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Health Informatics in the Time of COVID-19

Margarete L. Zalon, PhD, RN, ACNS-BC, FAAN
Professor of Nursing; Director, Health Informatics

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted us globally and has created an awareness of the importance of health data in our daily lives. Health informatics is the discipline that is at the intersection of health, information science and technology, and social and behavioral science.1 The volume of data used by our healthcare systems has exploded, including data about each of us as individuals as well as aggregate data illustrating trends and opportunities to make decisions that improve the health of our communities.

Daily, we are bombarded with data related to public health surveillance, prevention, preparedness, health promotion, and the latest research. The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a race to provide timely data that can be used to benefit the public. A recent search in PubMed, the National Library of Medicine database, using keyword COVID-19 yields more than 35,000 articles. This explosion of knowledge requires people who can make sense of the data. Health informaticists are professionals whose expertise and skills are critical for the judicious use of data healthcare organizations, public health agencies, government, electronic health record vendors, pharmaceutical and biotech companies, and researchers, among others. The need for health informaticists is greater than ever as we seek to interpret and use data for accurate decision-making.

The University of Scranton’s master’s in health informatics program prepares individuals to lead and work collaboratively in teams to understand how information can be turned into knowledge that can be applied across the broad spectrum of health care. One of the University’s recent health informatics graduates, Ben Agbayani of Harrisburg, was precepted by an alumna of the program, Lorraine Mancuso, MBA, MS, during his final capstone course. Under Lorraine’s guidance, Ben worked to track the impact of COVID-19 on ICU beds in Dauphin County in central Pennsylvania. Examining the number of ICU beds in relation to COVID-19 cases is vital in helping health care organizations understand how to plan for the use of their resources. How COVID-19 cases are counted varies across states and even by counties, making planning difficult. Lorraine, who has over 20 years’ experience in data management, took a geographical information systems course with Dr. Ismail Onat, Assistant Professor of Sociology/Criminal Justice at the University, after completing the program. She began following COVID-19 data sources early in the pandemic, even noticing a data error for one location in the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 map. She and Dr. Onat contacted the Hopkins researchers and subsequently noted that the error was corrected. Their experience illustrates the ongoing fluctuation and rapid changes as various organizations, government agencies, and researchers try to respond to the pandemic. Health informaticists are essential in these endeavors because they have the ability to analyze the data and details about the sources of information.

As noted by Dr. Beth Elias, PhD, MS, FHIMSS, the faculty for the capstone course, “it is impossible to overstate the role of data, and therefore health informatics, in the COVID-19 pandemic. Without health informatics, we would not have access to the volume of data we need to develop an understanding of the impact of the virus, both on those suffering from it and on countries trying to control it. Our role as faculty in the MS in Health Informatics program is to prepare our students to be on the front line of fighting this pandemic.“

Data and how it is interpreted and used is key to understanding and responding to the pandemic. Health informaticists can use their skills to help frontline providers understand trend data, improve communication, support research, and track supplies such as ventilators and personal protective equipment. The widespread adoption of electronic health records in the last 10 years has facilitated our understanding of symptoms and aided in improving treatments. Clinical applications such as symptom screening tools, applications to report temperatures and symptoms, reporting of cases to government agencies for surveillance, and pharmacovigilance (adverse drug reaction analysis) are just a few opportunities for health informaticists to use their skills in this new era of COVID-19. Sharing of data has enabled the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to update its list of COVID-19 symptoms. Geospatial analyses have facilitated the identification of “hot spots.” Information technology can be used to automate contact tracing. Health informaticists can provide support in multiple arenas for data-driven decision making in the time of this pandemic. Pursuing a career in health informatics provides an opportunity to be at the forefront of practice and research while improving healthcare delivery and contributing to the well-being of society.

The University of Scranton's online Master of Science in Health Informatics program is at the cutting edge of this emerging field. Request more information or speak with a Program Manager at 866-373-9547.

Resources:

  1. American Medical Informatics Association. (2017). Health Informatics Core Competencies.