Health Care Informatics

Confused? Health Informatics Explained [Definition + Jobs and Salary Information]

Jonathan Mack PhD, MSN

Jonathan Mack PhD, MSN

Director of Health Care and Nursing Informatics and Health Systems Leadership

Fast-Growing Field of Informatics is Transforming Health Care, Creating New Opportunities for Medical and IT Professionals

What is health informatics?

Ask some of the major organizations that specialize in the fields of health informatics, health information technology and health information management, and the answers don’t necessarily tell the whole story.

While the professional associations don’t completely agree on a common definition of health informatics, two things are certain:

  • Health informatics is revolutionizing the practice of health care, from caring for individual patients to improving the health of entire populations.
  • Health informatics is one of the nation’s fastest-growing job sectors, with well-paying career opportunities for those with the right experience and training.

The past decade has been a time of incredible growth for the field of health informatics, fueled in large part by the adoption in 2009 of the federal HITECH Act, which mandated a nationwide transition from old-fashioned paper medical records to electronic health records (EHR). Of course, the adoption of electronic health records, along with advancements in cloud storage and analytics capabilities, has led to far greater availability (and shareability) of health data.

Defining Health Informatics

Health informatics is such a diverse field that it cannot be encapsulated in just one definition. The widespread use of health care technologies and data management has allowed many health care specialties to utilize health informatics in ways that work best for them, meaning there is no “one size fits all” understanding of the field. Instead, there are many, but here are the primary differentiations of health informatics.

Health informatics

According to The American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA), “health informatics applies principles of computer and information science to the advancement of life sciences research, health professions education, public health, and patient care. This multidisciplinary and integrative field focuses on health information technologies (HIT), and involves the computer, cognitive, and social sciences.

In the continually evolving field of health informatics, the goal is to use this data and the insights it produces to:

  • Improve patient care at the individual and clinical level
  • Improve the health of entire populations (for example, by using data to predict and even prevent outbreaks of disease in a particular geographical area)
  • Enable health organizations to deliver care more cost effectively

Clinical Informatics

AMIA classifies clinical informatics as “the application of informatics and information technology to deliver healthcare services.” This classification of health informatics refers directly to the tools, technologies and tactics used directly by clinicians in their delivery of care. Clinical informatics can refer to using information science in connection with anything from electronic medical records to diagnostic tools like radiology and pathology.

Nursing Informatics

According to the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) nursing informatics is “the specialty that integrates nursing science with multiple information management and analytical sciences to identify, define, manage, and communicate data, information, knowledge, and wisdom in nursing practice.” Much like clinical informatics, this field of study is aimed at supporting clinical caregivers, in this case nurses, in their practice and in their ability to support and care for patients. 

Public Health Informatics

In its application to public health, informatics takes on a slightly different, but similarly data-focused definition. The Public Health Informatics Institute (PHII) defines this specialization as a discipline that “assures that the right technologies are used to improve timely delivery of quality data and assists data-driven decision making. It builds bridges across siloed public health work areas by ‘translating’ between these communities, creating opportunities for interoperable information pathways. Ultimately, public health informatics empowers disease interventions and prevention—leading to better health of individuals and the community in which they live.”

Translational Bioinformatics

Outside of direct patient care, there exists a level of informatics known as translational bioinformatics, which AMIA defines as “the development of storage, analytic, and interpretive methods to optimize the transformation of increasingly voluminous biomedical data, and genomic data, into proactive, predictive, preventive, and participatory health.” This area of health informatics is more focused on the research side of the field, and how health informatics findings can be used to develop new techniques that apply to the entire health care field. 

Health Informatics vs. Health Information Technology – What’s the Difference?

For the layman, it can be easy to confuse these two distinct but closely related fields. At the risk of oversimplification, health information technology (HIT) refers to the technological tools and systems used to provide care, enhance communications and efficiently, securely administer billings and records.

“Professionals who work in HIT are focused on the technical side of managing health information, working with the software and hardware that is used to manage and store patient data,” according to AHIMA.

Although both disciplines are in the health care field, AHIMA notes a very stark difference between the two career paths. For health informatics, AHIMA defines this specialization as “a science that defines how health information is technically captured, transmitted and utilized … (and) applied to the continuum of health care delivery,” says AHIMA. Simply put, health informatics technology refers to the tools and technology, and health informatics is about how the insights are put into practice.

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Future Implications of Health Informatics

As a relatively new specialty in health care, health informatics has transformed how the field operates, which will have larger implications across clinical care, health management, disease prevention and health policy. While some of those results cannot be foreseen, there are indicators of how health informatics with revolutionize health care across those three disciplines.

Clinical Implications

The amount of technology and data used in the clinical setting is high – everything from patient portals and appointment scheduling to vital sign monitoring machines and pacemakers has leveraged the power and sophistication of modern technology. Because informatics relates to clinical workflows and processes as well as to the technology itself, it is believed that informaticists will be integral in helping to bridge gaps between the technology and the processes.

Security Implications

As technology has become an integral tool in providing high-quality health care, there is increasing emphasis on effectively and securely managing the troves of data that now give providers enhanced insights into every aspect of care. With this amount of connected technology comes questions about levels of access, and how much is too much. Data privacy standards will have to be adjusted and monitored as health care informatics capabilities continue to expand in the years to come.

Policy Implications

Policy implications of health care informatics will deal with privacy standards and data sharing regulations. As the United States and the world still debate how to best handle data privacy and security, the health care industry itself is figuring out how it can help public health initiatives without violating patient privacy standards. Going forward, much will depend on what policymakers decide to prioritize in the name of worldwide health initiatives.

Working in the Field of Health Informatics [Jobs and Salary Info]

As more and more organizations across the health care spectrum look to reap the benefits of informatics, there is growing need for employees who possess both medical/clinical experience as well as proficiency in information technology or informatics. This has created a skills gap and high demand for qualified health informatics professionals.

A search for “health informatics $100,000” yields hundreds of listings on the employment website Indeed.com, including:

  • Health Informatics Consultant
  • Chief Medical Information Officer
  • Chief Medical Informatics Officer
  • Senior Staff Informatics Engineer
  • Director of Informatics
  • Health Informatics Analyst

[RELATED READING] Health Informatics Jobs and Salaries >>

With strong demand and great pay, it is easy to see why a career in health informatics is so appealing. Opportunities are as diverse as the world of health care itself — from public health, veterinary, dental and clinical care to nursing, biotech, software development, telemedicine and the insurance industry.

Employment prospects in this field are bright for job seekers with the highly sought-after combination of health care and information technology (IT) skills. Those who currently work in a clinical position or in health information technology or health information management roles have a head start in positioning themselves for such jobs. But additional education and training is generally needed for career advancement in health informatics.

For that reason, many current and future health informatics professionals are taking advantage of specialized master’s degree programs that build on their work experience and knowledge of the health care field while refining their programmatic, technical, analytical and leadership skills.

[RELATED] Opportunities in Health Informatics are Vast for Those with a Master’s Degree >>

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