Technology and data have transformed the healthcare industry – and elevated the importance of health informatics.
Paper charts and lack of communication between various providers as well as patients and clinicians, led to inefficient care as patients were seen by individual physicians, with little or no information about diagnoses and test results from other providers. Patients were justifiably frustrated as they repeated the same information at each visit, and as they struggled to obtain results of diagnostic tests from physician offices.
The advent of electronic health records (EHRs), online patient portals, mobile medical devices and other tools that capture and share information across disparate providers’ locations not only promotes collaborative care, but also collects data that can be used to develop innovative, scientifically-based best practices that result in enhanced patient outcomes.
While data is power, not all data is created equally. The volume of data collected in the myriad of tools and systems used by hospitals, health information exchange networks, health systems, individual clinicians, researchers and physician practices can be overwhelming.
The challenge of managing a growing volume of health information has led to the increasing reliance on health informatics, which is defined by the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) in two ways:
- A scientific discipline that is concerned with the cognitive, information-processing, and communication tasks of healthcare practice, education, and research, including the information science and technology to support these tasks
- A field of information science concerned with the management of all aspects of health data and information through the application of computers and computer technology
It is the expertise of medical or healthcare informatics professionals that helps healthcare organizations determine which data provides the best information for the treatment, process or practice that is being evaluated, and how to use data to support decisions and development of best practices.
Health informatics is a discipline that includes a number of subspecialties. The AMIA identifies clinical informatics as the application of informatics and health information technology (health IT) to deliver healthcare services. Other related areas include clinical research informatics, consumer health informatics, public health informatics, biomedical informatics, imaging informatics and nursing informatics.
What are the benefits of healthcare informatics?
In addition to health informatics professionals’ expertise with health IT and technology tools that capture and store health information, the multidisciplinary nature of the field breaks down barriers that have traditionally existed in health settings.
The ability to work across boundaries and different systems – clinical, financial and administrative – leads to greater collaboration. Innovative programs and best practices supported by informatics in healthcare addresses needs at a macro level for the organization as well as at an individual level for patient care.
The informatics in healthcare challenge is the number of disparate systems that collect data but cannot easily communicate or share with other systems – even those in the same organization. Technology that connects, integrates, aggregate and harmonizes large volumes of data from a wide range of sources that can be shared and seen across traditionally separate systems enables health professionals to transform data into actionable insights.
These insights lead to four significant benefits of health informatics:
Address inefficiencies and costs
- By reducing duplicative processes and procedures health informatics can lead to more efficient processes, enhanced patient experience and reduced costs by identifying areas of opportunity and developing programs or practices to the organization’s performance. These three goals – known as the Triple Aim – require access to and the expertise to evaluate data collected in EHRs, staffing systems and financial systems to provide an accurate overview of what happens in the patient care and operational sides of the healthcare business.
These improvements do not just occur in large organizations such as hospital systems, accountable care organizations or health networks, they can take place in physician practices. A 2015 white paper published by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) details the success of primary care practices that incorporate technology, data and a strategic approach to quality improvement based on data.
Improve patient experience
- Health information management platforms that aggregate data from multiple sources and make it accessible to all providers in the care continuum produce a longitudinal health record that ensures all providers have the most accurate medical history for a patient. By eliminating the need to continually repeat information to different clinicians or attempt to remember medications, tests and procedures along with results, communication between physician and patient improves.
Patients also become more engaged in their care when they have access to their medical records, test results and health goals through online portals that display information they’ve discussed with their physicians.
Enhance providers’ coordination of care
- The ability to review patient data obtained by another provider gives a clear picture of the patient’s response to medical, surgical or rehabilitative treatments. Knowing how the patient is progressing enables physicians, nurse practitioners or therapists to identify gaps in treatment and adjust to improve patient outcomes.
Enable population health management
- Just as clinicians use health data to create treatment plans that benefit individual patients, public health providers rely on data to identify trends and correlations between treatments and outcomes for specific populations. Using data registries of patients with similar illnesses or chronic conditions, public health informatics professionals can evaluate their care to develop best practices that produce improved outcomes in the most efficient, cost-effective manner.
What is the future of health informatics?
Informatics in healthcare has come a long way since the 1950s, when the National Bureau of Standards, now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology began collecting dental data. Today, health informatics is a discipline that is continually growing as the use of technology throughout the healthcare industry expands to include handheld devices, consumer devices, web-based portals and a wide range of data collection and reporting systems designed to increase efficiencies.
In 2012, the importance of health informatics was recognized by a health industry report produced by PricewaterhouseCoopers Health Research Institute. Organizations that effectively use and monetize [data] will gain a competitive edge, according to the report. Authors identify data and healthcare informatics as key technologies for the hospitals of the future.
As health informatics professionals work with clinicians, providers and health industry leaders to ensure technology enhances rather than complicates workflow, financial reporting, quality improvement efforts and development of operational and clinical best practices, they serve as intermediaries between the clinical side of healthcare and health IT departments.
Looking at data in a multidisciplinary environment is more likely to produce sustainable changes in healthcare that benefit organizations, clinicians and patients. Innovations developed through collaboration between clinical, operational, technical and financial components of the healthcare team, are transforming healthcare with enhanced patient experience, improved outcomes and cost-effective care.