Opportunities in Health Informatics are Vast for Those with a Master’s Degree

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Jonathan Mack, PhD, MSN, is a clinical associate professor and the program coordinator for the health informatics master’s degree program at the University of San Diego. With more than 35 years of nursing experience, Dr. Mack has held hospital positions such as Chief Nursing Officer and Chief Operating Officer and has special expertise in the application of systems engineering to the health care environment.

In this post, Dr. Mack shares his observations on the rapidly growing field of health informatics.

Can you briefly describe the current state of the health informatics industry?

Health informatics as an industry is still in its infancy. Healthcare providers were slow to adopt clinical information systems at the point of care. Only now, because federal requirements accelerated the implementation of electronic health records, is the industry starting to evolve. Now that all this health information is in electronic form, the ability to analyze this immense volume of data has created new opportunities to improve care. That’s why the federal government is predicting such huge growth in this area over the next decade. In fact, the major issue that the industry is now facing is the lack of individuals with training and experience to fill the many open positions.

What does the field of health informatics mean for the future of medicine and health care?

Up until a few years ago, clinical care and documentation was all paper based. Now, with the advent of clinical documentation that enables secure electronic sharing of patient data, healthcare providers can reduce wait times, improve inter-disciplinary collaboration, and minimize errors. Additionally, because we now have a database on every patient, we can analyze aggregated clinical data to help us to understand what is going on with larger groups of patients and identify trends in population health.

Prior to EHRs if we wanted to understand how individuals or groups of patients responded to treatments or procedures we had to conduct laborious hand abstraction of clinical data from paper based charts. This dissuaded clinicians and researchers from conducting small scale inquiry, let alone population level analysis because of the time and intensity required to compile the data. With data available in an electronic format and organized in accessible databases, we now have the ability to explore data on a scale that was unimagined before. This is likely to lead to innovations in drug discovery and clinical outcome monitoring for various diseases, procedures or devices.

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Could you offer some examples of how health informatics is already affecting care?

One of the largest cultural shifts in health care is that patients can now access their own clinical data more easily than ever before. The field of medicine is shifting from a culture that believed patient data did not belong to the patient, to the current culture where patients can access their clinical data with the simple click of a mouse.

Another subdomain of health informatics that is having a big impact on health care delivery is telehealth. This allows hospitals and doctors’ offices to securely use video conferencing to consult with, monitor and diagnose patients. Telehealth has the ability to improve health among large populations of people who live in rural areas or have limited access to local health care services. It’s also an excellent resource for physicians who need to monitor patients with chronic conditions because it can reduce the need for multiple office visits.

In your opinion, what is the most exciting aspect of health informatics today?

By collecting and analyzing patient medical data, we now have the ability to reduce medical errors and make health care more efficient. The opportunity that technology opens up to improve care is very exciting. Now, we as medical professionals can access patients in a variety of ways — through education, mHealth, remote home monitoring, patient portals and telemedicine, just to name a few. Finally and perhaps most importantly, are the many possibilities that big data holds for improving and personalizing patient care, much of which we cannot even imagine yet.

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What advice would you offer to someone interested in working in the health informatics field?

Because the industry is just beginning to take off, there are many exciting opportunities out there. For someone who has a love of tech and wants to merge that with his or her health care experience or interest without working in a direct patient care role, health informatics is perfect. There are also roles in informatics that are patient facing such as working with patient portals, in nursing informatics or remote home monitoring.

But this field is not only open to those with a background in tech or health care. Analytics is a huge part of health informatics and those with a business background who have experience with data analysis can really excel in this industry. Education is important, however, especially for those that are going through a career transition. Because professionals entering the field need to have specific skills in a fairly new discipline, a master’s degree can be hugely beneficial, making an applicant more attractive to potential employers.

What advice would you offer to someone who is trying to evaluate different degree programs?

Due to the requirements of most informatics jobs, it is important to find a master’s degree program that emphasizes a hands-on approach. It is also important to consider the faculty in any health informatics master’s degree program you evaluate. At the University of San Diego, all of our faculty are professionals with advanced degrees who are working in this field every day, which is important in an industry that is evolving rapidly.

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In developing our Master of Science in Health Care Informatics program at USD, we looked at all the big health informatics master’s programs available, and what those programs provided students. We discovered that many degree programs were purely technical and didn’t prepare students for leadership or management roles. That’s why we decided to create a graduate degree program that offers both technical training and professional development. Half of the classes in the Master of Science in Health Care Informatics program at USD are health administration classes, which include critical leadership, strategy and policy classes.

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