Everything You Need to Know About Health Informatics: What Is It? Who Studies It? Why? And How?

Emergency medical personnel in an ambulance.

You don't have to become a doctor, nurse or allied health professional to work in medicine or save lives. Many administrative and non-clinical roles in health care dramatically impact the quality of care, access to care, and even patient outcomes. Health informatics is one of them. This broad, wide-reaching health care discipline is focused primarily on the many applications of data in medicine and medical research. In other words, informaticists (or informaticians) are the data scientists, systems analysts, IT specialists, and database engineers of health care.

What they do, in brief, is act as a bridge between people and the vast quantity of data generated in patient care, medical management and research. They ensure providers and other stakeholders can access the information they need to make evidence-based decisions in both hospital rooms and boardrooms. They also transform data into actionable insights that can streamline facility operations, reduce costs associated with care, make medical devices or drugs safer, or guide the development of one-of-a-kind specialized treatment plans.

Some are drawn to this discipline by a desire to help people. Others want to join the ranks of leadership in medicine but don't relish the idea of going to medical school. Still, others look at data analysis challenges in clinical settings and see puzzles they want to solve. Students in Master of Science in Health Informatics (MSHI) programs come from many different backgrounds. What they have in common is they are ready to make their mark in health care with data.

What inspires your interest in informatics can be as important as the steps you take to prepare to enter and excel in this field because there are numerous professional pathways in health informatics. The University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences' online Master of Science in Health Informatics program offers four tracks plus four certificate options designed to support a wide range of informatics careers. Figuring out which path is right for you before you invest in an MSHI is a matter of learning as much as you can about health informatics as a discipline and the academic and professional options before you.

Who uses health informatics?

Answering this question requires asking another: What is health informatics? According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, health informatics is the "interdisciplinary study of the design, development, adoption and application of IT-based innovations in health care." It encompasses the many uses of technology, information systems and data in medicine, medical management and research, and its applications extend well beyond electronic health records keeping.

People might associate informatics with EMR systems, but clinical data science, public health informatics and bioinformatics are all part of this discipline. Medical practices, hospitals, allied health networks and insurance companies rely on informatics professionals, but so do research laboratories, consumer health agencies and public health organizations.

Informaticists in different settings may do very different work, however. As clinicians, researchers and administrators have identified needs, subdomains of informatics have emerged in health care and medical science.

Who typically gets a master's in health informatics?

There is no typical MSHI student because people come to this discipline via IT, medical management, data analytics and patient care. A representative master's in health informatics cohort might include business people, IT workers, and clinicians like doctors, nurses and allied health providers.

Informaticists in analytics roles capture, analyze and communicate data to support patient care or medical and public health research. Analytics roles in health informatics include:

  • Health data scientist
  • Health informatics data analyst
  • Clinical informatics analyst
  • Clinical informatics specialist
  • Health informatics business analyst
  • Medical research analyst

Technology roles in informatics typically involve designing, configuring or managing the physical infrastructure and software systems that collect, organize and analyze health care data. Tech roles in health informatics include:

  • Health informatics consultant
  • Information systems analyst
  • EHR implementation specialist
  • Health care information technician
  • Health IT project manager
  • Product manager
  • Privacy officer
  • Health information technician

Informaticists in leadership roles oversee it all. Their job is critical given how complex supporting clinical and health care business decision-making with data can be. Informatics leaders often serve as translators, bridging the gap between the technical teams who work with information and the medical or research teams who use it. Leadership roles in health informatics include:

Is health informatics a good career choice?

Modern informatics has been a part of medicine since the 1950s. Professional groups in fields like medicine, epidemiology, and bioengineering sought to standardize and secure electronic patient records and clinical information systems. The technologies used in health care data reporting have changed significantly since then, however, and so has the focus of informatics. There are now standardized data exchange protocols that let different health care organizations share essential patient information, research and statistics securely and efficiently. New challenges in health care informatics revolve around the amount of data generated by the health care industry—thousands of exabytes each year—and finding ways to leverage that data.

Today, health informaticists have an essential role to play in making medicine better, whether they work for hospitals and medical practices, allied health networks, insurance companies or public health organizations. Big Data in medicine is used to lower the cost of care and make care more efficient and improve patient outcomes by reducing medical errors and helping health care providers customize treatments. Health informatics professionals might spend their days working on projects related to systems integration, regulatory compliance and data analysis, but what they do has a positive impact on patient health and public health.

Informatics is a smart career choice for anyone driven to do transformative work that makes a difference in people's lives. It's also a good option for those who value job security. Demand for health informatics professionals is already high and will likely grow over time because the volume of data generated by patient care, research and health finance is exploding. Earning an online MS in Health Informatics is the best way to take advantage of the explosive growth in this field. Apply now, and it won't be long before you have the knowledge and qualifications you'll need to advance in medical information leadership, technology and analysis.

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