Informatics degree programs like the University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences’ online Master of Science in Health Informatics (MSHI) program tend to attract students who want to make a difference in medicine. Given that, some people might wonder why these students don’t pursue clinical careers. The answer is that health care data is a powerfully useful tool that can have a tremendous impact on patient outcomes when wielded by those who know how to use it.
The health care industry generates vast quantities of information—thousands of exabytes of data each year. As computer science and data science have evolved, health informatics professionals have discovered new ways to use that data. At first, informatics was concerned primarily with the development of standardized data exchange protocols that would facilitate rapid communication between practitioners in different departments (e.g., the ER and the pharmacy). Today, health care informatics drives changes in medicine and medical research that benefit not only practitioners but also patients.
Do you want to make a difference in health care? Earning an MSHI degree can give you the skills and knowledge you need to make your living improving patient outcomes with information—even if you don’t have a clinical background or currently work in health care.
People equate health informatics (HI) with digital patient records and practice management platforms, but this discipline encompasses so much more. Informatics is a technological discipline concerned with the many uses of computational technology, digital information systems, and data in medicine and medical research. The applications of health informatics extend well beyond electronic health record-keeping and data analysis. According to the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA), informatics “applies principles of computer science and information science to the advancement of life sciences research, health professions education, public health and patient care.”
Informatics professionals—known as informaticists or informaticians—work to make health care more accessible, efficient and effective by leveraging data generated from electronic health records (EHRs), diagnostic imaging, vital sign monitoring, incident reporting systems, clinical trial results, practice management software, and connected medical devices worn or utilized by patients.
It wasn’t until fairly recently that computers grew powerful and sophisticated enough to effectively analyze all that data—much of which was collected in unstructured, hard-to-analyze formats. Today, health informatics transforms medicine in myriad ways:
- Some informaticists look for patterns in patient data that will help researchers and drug manufacturers develop new treatments or customized treatments.
- Others help develop digital devices that use data to monitor patients or make it easier for patients to care for themselves.
- Still others analyze facilities data to make health care operations safer and more efficient or to improve access to care.
The effects of informatics-driven health IT tools are also hard to ignore:
- Electronic health records systems make collecting and analyzing patient data and population health data easier.
- Doctors, nurses and other health care providers rely on clinical decision support systems for prompts and reminders that help them take better care of patients.
- Computerized provider order entry systems make it easier for providers to order the right medications and tests. Health information exchanges can make medical care less expensive, making it accessible to more patients.
- Patient portals give health care consumers more control over their own care.
- Smart medical devices like smart pumps ensure patients get the medicines they need when they need them.
It seems like we’re living in a golden age of medical technology, but informatics has only scratched the surface of the potential applications of data analysis in health care—and there are still many providers, facilities and researchers that haven’t tapped into the potential of HI. In the future, health informatics may become a standard element of both patient care and health care operations. For now, medicine is still exploring the applications of informatics in patient care.
Patient care providers, public health officials, health care managers and researchers use health informatics to:
Shorter hospital stays benefit health systems and patients because reducing a patient’s length of stay increases facility capacity and resource availability. This ensures there are always beds, providers and medicines available to the patients who need them most. Careful data analysis can reveal inefficiencies in operational processes that slow down patient flow, extending the time from intake to discharge. Karen Murrell, chair of Emergency Medicine at Kaiser Permanente Northern California, for example, found that the use of open data and metrics helped decrease patients’ length of stay in the emergency department by 10 percent. Informatics systems can also predict which patients are most likely to be readmitted so providers can give those patients more resources for at-home care.
Mental health informatics is a subspecialty of informatics focused on how providers use information technology and computer systems to treat mental health concerns. It encompasses everything from the applications of health information technology in patient care to the use of smartphones and other mobile computing devices to collect data on human emotional states. Lack of access to appropriate care is a huge issue for those coping with mental illness, and telehealth makes it easier for patients to meet with emotional and behavioral health services providers. EHRs also hold immense promise for mental health research, which is often driven by self-reported data instead of clinical information.
A variety of factors affect access to care. The cost of medicine and medical treatments prevents some people from obtaining the care they need. Others can’t get care because they can’t get to a facility equipped to treat specific illnesses or injuries. When there are too few providers, patients must wait weeks or months for appointments. Digital telehealth systems let people in remote areas meet with providers, give people without local primary care providers an alternative to the ER for non-critical care, and help people find care quickly when the ER is the right option. Telehealth systems can also make health care less expensive, which could make preventative care an option available to more people.
Hundreds of thousands of people contract hospital-acquired infections (or health care-associated infections) each year. During the COVID-19 pandemic, preventing the spread of infection in health care settings became vitally important. Informatics systems help facilities prevent and manage the spread of infectious diseases and pathogens in many ways. EHR systems and IT tools help providers effectively screen patients for signs of infection, identify and track emerging issues with real-time data analysis, limit patient-to-patient/patient-to-provider contact to prevent infection during outbreaks, and otherwise keep patients safer when they seek care.
Medication management is crucial for improving patient safety, and there are many health informatics tools that improve medication accuracy. Medication information databases make it easier for providers like doctors and nurse practitioners to check for drug interactions when writing prescriptions. Technologies such as Bar Code Medication Administration (BCMA) systems, smart pumps and automated surveillance systems prevent adverse drug events in facilities and patient homes. Computerized physician order entry systems keep patients safer by preventing both drug interactions and prescription issues. Data collected in EHRs with integrated electronic incident reporting systems can help prevent future adverse events.
Falls and complications resulting from those falls are the leading causes of both fatal and nonfatal injuries among the elderly, but informaticists have developed ways to use data to prevent them. A study of one fall prevention toolkit that included a decision-support software application focused on fall risk helped reduce the rate of inpatient injuries among older adults in acute care facilities. Wearable sensors are another health IT tool health care providers can use to monitor and analyze the stability of patients in medical facilities and their homes to predict, prevent and respond to falls.
One of the primary functions of medical care is to keep people alive, and health informatics has a role to play in reducing patient mortality. Mature EHR systems correlate with lower hospital mortality rates. Research shows algorithm-driven decision-support systems significantly reduce the number of deaths from sepsis. Clinical predictive analytics can identify high-risk patients and make it easier to manage their care. Health informatics even has the potential to improve racial and ethnic disparities in maternal mortality by identifying areas of need and improving the quality of care in under-resourced facilities.
The Department of Health Information Management at Pitt admits students from many educational and professional backgrounds into the online MSHI program. That’s important because informaticists need both a broad view of medicine and a broad network to do what they do effectively.
“I have many colleagues who raved about the health informatics program at Pitt,” explains current online MSHI degree candidate Julie Rose Lechliter. “I considered what they learned about data analytics, information technology and health information systems—and who they met. I take education seriously, and Pitt is a good fit for that. But Pitt also provides networking opportunities—and sometimes, networking is the key.”
The ROI of the informatics master’s is also rooted in its interdisciplinary focus. The core MSHI curriculum covers topics like health care industry practices, health care management, patient care standards and Big Data analytics. Students complete coursework in more technical subjects such as machine learning in health science, data management and database design, data science and digital health. Courses in Pitt’s MS in Health Informatics include:
- Anatomy, Physiology, Pathophysiology, Pharmacology, and Medical Terminology
- Data Analytics and Machine Learning in Health Science
- Data Science in Health Informatics
- Health Information and the Health Care System
- Health Vocabulary, Terminology, and Classification Systems
- Financial Management and Health Care Reimbursement
- Foundations of Health Informatics
- Leadership and Project Management
- Practical Statistics and Programming Using Python and R
- Security, Privacy, Legal, and Ethical Issues in Health Information Systems
- Talent Management and Human Resources
Students choose from elective courses in four tracks designed to support careers in the field of health informatics: General Health Informatics, Data Science, Health Care Supervision and Management, and the Registered Health Care Information Administrator (RHIA) track designed to prepare health informatics master’s candidates to sit for the RHIA exam.
Graduates of the online MSHI degree program can:
- Assess important metrics like access, quality of care, clinical outcomes, cost, patient satisfaction and engagement in complex health care systems.
- Choose or develop digital health solutions to address specific health or health administration issues.
- Collect and clean data using various health-focused programs and systems.
- Develop data-driven tech-based and business solutions to enhance the delivery of patient care or the quality of research.
- Organize and analyze large data sets, and interpret results to support clinical and business decision-making.
- Understand the unique security, privacy, legal and ethical concerns surrounding patient data, health IT systems and digital medical record keeping.
- Use statistical methods, programming tools and machine learning in medical research applications.
More importantly, informatics master’s degree graduates can adapt as the health technology landscape inevitably changes. Informatics is an evolving discipline. As computer science and data science advance, so will health care informatics, which means an MSHI degree from Pitt is an asset today and will be an asset in the future. Whether you’re a health IT professional, data analyst, health care administrator or career switcher from another field, you’ll be able to change patients’ lives for the better—no medical degree required.
Apply to Pitt’s online MSHI program now and you’ll have the skills, knowledge and qualifications to start making a real difference in less than two years. More information about admissions and financial aid is available.