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What is Healthcare Informatics?

We live in a world that is rapidly being transformed by Big Data. The information that has always swirled around us, just out of reach, ripe with the potential to reveal mysteries of science, behavior, and society is now something we have the capacity to collect, collate, and analyze.

The combination of rapid advances in information technology and information gathering has given healthcare that option. But only highly-trained professionals with the right skills, the right imagination, and the highest ethical standards can deliver on those promises.

Health informatics lives at a sensitive meeting point between privacy and well-being. The promise of informatics delivers amazing potential, but comes with real threats as well. The HIPAA Journal uncovered more than 3,000 healthcare data breaches occurring between 2009 and 2019 involving more than 500 records. And insecure data storage created what the FBI called “an increased and imminent cybercrime threat” to hospital information systems for ransomware attacks.

It’s an exciting and important specialization that will shape the next generation of healthcare, and benefit the health and well-being of millions worldwide.

Health Informatics Job Description

Like all new fields with new names, healthcare informatics can be an area of practice that is hard to nail down. Health informatics is also referred to at times as clinical informatics, medical informatics, or health information systems. Changes in the state-of-the-art in technology as well as in healthcare make it one of the most fast-changing and dynamic areas of healthcare administrative practice.

But the goal remains the same: to deliver medical data and improve information systems in healthcare organizations for better outcomes or more efficient service delivery.

That can involve everything from crafting software algorithms to detect signs of sepsis in patients from subtle physiological patterns days before even experienced clinicians might spot it, to customizing alerts in Electronic Health Record (EHR) systems to match the particular requirements of individual patient cases.

Health informaticists are working on day-to-day features in devices like the Apple Watch to leverage pulse, respiration, and oxygen level data into predictive functions that can catch life-threatening conditions long before patients might even think to go to the hospital. In 2019, a man in Washington state wearing one of those watches was riding a bike down Spokane’s aptly-nicknamed Doomsday Hill when he crashed and blacked out… only to wake up in the back of an ambulance. It wasn’t some passerby that got him the help he needed; it was his watch that automatically called 911 after detecting the hard fall.

Health informatics may include designing consumer or enterprise software of that sort, extracting medical information in databases, and measuring the impact of IT processes on health outcomes.

Health informatics involves not just the creation of technologies and systems but also sifting through data to find what’s essential, delivering the data so healthcare staff and patients can access and understand it, and advocating for the use of technology for information sharing within healthcare organizations. It’s a trade that will be in even greater demand as the amount of information in healthcare increases… a number estimated in 2018 to rise to 2,314 exabytes by 2020, going up by nearly 50 percent each year.

What is the Difference Between Health Informatics and Health Information Management?

There is some overlap between health informatics and health information management, but the two disciplines have somewhat distinct responsibilities.

Health information management (HIM) has a primary focus on acquiring, categorizing, storing and securing health data. It’s about ensuring the availability of consistently categorized, quality data.

Health informatics, on the other hand, is the science of using that information and other available data to improve delivery of healthcare services, at any level… informaticists can apply their trade with individual patients, interpreting a mix of clinical and environmental data to improve diagnosis and treatment options, or work at the public policy level, offering up interpretations of public health data that can leader to healthier regulations or programs.

You can view HIM as the data acquisition and management end of the process, and health informatics as the processing and consumption role. Informatics professionals apply the information that information managers collect and store.

Why Health Informatics is Important to Everyone

Think of a time when a doctor has referred you to a specialist, only for you to have to fill out the same forms you did in your first visit, plus a few more. And wasn’t a lot of that information already available to the hospital from past visits? And then as the specialist has to re-read all of this again, taking valuable time out of your already short twenty-minute appointment window, didn’t you think, “Shouldn’t this have all been sent over and analyzed before I got here?”

Health informatics strives to eliminate this problem by creating more streamlined and intuitive systems of information sharing, allowing doctors to focus more on patient care.

Informaticists also focus on information security, understanding that better systems offer few opportunities to compromise private health data. And they figure out methods for abstracting and sharing that aggregated information in ways that eliminate the chances of privacy breaches while allowing the magic of big data analytics to pull out statistical inferences from very large and sometimes unconnected information stores to drive better public and individual healthcare outcomes.

What Does a Health Informatics Professional Do?

Naturally, healthcare informatics professionals work for hospitals and healthcare systems, medical groups, and insurance companies. Other health informatics managers work for technology companies—for example, private consulting firms that provide technology services or strategic IT advice to health organizations.

Job duties vary as widely as job titles in the field of health informatics, which can include everything from clinical analyst to digital transformation consultant to healthcare IT project manager. Their responsibilities are similarly broad-based; depending on the specific role, an informatics professional might:

  • Be responsible for development information security and distribution processes that maximize effectiveness and use of the data while tightly controlling who can see it
  • Evaluating medical data on a new medical device or pharmaceutical development project to guide engineers or clinicians
  • Evaluate IT systems on clinical workflow and patient outcomes
  • Provide data management and analysis for major medical facilities or even single departments in those big systems
  • Build and optimize EHR systems

Health informatics managers also keep on top of changes in technology and laws to ensure their organizations are meeting information management and privacy standards, particularly with respect to HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) requirements. It’s their job to continually recommend new procedures or innovations to stay abreast of the latest developments.

Although some health informatics managers work in policy development, this area is not all that common for people in the profession. Those who do choose this path communicate with healthcare professionals, technology companies, and lawmakers to create regulations that work both in practice and under HIPAA.

Health Informatics Manager Salary and Job Outlook

As data collection and the obvious applications for that information have both exploded in the healthcare industry, so has the demand for health informatics managers.

There are two fields recognized by the Bureau of Labor Statistics under which health informatics managers could fall: medical and health services managers and computer and information systems managers.

Salary and growth information for both are below as collected in October of 2020, alongside those for medical records and health information technicians—entry-level positions in this field—since many managers begin there and work their way up via experience and additional education.

Career 2019 Median Salary Projected Job Growth
Medical and Health Services Managers $100,980 32%
Computer and Information Systems Managers $146,360 10%
Medical Records and Health Information Technicians $42,630 8%

All data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020). Projected job growth is for 2018 – 2028.

How Do I Become a Health Informatics Manager?

Anyone with an aptitude for data and technology and an interest in healthcare may be able to work as a health informatics manager—if they get the appropriate education. Not only are the technical demands and skill levels high, but so are the ethical and regulatory concerns… not to mention strong innovation and problem-solving skills. It’s a career where higher education is rewarded, and you’ll need to plan your path to include some serious collegiate studies if you want to be a success.

Do I Need Medical Training to be a Health Informatics Manager?

You don’t need medical training to be a health informatics manager, but it may be helpful in understanding some of the clinical challenges the industry faces. For instance, Dr. Danny Sands of the Society for Participatory Medicine stated that he trained in health informatics while working as a medical doctor because he had seen firsthand how these technologies could empower medical professionals and patients.

While not many people who made the decision to become healthcare informatics professionals start off with clinical training, there are quite a few clinicians, like Dr. Sands, who decide to come in the other direction. With some additional information technology and data science training, those individuals can make major contributions to the industry with their unique blend of capabilities and insights. In most cases, they will come in via a master’s or graduate certificate program.

Getting a College Degree in Healthcare Informatics is a Must for Managers

You will have trouble getting work as a manager in healthcare informatics without at least a bachelor’s degree in that field, or one closely related like healthcare information technology, or data science with a healthcare concentration. To really move up the ladder in the field, you’re probably looking at a master’s degree or even a doctorate, where you will study the most advanced concepts and leadership skills needed to excel.

Most degrees in this field at every level are offered as science degrees (Associate, Bachelor, or Master of Science… AS, BS, or MS). Such programs offer more hardcore technical and scientific classes and fewer traditional liberal arts courses, although some minimum of general studies will still be a part of your requirements. In some cases, you can find more traditional arts degrees – AA, BA, or MA programs. These have more social studies, history, and other classes outside your major, but may give you a better set of communication and critical-thinking skills for management purposes.

You can find programs at every level that are offered both online and in traditional formats. Online courses are becoming preferred for their flexibility, both in terms of location and scheduling… you won’t ever have to relocate to an expensive college town, and with asynchronous courses you can study at any hour of the day or night.

Regardless of the format or the level of study, you’ll get many of the same classes that any information technology degree program includes, such as:

  • Data formats and structures
  • Elementary programming
  • Systems architecture
  • Information security
  • Communications
  • Project management

But you’ll also get plenty of healthcare specific courses, like:

  • Electronic Health Records
  • Anatomy and Physiology
  • Healthcare administration
  • Healthcare terminology and processes

Each level of education has unique aspects as they apply to health informatics, though, and you’ll need to set your goals based on the kind of career you hope to build.

Associate Degrees in Health Informatics

Most associate degrees approach healthcare information technology and informatics on a more general level and do not specifically focus on informatics content. However, you will still find an associate in health information technology helpful and relevant as a first step in the industry. AA and AS degrees can often be used as a stepping-stone to a bachelor’s degree, accepted in place of the first two years of those programs as long as the university accepts your associate as a transfer degree—be sure to check on agreements between the two schools if you plan on this path.

There are also AAS, or associated of applied science, degrees in HIT at this level; these are almost entirely vocationally-oriented and often will not be accepted as transfers since they do not include the kind of general studies classes that are usually included. They can, however, get you off to a quick start at an entry-level position in the industry.

Bachelor’s Degrees in Health Informatics

To work in higher-level health informatics, you need a bachelor’s degree. The major does not have to be informatics itself, however, and many degrees in other areas of healthcare are available with informatics concentrations, such as a bachelor’s in nursing with a focus on informatics. Others earn bachelor’s degrees in fields like computer technology or public health.

Bachelor’s degrees are commonly the core of a well-rounded college education, so they take the longest (four years, typically) and involve the most general education coursework. If you have accounted for transferability, you can cut the time in half by applying the credits from a relevant associate degree, however.

Master’s Degrees in Health Informatics

Master’s degrees in health informatics include Master of Health Informatics (MHI), Master of Science in Health Informatics (MSHI), Master of Science (M.S.) in Applied Health Sciences Informatics, M.S. in Biomedical and Health Informatics, and Master of Business Administration (MBA) degrees, among others. Master’s degrees tend to be the key credential considered for higher-level management positions. That’s because they come with a lot of heavily focused courses within the major area, taught at an expert level, and with additional instruction in leadership, management, economics, and policy issues that come up in managerial roles.

You will likely also be expected to complete a capstone project or a thesis, depending on the technical emphasis of the program. A capstone will usually be a portfolio showing you can effectively create and manage health informatics systems. Master’s programs frequently come with important internship and networking opportunities to help you build connections in the industry as well.

Graduate Certificates in Health Informatics

Usually offered online, graduate certificates are for those who may or may not have master’s degrees in informatics but want to specialize in the field. Some programs allow you to take coursework concurrently with a master’s, some after a master’s, and others require a completed master’s and a minimum amount of work experience. You may also be able to earn a certificate if you have already earned a professional credential like an MD or RN. These certificate programs typically take one year and offer the same basic specialty information in informatics work as you would learn at the master’s level, without the leadership and management training coursework.

Doctorates in Health Informatics

In most cases, you don’t need a doctorate to work in health informatics management. However, if you hope to work in academia, research, or policy fields, you may want to take this additional two to three-year step. These programs include Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degrees in areas like healthcare information systems or information technology management, Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) in healthcare management, Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) in informatics, and Doctor of Computer Science.

The average PhD takes four to six years, including time spent on a dissertation. PhDs are typically research-oriented programs, designed to prepare you for teaching or research positions, while the other doctorates are considered applied programs, preparing graduates for high-level leadership positions. There is considerable crossover in the healthcare industry, however.

Since there are so many types of doctorates, the only standard courses you can expect are advanced information technology and informatics, research methods, and communication. Otherwise, doctoral candidates enjoy a wide latitude in their studies, and are expected to lead the in their own studies with the advice and guidance of advisors.

Accreditation For Healthcare Informatics Programs

Accreditation is something that almost every American college carries, a third-party seal of approval built into a web of national verification and trust that leads all the way back to the Department of Education. There are seven major regional accreditors that cover the country and evaluate universities for their administrative and scholastic qualities, ensuring that graduates get the kind of education that the American public and business world expects.

In some areas, however, like information technology, it’s worth considering whether or not programs are available that carry a specialty accreditation. These are more involved than general accreditations, with a more focused look at the curriculum, instructors, and industry connections as it applies to informatics more specifically.

The specialty accreditor that handles information technology and informatics accreditation is CAHIIM, the Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education. CAHIIM only offers informatics-specific accreditation at the master’s degree level, but you can get a general indication of program quality if the school offers an information technology degree with CAHIIM’s blessing… many of the instructors and academic resources will be the same.

Because CAHIIM doesn’t specifically offer informatics accreditations at most degree levels, however, many schools that do not run both HIM and HI don’t hold it, so you should view it more as an extra endorsement than a strict requirement for informatics programs.

Earning a Health Informatics Management Certification

Information technology is a business that is heavy on professional certifications… standards of education, experience, knowledge, and quality judged and awarded by third-party organizations to validate your professional skills. Employers often use certifications as a way to evaluate candidates for jobs in the industry, and informatics is heading in the same direction.

It’s important to distinguish professional certification from an educational certificate program. A certificate, such as the graduate certificate noted above, offers training and education in the field; a certification tests that knowledge and validates other aspects of your skill in informatics, usually through a combination of examination and qualifications such as experience and specific coursework. Most certifications also require regular continuing education from authorized providers to ensure that you are keeping your skills up to current standards.

American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA)
AHIMA offers nine different certifications that span various informatics and information technology competencies. The Registered Health Information Administrator (RHIA) and Registered Health Information Technician (RHIT) credentials are those that probably have the greatest bearing on informatics-specific jobs, but any of the certs could prove useful depending on your role.

Health Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS)
HIMSS is one of the oldest healthcare-specific information management certifying bodies, and offers to certification tracks to professionals in the field. The CAHIMS (Certified Associate in Healthcare Information and Management Systems) is an entry-level certification designed for those without experience in the field, while CPHIMS (Certified Professional in Healthcare Information and Management Systems) is aimed at more experienced professionals.

American Board of Preventative Medicine (ABPM)
ABPM’s Clinical Informatics certification is aimed at clinicians who have a dual role or who have transitioned exclusively into informatics work. It’s unique in that you are required to have a medical license and degree in addition to passing a ABMS member board primary board certification.

AMIA Health Informatics Certification (AHIC)
The American Medical Informatics Association will be rolling out its certification in 2020. This is intended as an alternative to the ABPM Clinical Informatics certification, but will be available to non-clinicians.

American Nurses Credentialing Center
As a nursing counterpart to the ABMP Clinical Informatics certification, ANCC offers the RN-BC, which is tailored specifically to nursing informatics work.

Health Informatics Resources

Both healthcare and information technology are rapidly changing fields with broad areas of research and application. Either one of them separately is already far too much for any individual to keep up with; put them together and it’s a real nightmare to stay on top of as an informatics professional.

Staying connected to your community and looking to major professional organizations for regular updates and continuing education is one of the best ways to avoid getting stuck in this problem. These organizations and resources can help you at every phase of your career in health informatics, from offering research and networking opportunities to giving you a leg up on job listings and interview preparation.

  • American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA)This organization consists of nearly 6,000 members, all of whom are involved in health informatics from the student to policy levels. AMIA focuses on collaboration and career growth. It also hosts annual conferences, provides continuing education, and offers a career center.
  • Public Health Informatics Institute (PHII)With an emphasis on collaboration, PHII analyzes health informatics processes, offers technical assistance, and delivers training courses through the Informatics Academy.
  • HealthITAnalyticsThis website helps informatics and other health data professionals to remain up to date on trends and research. Additionally, it hosts at least one summit per year.
  • HIT ConsultantThis company provides news and editorials about emerging trends, best practices, and types of technology used in health informatics.
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