Technology is changing health care in myriad ways. Innovations related to treatment are the most visible, but a quieter technological revolution in health care is taking place behind the scenes, driven largely by IT and data science, in a field called informatics.
Health care informatics is broadly focused on the applications of the vast quantities of data generated by the health care industry. People equate informatics with Electronic Health Records (EHRs), but professionals in this field work with data generated by everything from diagnostic images and real-time vital sign monitoring systems to clinical trials and public health studies. Informaticists (also known as informaticians) help health care providers, health care executives, pharmaceutical and MedTech manufacturers, public health researchers, epidemiologists, health care networks and health insurance providers discover new ways to leverage this data.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, informaticist “was once considered an ‘exotic’ career for those in health sciences who were passionate about computation (or for those in quantitative sciences who were passionate about health sciences),” but has become an essential part of medicine and medical research. The impact of health informatics is profound in both clinical and non-clinical areas of medicine.
If you want to be a part of the transformative impact informatics is having on medicine and medical research, keep reading to find out how data is driving change in health care and how the University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences‘ online Master of Science in Health Informatics (MSHI) can give you the skills and knowledge to be part of the informatics revolution.
Broadly, informatics is a branch of computer science focused on how humans interact with technology. It explores the impact of technology and data on people, new uses for digital technology and the applications of information-driven technology.
Health care informatics emerged as its own discipline in the early 1960s not long after medical professionals began using electronic systems to manage patient data. At first, informatics was concerned primarily with facilitating data exchange between different departments by standardizing electronic communication protocols. It wasn’t long, however, before researchers found ways to leverage increasingly powerful computer systems in biomedical research.
Modern health informatics is a health care discipline that exists at the intersection of medicine and Big Data. It’s so new that its definition is still evolving:
- The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) defines informatics as “the integration of health care sciences, computer science, information science and cognitive science to assist in the management of health care information.”
- 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.”
- The American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) asserts that informatics is both a “field of information science concerned with the management of all aspects of health data and information through the application of computers and computer technology” and “scientific discipline that is concerned with the cognitive, information-processing and communication tasks of health care practice, education and research, including the information science and technology to support these tasks.”
The takeaway for those researching master’s in health informatics jobs is that professionals in this field generally use structured and unstructured information from myriad sources—including electronic medical records, billing systems, insurance claims, wearables, clinical research and public health data—to improve outcomes and efficiency in health care services or guide public health. The work they do can involve data mining and analysis, information governance and management and IT systems development with applications in areas of medicine as diverse as practice management, billing and reimbursement, patient safety enhancement, diagnostics, privacy, security and clinical trial support.
Data and digital technology have already changed health care for the better, but MSHI graduates continue to push the envelope of informatics in patient care and medical management. What they’ve accomplished is just a preview of what will become possible in the future.
Some emerging applications of health care and biomedical research data are straightforward. Others are more surprising and may create a future health care landscape in which partnerships between clinicians and technologists are the norm.
Financial losses caused by delays in care, errors in care, fraud and inefficiency are a major drain on the U.S. health care system. Waste costs health systems between $760 and $935 billion per year—representing approximately 25% of total health care spending—and may be a major factor in rising health care costs. Medical errors alone cost the U.S. around $38 billion each year, according to the Institute of Medicine, but studies show informatics can decrease waste by reducing medical errors, lowering practice overhead and making care more efficient and effective.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, medication errors harm nearly 1.5 million patients annually. There are already informatics systems designed to ensure that patients receive the right medication the first time, preventing allergic reactions and dangerous interactions. Software platforms like Computer Provider Order Entry Systems (CPOE) or Clinical Decision Support Systems (CDSS) detect errors including duplication, mismatches and administration errors by cross-referencing prescriptions with patient records. Hardware-driven health informatics innovations such as drug-dispensing robots and automatic dispensing cabinets ensure providers give the right medications at the right times to the right patients.
Informatics also has the potential to help researchers reduce medication errors outside of medical facilities. A PwC Health Research Institute study found that 71% of pharmaceutical companies believe access to information in EHRs could help clinicians better understand and overcome medication non-compliance.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to a boom in telehealth and IT infrastructure investments. Today, data-driven telemedicine systems, virtual health care systems and connected vital sign monitoring technologies make it easier for patients to consult with providers, regardless of location. Virtual hospitals and health care facilities bring health care services to underserved rural areas and developing nations, while hybrid care models allow existing health care networks to serve patients who can’t or won’t seek in-person treatment.
Informatics can do more than expand access to essential health services, however. It can also help people get the care they need more quickly. Greater health-focused information technology investment is associated with shorter wait times, and surprisingly, that reduction in wait times is greater for non-white than for white patients.
Widespread data collection and analysis is changing how providers develop treatments for individual patients and extending the reach of research for hard-to-treat diseases. Because informatics systems make it easier to retrieve and search EHR data, doctors, nurses and specialists can review patient histories more quickly, improving the speed and responsiveness of patient care.
On a macro level, informatics powers personalized medicine (also called precision medicine) by collecting colossal amounts of health data and translating that data into individually tailored treatments. Informatics also makes it easier to recruit appropriate participants in clinical research studies and understand the results so researchers can develop new treatments and medications more quickly.
The impact of informatics on patient care feeds back on itself. Data collected by providers is used in research that leads to innovation in treatment and/or to changes in health care protocols and policy, ultimately improving the care that patients experience.
Data-driven patient-education systems and wearables make it easier for patients to care for themselves outside of medical settings, fostering better patient-provider partnerships and potentially improving outcomes. A variety of affordable consumer-grade devices make it easier for consumers to participate more fully in their own health care. There are consumer informatics applications designed to support cancer patients as they practice self-care, and these and other software systems have been shown in studies to improve clinical outcomes. In one study, patients with HIV who used the Comprehensive Health Enhancement Support System, or CHESS, for information and support reported fewer hospitalizations and a higher quality of life than patients who did not use the system.
Data science applied to better, more accessible health records can give researchers insight into common diseases in the general population and emerging public health threats. Public health informatics also helps medical providers keep track of these illnesses, carefully design strategies to counter potential epidemics and drive geographically-specific health initiatives. This subfield of informatics is behind immunization registries that collect confidential, population-based, computerized data about children and vaccinations; disease registries that track the incidence of certain conditions (especially cancers, birth defects and conditions associated with environmental contamination); and the National Electronic Disease Surveillance System (NEDSS), which uses data and information system standards to advance the development of efficient, integrated and interoperable surveillance systems at federal, state and local levels. Some regions are even using population health informatics to create connected health cities that leverage data to improve access to care and quality of care.
Clinical trial informatics supports clinical research in several ways. IT systems and software platforms designed by informaticists can speed up patient recruitment, streamline ethical approvals and renewals, boost levels of participant activity and make data collection and analysis easier. Informaticists also build data warehouses that give researchers easier access to repositories of data from completed clinical trials for secondary analysis.
Providers, however well-trained, are human beings and subject to error. When informaticists train computer systems to interpret radiological scans, those systems tend to make few mistakes. Research into these diagnostic systems is driving innovation that could eventually save lives by detecting cancers and other conditions earlier and with greater accuracy. Kheiron Medical, for example, developed deep learning software to detect breast cancers in mammograms. Fractal Analytics incubated Qure.ai which uses deep learning and AI to speed up the analysis of diagnostic x-rays. Even Google has participated in diagnostic informatics research. The tech giant worked on a project with the NHS that used medical images collected from patients to develop computer vision algorithms to detect cancerous tissues.
Many innovations in informatics are largely invisible to patients and providers. Technology that isn’t directly related to patient care is usually focused on administration, but consumer health trackers and data-driven clinical and patient care systems have improved medicine in notable ways. Clinical predictive analytics helps identify high-risk patients. AI systems trained on health care data effectively predict who will have heart attacks and strokes. Studies suggest health IT applications that support patient-centered care have a positive effect on health care outcomes. And the potential of smart wearables is enormous. The Apple Watch, for example, saved the life of a 46-year-old father when it detected and alerted him to his irregular heartbeat.
There are many non-clinical roles in medicine and medical research that have a quantifiable impact on patients. Specialists in the informatics field play an important behind-the-scenes role in improving patient outcomes, whether or not they work with clinical data. While some informatics professionals work with patient or administrative data in clinical settings, others work for health IT vendors and consultancies, government agencies, health insurance companies, MedTech companies and pharmaceutical firms. While some industry leaders want to maintain an integrated informatics landscape, the growing range of applications of data technology in health care have led to the emergence of informatics specialties such as:
- Biomedical informatics or clinical informatics, which handle the collection and analysis of biological data derived from patient populations or individuals.
- Clinical research informatics, which is concerned with the discovery and management of data generated by clinical trials.
- Consumer health informatics, which promotes patient empowerment, health literacy and consumer education through digital information systems.
- EMR management, which is focused on the development and management of technologies that make medical records keeping more efficient.
- Health care IT, which encompasses everything related to the information technology systems used in medical and medicine-adjacent settings.
- Health data science, which uses data to drive decision-making in medicine and medical research.
- Hospital management informatics, which is concerned exclusively with data generated by clinical and administrative activities in hospitals.
- Imaging informatics, which focuses on the efficiency, accuracy, usability and reliability of medical imaging services using digital technology.
- Information security, which ensures that patient records, provider records and facility records remain secure.
- Nursing informatics, which studies the efficiency of patient care delivery and operations management in nursing.
- Pharmacy informatics, which deals exclusively with data related to medications and pharmaceutical treatments.
- Population health informatics, which uses computer science, information science and population health data to inform public health initiatives and to improve public health outcomes.
- Telemedicine and mobile medicine, which uses real-time data and health IT systems to make medical treatments more accessible and effective.
Master’s in health informatics jobs in all of these specialties typically fall into three silos: analytical, technological and managerial. Health informatics specialists in analytics roles collect, clean, analyze and communicate data to support patient care, health care administration, or medical and public health research. Technology roles in informatics involve designing, configuring and managing the IT infrastructure used to collect, organize and analyze health care data. And informatics leaders are strategists who bridge the gap between technical teams who work directly with information and the medical or research teams who are guided by it.
Demand for informaticists is high, and becoming an informaticist takes advanced training because health informatics professionals are domain experts. Consequently, there are relatively few health informatics bachelor’s degree programs but many master’s in health informatics jobs and degree programs. The Master of Science in Health Informatics is the gold standard master’s degree for informaticians. Programs like Pitt’s 100% online 36-credit hour MSHI give students the technical skills they need to manage data acquisition, organization, storage and analysis, plus the medical knowledge informaticists need to work in medical practices, health networks, insurance companies, research labs and public health organizations. The Department of Health Information Management at Pitt admits not only doctors, nurses and allied health practitioners but also IT professionals, data analysts, businesspeople and career switchers.
Pitt’s online MSHI curriculum is identical to that of the on-campus program and covers health care industry practices, health care management, patient care standards, Big Data analytics, digital health and machine learning in health science. Students choose from among the four concentrations—General Health Informatics, Data Science, Health Care Supervision and Management and the Registered Health Care Information Administrator (RHIA) track—and study with the same nationally and globally renowned faculty. Ultimately, they earn the same degree in the same amount of time—just 16 to 24 months.
Now is the best time to invest in yourself by applying to earn a Master of Science in Health Informatics, because informaticists have only scratched the surface of what data can do in medicine. Demand for informatics professionals will no doubt continue growing as more organizations in medicine, health research and medical research see how powerful data can be.