Biomedical and Health Informaticians

by Anna Johnson

June 1, 2017

The health care industry produces an unimaginable amount of data every day. To be useful, however, the massive amount of data must be turned into easily accessible and understandable information. Informaticians – a generic term for those working in this field – use the latest and greatest data and technology to inform health care workers, administrators, patients, and policy makers. They combine computer science with biostatistics, management, and health sciences to interpret data, develop a new, more efficient means of collecting patient information, or to analyze and document health care research results.

Informatics has been around for quite some time, though it has gained recognition in recent years as technology continues to make an impression on the health care industry, business practices change the way the health care industry operates, and funds are spent to create and maintain electronic patient records.

Medical and health informatics is a general term covering all disciplines in the field, including bioinformatics, or the application of informatics in cellular and molecular biology; medical or clinical informatics, or applying informatics to individuals; and public health informatics, or applying informatics in public health.

Conferences, newsletters, blogs, and education programs dedicated to health informatics abound. The American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) has been around for 35 years. According to the World Health Organization, AMIA is dedicated to “promoting the effective organization, analysis, management, and use of information in health care to support patient care, public health, teaching, research, administration, and related policy.” This is just one of many organizations concerned with medical and health informatics.

In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act established incentives for the adoption of electronic health record systems and as of 2015, 78 percent of physicians in the United States and 96 percent of hospitals used a certified electronic health records system. This means that it has become increasingly important for the healthcare workforce to include qualified health informatics employees.

To meet this need, the Oregon Healthcare Workforce Institute works in partnership with the Oregon Department of Community Colleges and Workforce Development and Worksource Oregon in what is called the “Health Information Technology (HIT) Workforce Development Brain Trust”. Their goal is to guide Oregon’s effort to: build Oregon’s health technology, informatics, and information management workforce; train the current healthcare workforce to meet basic competencies in using electronic health records and related technology; and to integrate HIT coursework into Oregon’s healthcare profession educational programs to ensure that graduates are competent in the use of electronic health records and related technology.

Education and Experience Are Very Important

Unlike many other career areas, biomedical and health informatics requires a level of expertise in more than one field. A combination of computer and data knowledge along with some type of health care background are common prerequisites for most positions. Other focus areas include business, public health, nursing, or pharmacy that require a specific educational background in addition to computer science.

Entrants to this field can take shorter-term training through a community college to get their foot in the employment door. However, it is not uncommon to see a bachelor’s or master’s in medical informatics, computer science, public health, or any degree related to health sciences as a job requirement.

Several Oregon institutions offer informatics programs. Central Oregon Community College offers a Health Information Technology program. Rogue Community College offers a Health Care Informatics Assistant program. Linn-Benton Community College offers a Coding and Reimbursement Specialist program. Portland Community College offers programs in health information management and computer information systems.

Universities in Oregon also prepare students in the biomedical and health informatics field. The University of Oregon’s bioinformatics program offers a master’s degree in biology with a track in bioinformatics. Pacific University also offers an undergraduate program in bioinformatics with courses in biology, chemistry, statistics, evolution, databases, and research.

The Oregon Institute of Technology offers degrees in health informatics or information technology with a health informatics option, which prepares students for a career as information and computing specialists in the health care field. Students earn a bachelor’s degree while taking courses in business management, health care, computer science, and information systems.

Oregon Health Sciences University’s (OHSU) Department of Medical Informatics & Clinical Epidemiology offers advanced training in biomedical informatics as well. Larger hospitals with research programs such as OHSU utilize many informatics workers.

Informatics training programs provide a solid foundation, but related work experience can play a key role in gaining the necessary skills for the job. Some students who enter an education program already have either a computer or a health care background. Individuals who are very IT savvy need to get up to speed on health care while those with a health care background need to gain computer science knowledge. Many higher-level positions require a combination of education and experience. Individuals entering graduate-level programs may have backgrounds as health care professionals, natural and life sciences, computer science, health information management, business, or other disciplines.

Jobs in Biomedical and Health Informatics

Job titles are as varied as one could imagine. A medical records and health information technician can also be known as a certified coding specialist, health informatics specialist, health information technician, health record technician, medical record assistant, and many, many more job titles. An informatics nurse specialist job listing could be listed under clinical applications specialist, clinical informatics director, and public health informatician, among others. Bioinformatics specialists, which can require higher education degrees, are also called bio-mathematician and biometricians.

A day in the life of a biomedical and health informatician may include solving complex problems; prioritizing work; applying health care knowledge; using interpersonal and  communication skills; organizing computer development and support; developing, implementing, and maintaining systems and technologies; project management; and much more. These jobs require self-motivation, strong analytical skills, the ability to interpret data, and an understanding of how information can be useful for health care professionals, patients, and policy makers.

In addition to large hospitals with research programs such as OHSU, informatics jobs can be found in health care facilities, government, insurance, software production, Internet companies, and academia. Telemedicine – a rapidly growing means of providing medical services by using communications and information technologies – is another area where individuals with an informatics background may work.

Job duties vary depending on the work setting. Informaticians may be asked to analyze cancer research data, develop new software for checking for potential pharmaceutical drug interactions, set up an automatic prescription system to send prescriptions directly from the physician’s laptop during a medical exam to the pharmacy, or assure that patient records are easy for physicians to access as they quickly move from one patient to the next throughout the day.

Biomedical and health informatics salaries range from entry level in the $30,000 a year range to six-figure salaries for high-level biostatisticians. There is definitely room to move up. Starting with a community college certificate, gaining experience over time, and perhaps going back to school for an advanced degree provide strong career ladder opportunities and great income potential.

Employment estimates for this field are spotty. The U.S. Department of Labor’s O*Net program publishes data for informatics nurse specialists, rating the occupation as growing much faster than average from 2014 to 2024, with employment of 568,000 in the U.S. in 2014. The 2016 median annual wage is listed at $87,220. O*Net also breaks out bioinformatics scientists and shows 36,000 employees nationwide in 2014 with a median wage of $74,790 in 2016.

The Future

The world is becoming more interconnected and we continue to find new ways of obtaining, and sharing information. Biomedical and health informatics is leading the way. The future is bright for informaticians. Developing and maintaining computer systems, moving to electronic health records, ongoing health care research, and other activities will continue to create opportunities in this field.

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