Health informatics blends the medical and cognitive sciences with computer and information science, making use of the technology and knowledge developed in each area. Informatics brings these related scientific disciplines together to help us understand and address a variety of health issues. Informatics also allows us to learn more about the ways biology, behavior and environment can impact our lives and our life expectancy. Public health professionals use informatics to collect and analyze data, identify health patterns, and respond to disease outbreaks or other threats occurring in the communities they serve.
Professionals trained in health informatics are in high demand, especially in county and municipal government. In a 2016 survey conducted by the Journal of Public Health Management, only 40 percent of large local health departments indicated they had staff members with sufficient informatics training. That number dropped to 5 percent or less for medium and small health departments responding to the survey.
A Valuable Tool for Public Health Professionals
According to Bill Stephens, manager of the Office of Public Health Informatics for Tarrant County, Texas, informatics has actually been a part of public health since the 1990s. That was the point, he says, when public health information first became available to government health officials in a standardized format. As electronic health records have become routine over the last decade, Stephens notes, this technology has "put more momentum behind the convergence between healthcare and public health."
Informatics is most commonly used in public health for syndromic surveillance, he says, which allows officials to analyze anonymous patient data from local healthcare providers to identify health issues happening across a community. The data is provided by physicians' offices, ambulatory and urgent care clinics, hospitals and other healthcare providers, and reported electronically. "It provides a picture of signs and symptoms that are going on," Stephens says, "and then we have certain kinds of algorithms and software applications that are processing this massive amount of data coming from every single visit within a region or a county. We can do statistical analysis in near real time, to tell what's going on in terms of population health trends."
He argues that syndromic data is a better indicator of public health than diagnosis alone because it captures the actual signs and symptoms patients are reporting. "The diagnostic information is a bit unpredictable or unreliable in some cases" Stephens suggests, "because diagnostic codes are created for billing purposes, not necessarily as an accurate description of what the condition is."
He also believes that digital lab reports are some of the best informatics measures available because certain conditions identified in lab results must be reported to public health departments as required by state law. They include communicable diseases, foodborne illness and toxins in the environment. "That's how we keep track of a number of serious conditions" Stephens says, "because they are reportable. We can then deploy interventions that engage the healthcare community to watch out for certain things, and to look for things that they may not have seen yet."
A Way to Address Common Health Issues
City, county and state health departments routinely use informatics to monitor health data in their geographic area for common heath issues, such as rates of heart disease or cancer diagnosis, or the number of deaths from car accidents. Informatics tools help them spot health trends as they develop, or over a period of time. Comparing year-to-year data, public health officials can also identify health issues that are not being addressed, and the circumstances that are driving positive or negative health outcomes for specific populations. They can look at rates of disease or death by neighborhood, gender, ethnicity or income level, for example, to try and determine why some citizens are consistently sicker than others or dying earlier than their peers.
Public health professionals working for nonprofit and community-based organizations also use informatics to understand whether lack of access to health insurance, care providers or diagnostic services is playing a role in the physical or mental health of the people they serve. Within a community, healthcare informatics tells us more about who we are as patients and healthcare practitioners, how we receive and benefit from healthcare, and how well care-systems and their components are serving patients.
What Can I Learn in a Health Informatics Course?
Health informatics courses provide students with a strong foundation in public health technology and research, preparing them to play an active role in addressing health disparities and improving health outcomes. Learning about informatics entails more than just studying healthcare technology and its applications, however. Students also gain a better understanding of the key competencies health informatics systems and their administrators must have, and how healthcare law and policy affect systems in practice. Typical themes include:
- Best practices in informatics design, implementation and use.
- Compliance with local, state and federal law, as well as professional standards and government policies.
- Safety considerations that ensure confidentiality and HIPAA compliance, especially in electronic health record management.
- Ethical and cultural issues related to data collection, analysis and reporting.
- Safeguards and evaluation strategies that ensure informatics tools are purposeful, meet identified needs and achieve desired results.
- Effective strategies for sharing informatics data and results, and providing public information about current health or environmental risks.
Many different types of employers in healthcare, government and related industries are seeking informatics-trained graduates who understand the key role technology now plays in keeping communities healthy.
Learn more about UTA's online Bachelor of Science in Public Health program.
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