,000 per year. Professionals in leadership positions in health informatics and health IT can earn even more. PayScale reports the top 10% of health IT project managers earn nearly $140,000, and the highest health informatics director salaries top $200,000 annually.
Look at health informatics careers in each of the three silos to see how varied informatics salaries can be.
Analytics and data science play a prominent role in health informatics, and positions in this focus area include entry-level and leadership roles, including:
- Clinical informatics specialists use digital technology and data to support health care services. They analyze patient information, operations data, information generated by claims and billing, and data related to clinical care to drive organizational improvements. Some clinical informatics specialists earn about $78,000 while others earn a lot more.
- Health data scientists build systems that clean, convert and analyze data to support organizational and clinical decision-making. They may have to work with many different types of information, including clinical data, financial data, patient records, business operations data and research data. Data scientists in health care typically earn about $115,000, though early-career data scientists usually earn less.
- Health data quality managers (DQM), sometimes referred to as quality assurance managers, are responsible for data hygiene. They create data quality protocols, participate in data governance practices, data application, collection, analysis and warehousing; and ensure there’s always high-quality data for analysis. Average DQM salaries are about $89,000.
Some informaticists work behind the scenes, designing, building and maintaining hardware and software systems that manipulate and analyze data. Job titles in this area of health informatics include:
- Health informatics consultants help hospitals and other health care facilities implement IT systems and databases on a contract basis. Most health informatics consultants earn an average income of about $103,000 per year, but the income range for this role varies widely because different projects have different pay scales.
- Health IT project managers oversee digital health technology projects such as implementing new electronic health records systems or integrating disparate clinical applications. Health IT project manager salaries range from $89,000 per year to $126,000, but most professionals in this role earn about $106,000.
- Privacy officers in medical settings ensure computer and database systems adhere to the current HIPAA guidelines. This is a hugely important role given the strict rules and regulations surrounding patient privacy. Salaries for this position can range from $20,000 to $202,000, but most privacy officers in health care earn about $104,000.
Health informatics can’t exist without effective leadership to guide organizational activities related to data collection, storage, management and use. Leadership roles in informatics include:
- Chief Medical Information Officers typically oversee activities related to health IT systems, EMR/EHR software and applications and analysis of health care data. Some chief medical information officers are trained data scientists, while others come from a health care administration background. The average salary for a chief medical information officer is about $299,000.
- Chief Nursing Informatics Officers are nearly always licensed RNs. The responsibilities associated with this role usually involve using data to enhance resource usage, information acquisition and storage, billing and departmental operations. It isn’t unusual for a chief nursing informatics officer to earn $120,000 per year or more.
- Directors of Clinical Informatics oversee the design of the computer and database systems that facilitate health information collection and management and the analysis of that information to meet specific organizational goals. Most informaticists with this title earn about $116,000.
Informaticists work in many settings, including:
- Academic institutions
- Consulting firms
- Government agencies
- Health care vendors
- Health IT and software companies
- Health care networks
- Insurance companies
- Nursing care facilities
- Outpatient facilities
- Physician offices or medical practices
While some informaticists do occasionally interact with patients, most HI professionals work behind the scenes on teams with administrators, health care providers and other informaticians.
The majority of hospitals and other health care organizations now use health IT systems such as electronic health records and telehealth technologies. These systems generate thousands of exabytes of potentially valuable data each year. Health informatics is transforming medicine, and it’s not just the volume of information health care organizations have in their databases that drive demand. Since the implementation of the HITECH Act in 2009, the need for health informaticists has increased significantly. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic increased the demand for consumer-facing digital health technologies and highlighted the role informatics plays in population health and epidemiological research.
As the technology continues to advance and systems become more complex, the demand for well-trained health informatics professionals will likely grow. The rate of data generation in health care and medical research is speeding up, and that data is already powerful. In the right hands, it will ultimately have a transformative effect on medicine. While you can measure the ROI of an MSHI in dollars, it can also be measured in impact. Apply now to earn your MSHI at the University of Pittsburgh, and in just 16 to 24 months, you will have the knowledge and qualifications to work in informatics and become part of the informatics revolution.