Why Health Informatics Is Its Own Discipline

Women typing on a computer next to a stethoscope.

Health informaticists play an essential role in making medical care better and more effective even though they don't interact with patients. Instead, they interact with information. Modern health care generates thousands of exabytes of data each year and it is the informaticists who leverage increasingly powerful computer technology to collect, organize and analyze it.

The umbrella term health informatics creates a unified understanding of the power of data in medicine and medical research. The definition of health informatics is still evolving—and it's extremely broad. The American Health Information Management Association defines health informatics as "a collaborative activity that involves people, processes and technologies to produce and use trusted data for better decision-making." The National Library of Medicine defines health informatics as "the interdisciplinary study of the design, development, adoption and application of IT-based innovations in health care services delivery, management and planning." The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) embraces a definition of health informatics that encompasses "the integration of healthcare sciences, computer science, information science and cognitive science to assist in the management of healthcare information."

Other organizations define informatics in varying ways, but what's certain is that informatics is a discipline that uses data and digital technology to improve health care delivery and to positively impact population health. Finding your place in the extensive informatics landscape is a matter of understanding what exactly informatics is and isn't and then gaining the skills, knowledge and credentials you'll need to contribute value at the intersection of health care, business management and technology.

"The list of roles that fall under the informatics umbrella is strikingly diverse."

A short history of health informatics

Informatics is the study of computational systems—especially digital systems for data storage and retrieval—as well as how people use them. It emerged as a distinct discipline in the 1950s and became its own field of study in the 1960s. Before the discipline became informatics, it went by a variety of names that reflected the diversity of applications of technology in health care, including computer medicine, medical information processing and medical information science. At first, health informatics was largely focused on developing standards for digitized laboratory message exchange, electronic health record systems, health care data content, billing and health information system security.

As computer technology evolved, so did informatics, though the discipline remained largely concerned with medical records keeping and data format interoperability. While there was some research into the use of computer systems in medical diagnostics and the potential of artificial intelligence in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it wasn't until well into the 2000s that the availability of medical information exploded. That's when the widespread analysis of everything from patient data to clinical trial data became possible.

Today, some informatics professionals—sometimes also known as informaticians—are still working on achieving global interoperability. Creating a comprehensive list of what informaticists do is difficult because there are so many ways to use the insights hidden in information. Some informaticians automate health care decision-making with artificial intelligence or design systems that can predict heart attacks and hospital readmissions. Others create algorithms that diagnose cancer or help build wearables that can save lives. Still, others use informatics to support research into the human mind or develop customized medicines and treatment modalities.

As the applications of informatics have expanded, specialization areas have emerged. Some professionals specialize in imaging informatics, public health informatics, consumer health informatics or pharmacy informatics. Some do work closely aligned with data science. According to the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association (JAMIA), there's no substantial difference between them when it comes to health information. Editor-in-Chief Lucila Ohno-Machado writes that while "the name 'data scientist' could imply a significant difference between those who handle data versus those who handle information (i.e., processed data), when biomedical, health care and health behavioral data are concerned, there is no distinction: biomedical informatics is biomedical data science."

What health informatics is and isn't

Broadly, health care informatics is a discipline focused on how information is collected and used in medicine and medical research. Its scope encompasses the many applications of data generated across the health care industry as well as the use of tools to tap into the power of that data. Informaticists work in analytics, database management, data mining, information management and IT systems engineering.

Some people assume that informatics is another word for health information technology, but even though health IT professionals work with the many different types of clinical information systems used by health care networks, insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and public health agencies, they aren't particularly interested in the applications of the data in the systems they design implement, and manage. Instead, they build and maintain the infrastructure that makes informatics possible. People also equate informatics with medical records keeping, but while informatics professionals deal with all kinds of information—patient data, diagnostic data, medical imaging data, data generated by clinical trials and public health data—medical records specialists deal with just one type of health care data: patient records.

Those and other differences are a big part of why health informatics is its own discipline. What truly sets informaticians apart, however, is that they are domain experts. Many professionals in health IT and related fields are information technology or information systems experts who are comfortable working alongside health care and medical research experts. Informaticists, on the other hand, are experts in both technology and health care—which is why the core courses in Pitt’s online Health Informatics Master's Degree Program cover health care industry practices, health care management and patient care standards in addition to health data analytics, digital health and machine learning in health science.

The impact of informatics on health care

Information is especially powerful in medicine and medical research. There is so much potential hidden in medical data to drive diagnoses and treatments, make medicine and medical devices better, catch illnesses earlier and prevent sickness in people and populations. The impact of information on medicine was especially obvious during the COVID-19 pandemic, when governments, epidemiologists, public health experts and providers looked to emerging statistics for real-time guidance.

An abundance of evidence suggests that when medical and allied health facilities and insurance companies invest in robust information systems, information technology, and data analysis, patient engagement tends to go up, providers do better work, and patient outcomes improve. The impact of informatics is evident in areas of health care as varied as consumer health, health equity, diagnostics, and pharmaceutical development. Studies show that the work informaticists do can not only reduce medical errors and improve patient outcomes but also accelerate medical research and support the development of customized treatments.

What careers in informatics look like

Informatics careers take many forms for the same reasons informatics is classified as its own discipline among health professions. The list of roles that fall under the informatics umbrella is strikingly diverse—another JAMIA piece asserts there are "a diversity of options and an abundance of jobs" for informaticists. This should come as no surprise. Clinicians, researchers, health policy makers, public health agencies, insurance companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers and adjacent health care system entities all want to make the most of the windfall of health care data, which means demand for informaticists is strong and will grow as the volume of data generated by the health care sector grows and the complexity of that data increases.

In fact, demand is already higher than the supply of qualified informaticists, which makes this a good time to look into the various roles in informatics for clinicians, data analysts and data scientists, computer scientists, information managers and health care professionals in management. With a master's degree in the field of health informatics, you might launch a career capturing, analyzing and communicating data to support patient care, health care administration or medical and public health research. Or you might work with the physical infrastructure and software systems that collect, organize and analyze health care data. As you gain work experience, the fact you completed an MSHI degree program will qualify you to step into leadership roles in informatics such as clinical informatics director, vice president of health informatics or chief medical information officer.

You will be in good company in Pitt's part-time, online Master's in Health Informatics Program—whatever your academic and professional background. Your master's in health informatics cohort will likely include business professionals and technologists as well as clinicians like doctors, nurses and allied health providers. You and your classmates will go on to work in hospitals, medical practices, health care startups, government agencies and pharmaceutical manufacturers. Graduates of Pitt's online Informatics Master's degree program are highly sought after by health care organizations like Allegheny Health Network and Loma Linda University Medical Center, insurers like Cigna and Gateway Health, and health information technology firms like Epic Systems Corporation and HM Health Solutions.

Ultimately, whether informatics will remain a siloed discipline is by no means certain. Changes in both health care and technology are blurring the lines between health information management, health informatics and data analytics. The definition of health care informatics will continue to evolve over time. Enrolling in the 36-credit hour master's in Health Informatics Program offered by Pitt SHRS will prepare you not only to take advantage of a growing range of opportunities in this dynamic multidisciplinary field but also to adapt as the scope of this discipline inevitably changes.

Apply to the online Master of Science in Health Informatics program now and in less than two years, you'll have the skills, knowledge and credentials to start changing health care for the better. Information about admissions and financial aid is available, or consider attending an upcoming webinar to learn more.

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