Big data holds the keys to solving many healthcare challenges. But harnessing that data is a challenge itself, as healthcare organizations amass more data than any other industry.1 Fortunately, health informaticists can glean insights from vast information streams, helping improve health and well-being throughout society.
What is health informatics? And how do careers in health informatics differ from the work performed by health information managers? Let's explore answers to these questions, along with ways the COVID-19 pandemic has made health informatics even more essential.
What Is Health Informatics?
Health informatics touches every corner of the modern healthcare industry. Informaticists harness emerging data practices and innovation to improve patient care, detect and stop the spread of diseases, and find ways to make the healthcare industry more efficient. They achieve these goals by:
- Enhancing healthcare systems that impact decision-making.
- Mining health data for insights to improve health outcomes.
- Innovating health information systems spanning the continuum of care.
Gathering, storing, and presenting accurate patient data is central to health informatics. Specialists draw from a myriad of sources, including:
- Electronic health records
- Health insurance claims
- Public health organizations
- Federal agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Laboratory results
- Clinical trials
- Personal health apps
- Fitbits, Apple Watches, and other fitness trackers
These sources offer a tremendous volume of data — so much that it's hard for many healthcare professionals and decision-makers to make sense of it. However, health informaticists specialize in more than collecting data. Their expertise also includes analyzing it for insights that lead to better decision-making. Plus, they create intuitive data dashboards to make complex healthcare issues easier to understand.
These initiatives offer benefits beyond improving how healthcare professionals care for individual patients. They also allow public health officials to monitor well-being throughout communities. As a result, health informaticists play a central role in identifying and solving health challenges throughout society.2
Why Is Health Informatics Important?
As health informaticists create solutions that benefit overall public health, they help fulfill the "triple aim of healthcare."3 Through this work, health informaticists impact the healthcare system in three crucial ways:
One: Improving the Patient Care Experience
People trust doctors and nurses to help them feel better and stay safe while receiving treatment. Electronic health records make it easier to meet these needs because they give healthcare professionals a window into each patient's medical history. Health informaticists can organize those records to enable doctors to visualize a patient's medical history and improve how they manage chronic conditions.
This data is essential to improving the patient care experience. Clinical benefits include using data to pinpoint diseases more quickly and avoid making mistakes when treating patients.4
Two: Strengthening Health Across Populations
Data for each patient doesn't exist in a vacuum. When health informaticists view this data as a whole, they can calculate success rates for various treatments to pinpoint what is and isn't effective. These analyses provide insights for providing quality care across populations. It also allows informaticists to spot trends like rises in diseases and chronic health conditions.
To get an accurate view of population health, health informaticists need access to behavioral data and information about the environments where patients live. So, many informaticists are partnering with leaders across the medical and public health sectors to acquire universal data sources.5
Building this comprehensive data infrastructure will show the many factors impacting community well-being. It will also enable health informaticists to guide healthcare professionals toward better treatments for injuries and illnesses.
Three: Reducing Healthcare Costs
In 2019, U.S. healthcare spending totaled $3.8 trillion. By 2028, it will increase to $6.2 trillion. At that point, it will represent nearly 20% of the nation's economy.6 These rising costs will likely cause more Americans to suffer financial distress.
What is health informatics' role in reversing this trend? Its main contribution is to make healthcare more efficient by eliminating wasteful spending. For instance, informaticists could help cut costs by analyzing records to learn the causes of adverse patient events. Finding those causes could revamp clinician training, helping them avoid making costly mistakes.7 Eliminating mishaps stemming from improper medication use alone could save $42 billion every year.8
The importance of health informatics goes beyond supporting these three aims. It is also central to keeping officials and the public informed during health crises — as demonstrated throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Data dashboards dedicated to tracking COVID-19 cases have helped people understand the risk of infection within their community. Additionally, health informaticists have enabled public health and government officials to make informed decisions about allowing schools and restaurants to reopen.
The widescale use of this data shows how health informatics impacts society beyond the healthcare industry. It's a key difference between health informatics and another important specialty with a similar name — health information management.
What Is the Difference Between Health Informatics vs. Health Information Management?
Based on their names, health informatics and information management may seem quite similar. To further blur the lines, health informaticists and health information managers often work closely together. But the focuses of these specialties differ considerably, as do the career prospects within each field.
What is health information management? The American Health Information Management Association defines it as the "practice of acquiring, analyzing, and protecting digital and traditional medical information vital to providing quality patient care."9
While health informaticists specialize in improving data processes and systems, health information managers focus more on routine data operations. In this way, health informaticists are the architects who devise plans, whereas health information managers use those plans to organize and complete specific tasks. Their work spans many day-to-day job functions, including coding diagnoses, treatment, and procedures for insurance reimbursments, organizing patient information in databases, and ensuring data security and compliance with regulations.
Health information management is vital because it gives clinicians access to the data needed to administer care. But its scope is limited when compared to health informatics. That's because health informaticists' work extends beyond hospitals and health systems, as they strive to improve healthcare overall by collaborating with:
- Public health officials
- Insurance companies
- Government agencies
This collaboration has been critical since the COVID-19 pandemic began. For instance, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has partnered with organizations across the health landscape to develop tools for tracking positive cases, hospitalizations, and other data.10
Using informatics to combat COVID-19 doesn't stop with tracking its spread. Health informaticists also monitor how infections change as more people receive vaccines. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, addressed this point during the American Medical Informatics Association's virtual symposium in 2020. He said that gathering and presenting all data related to COVID-19, whether positive or negative, will provide accurate insights for overcoming this global challenge.11
Fauci's view puts health informatics at the center of efforts to analyze the wealth of data relating to COVID-19. While this raises health informatics' profile in the short-term, this field was in high-demand before the pandemic began. In fact, job growth in this sector is on track to grow 20.5% by 2029.
To meet that demand, organizations will need more people to take an interest in health informatics. Fortunately, graduate-level degree programs offer direct paths to this field for healthcare professionals, as well as those looking to join the healthcare industry.
What Can I Do With a Health Informatics Degree?
Careers in health informatics don't fit a single job description. Their responsibilities span every healthcare sector, from the clinical space to the private-sector organizations that support this industry.
This broad focus makes health informatics inviting to people with numerous professional backgrounds. That includes people already employed in healthcare, such as physicians, nurses, pharmacists, radiologic technologists, and occupational therapists.
That said, health informatics also appeals to people working in business analysis and computer science. While these careers are outside the medical profession, they share the foundational knowledge, skills, and job tasks found in health informatics.12 As a result, these professionals have the potential to thrive after they pivot to this rewarding field.
What is health informatics employment like? The answer varies by role, as there are multiple opportunities for people to impact this field. Four career options include:
Clinical Informatics Manager
These managers innovate data-driven systems that will make healthcare more effective. It's an ideal role for professionals who thrive in the clinical or regulatory space. The average salary is about $95,000 per year.13
Nursing Informatics Manager
This hands-on role involves collaborating with IT professionals, nurses, and physicians to find data-driven ways to streamline patient care. These managers often rely on experience as a registered nurse to engineer and enhance data systems that improve nursing operations. On average, nursing informatics managers earn $105,000 annually.14
Healthcare Informatics Consultant
These consultants rely on informatics expertise to improve how healthcare organizations use data. That includes applying emerging trends to enhance EMR systems and train staff to harness new practices. Healthcare informatics consultants earn an average annual salary of about $104,000.15
Clinical Systems Analyst
These analysts are the architects of information networks within hospitals and health systems. They assess the functionality of these systems to make them more intuitive. They also partner with clinical and administrative staff to identify technical solutions to healthcare challenges. The median annual salary for these analysts is about $91,000.16
If you're ready to move your career into health informatics, consider joining an online Master of Science in Health Informatics degree program. The University of Scranton’s master’s program empowers you to gain expertise at the intersection of health, social and behavioral science, and information science and technology.
Learn to innovate data systems that healthcare decision-makers need to improve patient care and reduce costs. The program also instills the necessary data prowess to help epidemiologists identify and stop the spread of infectious diseases. You will complete the program 100% online, getting the flexibility to continue meeting your work and life commitments as you prepare to advance into health informatics.
- Kent, J. (2018). "Big Data to See Explosive Growth, Challenging Healthcare Organizations." Health IT Analytics. https://healthitanalytics.com/news/big-data-to-see-explosive-growth-challenging-healthcare-organizations
- Gadd, C. S., Steen, E. B., Caro, C. M., Greenberg, S., Williamson, J. J., & Fridsma, D. B. (2020). "Domains, Tasks, and Knowledge for Health Informatics Practice: Results of a Practice Analysis." JAMIA, 27(6), 845–852. https://doi.org/10.1093/jamia/ocaa018
- Sheikh, A., Sood, H. S., & Bates, D. W. (2015). "Leveraging Health Information Technology to Achieve the 'Triple Aim' of Healthcare Reform." JAMIA, 22(4), 849–856. https://doi.org/10.1093/jamia/ocv022
- The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC). (2019). "Improved Diagnostics & Patient Outcomes." https://www.healthit.gov/topic/health-it-and-health-information-exchange-basics/improved-diagnostics-patient-outcomes
- Gamache, R., Kharrazi, H., & Weiner, J. P. (2018). "Public and Population Health Informatics: The Bridging of Big Data to Benefit Communities." Yearbook of Medical Informatics, 27(1), 199–206. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6115205/
- Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. (2020). "NHE Fact Sheet, 2019." https://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/NationalHealthExpendData/NHE-Fact-Sheet
- Islam, M. M., Poly, T. N., & Li, Y. J. (2018). "Recent Advancement of Clinical Information Systems: Opportunities and Challenges." Yearbook of Medical Informatics, 27(1), 83–90. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6115226/
- World Health Organization. (2019.) "WHO Calls for Urgent Action to Reduce Patient Harm in Healthcare." https://www.who.int/news/item/13-09-2019-who-calls-for-urgent-action-to-reduce-patient-harm-in-healthcare
- American Health Information Management Association. (2020). "Health Information is Human Information." https://www.ahima.org/certification-careers/certifications-overview/career-tools/career-pages/health-information-101/
- The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC). (2020). "COVID-19 Response." https://www.healthit.gov/coronavirus
- Jercich, Kat. (2020.) Healthcare IT News. "Fauci Touts Importance of Data Sharing Amidst COVID-19 Vaccine News." https://www.healthcareitnews.com/news/fauci-touts-importance-data-sharing-amidst-covid-19-vaccine-news
- Fridsma D. B. (2019). "Strengthening our profession by defining clinical and health informatics practice." JAMIA, 26(7), 585. https://doi.org/10.1093/jamia/ocz060
- PayScale. (n.d.). "Average Clinical Informatics Manager Salary." https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Clinical_Informatics_Manager/Salary
- PayScale. (n.d.). "Average Nursing Informatics Specialist Salary." https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Nursing_Informatics_Manager/Salary
- ZipRecruiter. (2021). "Healthcare Informatics Consultant." https://www.ziprecruiter.com/Salaries/Healthcare-Informatics-Consultant-Salary
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020). "Occupational Outlook Handbook: Computer Systems Analysts." https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/computer-systems-analysts.htm#tab-1