The health care industry generates as much as 30% of the world’s data, which will rise to 36% by 2025—a substantial leap, with health-related data expanding faster than data generation in other major industries. The International Data Corporation estimates that every person in the world creates 270 gigabytes of health care data annually. Leveraging the power of this data to enhance medicine, medical research and patient outcomes has become a job for specialists.
Informatics is the science of applying insights culled from data to challenges in health care. Informaticists have skills related to information science, analytics, electronic record management and health care operations. There are several career paths in health informatics. Technology-focused health care informatics roles involve building, maintaining and managing data systems for clinical and research facilities or health care organizations. Data analysis involves examining patient, billing, clinical, research trial or operations data to guide decision-making. And leadership roles in health informatics involve people management, data oversight and regulatory compliance.
What these pathways have in common is that they require interdisciplinary skills and expertise. Some people call health informatics specialists the data scientists of the medical field, but what sets informaticists apart from data scientists is their deep domain knowledge. Technologists, data analysts and health care professionals who want to become health informatics specialists must hone specific skills—the kind of skills taught in informatics master’s programs such as the University of Pittsburgh’s online Master of Science in Health Informatics (MSHI) program.
Health care informatics specialists work with clinical data generated by electronic health records platforms, diagnostic imagery, vital-sign monitoring, drug side effect tracking systems, clinical trials and practice management software. Informatics specialist is not one role, but many with several titles. Career roles in health informatics include health data scientist, health data quality manager, health IT project manager, privacy officer, informatics nurse, information systems director, clinical informatics specialist and health informatics consultant. These roles can have overlapping responsibilities.
Given the rapid growth of health care data generation, the demand for qualified health informatics professionals is high. Informaticists work for medical facilities, insurance companies, public health agencies, research laboratories, pharmaceutical firms, medical device manufacturers and health IT companies. Regardless of job title, health informatics specialists earn about $96,000 annually. Health informatics consultants and leaders in the field typically earn more than $100,000, and executive-level informatics positions such as Chief Informatics Officer pay about $290,000. Given that, it’s unsurprising that professionals as different as data analysts and RNs transition into this field by enrolling in degree programs focused on relevant skills.
Soft skills are less-technical competencies that support productivity, creativity and collaboration. While these are highly valued by employers, many academic programs in informatics emphasize technical skills. Pitt’s online MSHI balances the requisite technical education with soft skills training covering must-have competencies, including:
Health informatics specialists work with and analyze complex data sets. This requires technical competency and a keen understanding of how trends and patterns can drive decision-making. Informaticists use analytical thinking skills every time they glean insights from electronic medical records or insurance claim data and then weave those insights into a compelling narrative for stakeholders.
Research shows that effective communication has a positive effect on organizational performance. Health informatics specialists bridge the gap between highly technical clinical data analysis and health care system leadership. Strong communication skills let professionals in this field break down complex data concepts to an audience who may not be technologically savvy. Informaticists also liaise between providers, IT staff and health care administration audiences, using data to connect those groups to serve common goals.
Health informatics specialists work in various business and clinical health care settings (e.g., hospitals, specialty clinics, insurance companies and health IT firms). To thrive in all of them, informaticists must commit to lifelong learning because technology and health care evolve rapidly. Adaptability is crucial, so earning a master’s degree in informatics is only the first step on a larger journey involving self-study, formal professional development and regularly learning new clinical information systems and tools.
Health informatics professionals work closely with confidential patient data, so they must operate ethically. Health information management in the age of Big Data poses new ethical problems related to “patient-facing tools, mobile devices, social media, privacy inclusivity, and e-consent.” Health informatics specialists must be mindful of medical ethics when they interact with and deploy patient data and other health care information. Moreover, they must be ethical when making recommendations for patient care and health care policy based on the data they analyze.
Health informatics specialists often engage with massive data sets and work on large projects that can impact patients, health care providers and health care systems. Their approach to health data management must be meticulous to ensure patient data stays private and secure and that organizations comply with all relevant regulations.
Problem-solving is one of the primary duties of health informatics specialists, who use clinical or operational data to identify challenges and actionable solutions in health care settings. Beyond merely collecting or processing data, informaticists dissect results, examine trends and make informed recommendations based on their findings.
According to Glassdoor, hard skills are necessary to perform specific jobs, and these “skills are typically acquired through education and training and are required to pursue and be successful in a particular career field.” Informaticists coming from related fields pursue advanced degrees to learn hard skills such as:
Some health informatics specialists design computer programs to automate the application of statistical analysis techniques to clinical data, drawing out insights that would be impossible to unearth without the aid of technologies such as artificial intelligence. Pitt MSHI courses like Practical Statistics and Programming Using R and Introduction to Python for Health Informatics teach aspiring informaticists the programming skills they will need to do the technical heavy lifting in the informatics field.
The role of data analytics in health care is expansive, and informaticists use descriptive, predictive and prescriptive analytics to discover patterns, forecast and problem solve. Courses such as Data Science in Health Informatics and Data Analytics and Machine Learning in Health Science focus on the applications of data science and data analytics in medical and health care-adjacent settings. Additionally, Pitt’s online MS in Health Informatics program offers a data science track for health informatics specialists who want to work on this side of the field plus a 12-credit Certificate in Health Data Analytics.
Health informatics specialists work closely with health information technology, including electronic health records (EHR) and clinical health data systems. They must also be comfortable working with data generated by technologies such as telemedicine, wearable health devices, electronic prescription services, patient portals and consumer health care apps. Courses including Database Design and Big Data Analytics and Digital Health cover information systems and other technologies used in the health care field.
Senior and executive positions in health informatics (e.g., director of health informatics or Chief Medical Information Officer) involve managing teams of informatics specialists or heading up strategic project management. Talent Management and Human Resources and Leadership and Project Management teach the business management skills necessary to assume a leadership position in health informatics. Additionally, online MS in Health Informatics program students at Pitt can choose the Health Care Supervision and Management (HSM) track or earn an optional 12-credit Certificate in Leadership in Health Informatics.
Health informatics is a lucrative and growing field because Big Data can enhance patient care and even improve treatment outcomes. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the number of medical and health services manager jobs will grow by 32% by 2030. Many of the nearly 14,000 new jobs created annually will go to applicants who can leverage the data generated by telemedicine, patient portals, electronic prescriptions, and electronic patient records in informatics, administrative and leadership roles.
In addition to job security and high pay, informaticists enjoy knowing they are making a difference. Research shows that data in health care can reduce medical errors. The work of qualified health informatics specialists helps reduce health care practice costs, supports greater precision and accuracy in medical practice, streamlines clinical trial participation and improves diagnostics.
While health informatics professionals use some transferable skills from other careers, it’s much easier to transition into the field with health care technology expertise. Pursuing an advanced degree in health or medical informatics—like the online MS in Health Informatics offered by Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (SHRS)—is a straightforward way to develop the most in-demand skills in this field. Pitt’s online MSHI curriculum aligns with the evolving needs of hospitals and medical practices, allied health networks, insurance companies, medical device manufacturers, health IT start-up companies and public health organizations. As the health technology landscape inevitably changes, Pitt MSHI program graduates have the skills to change along with it.