A Comprehensive Guide to Health Informatics

Doctor working with health informatics on desktops

If you’re passionate about healthcare and interested in information technology (IT), there are plenty of career options that might appeal to you. One such career path to explore is health informatics, which exists at the intersection of healthcare and IT. What is health informatics?

Health informatics is a specialty discipline that is concerned with the management of patient information via clinical information and clinical decision support systems and clinical databases. This specialty discipline encompasses various niche areas, such as public health informatics, consumer health informatics, clinical research informatics and clinical informatics. Continue reading to learn more about all the options within this field, including examples of health informatics subspecialty options.

In This Article:

What Is Health Informatics?

From remotely monitored pacemakers to virtual reality simulations in medical schools, healthcare is rapidly becoming more digitized than ever before, with health informatics at the leading edge of this trend. What is health informatics exactly? Quite simply, health informatics is the blending of computer science, data science, data analytics and health information management with healthcare.

One of the main examples of health informatics in action is electronic health records (EHRs). In the past, healthcare providers kept track of patient information and medical charts using paper files. However, this system was slow, and it hindered efforts to share information with providers in other offices.

Today, most healthcare providers have switched to EHRs, which digitize patient information. An EHR can contain much more information than a patient’s medical history, however. These digital health records can be updated in real time to include details about the patient’s immunizations, treatment plans, medications, lab results and medical images. This not only facilitates greater collaboration among providers but also allows patients easier access to information.

What Are Examples of Health Informatics Subspecialty Fields?

In addition to public health informatics, many other subspecialties comprise the health informatics field. They are as follows:

  • Public health informatics: This subspecialty focuses on preventive wellness and data science to protect entire communities from diseases, injuries and other medical problems. These professionals use information technology to facilitate public health research, track health trends and overcome public health challenges with data-driven decisions.
  • Clinical informatics: Also known as “healthcare informatics,” this subspecialty primarily focuses on the management of EHRs, clinical decision support systems, health information exchange, and data analytics used in clinical settings. Because all patient information must be kept strictly confidential, those who specialize in clinical informatics are experts in data security. Some professionals choose to specialize further — for example, by focusing on pharmacy, pathology or health informatics.
  • Research informatics: As the name suggests, research informatics focuses on biomedical and health research. Experts apply breakthroughs in computer science to facilitate medical research and, consequently, improve patient outcomes.
  • Biomedical informatics: Also known as bioinformatics, this subspecialty focuses on healthcare at the cellular, molecular and genetic level. It applies breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, data science and similar disciplines to seek novel cures for diseases.
  • Consumer health informatics: Not all healthcare is delivered in a clinical setting, such as a hospital or nursing home. In fact, patients can receive quality healthcare right in their own homes. Consumer health informatics explores the use of technology to improve health literacy and support patient involvement in their own care.

These examples of clinical informatics subspecialty fields may inspire you as you reflect upon your intended career pathway.

Exploring Career Options in Health Informatics

Health informatics is a relatively new field, and different organizations may use different job titles for the same role. The following are some examples of that informatics professionals might consider pursuing within the field:

  • Data analyst or scientist: In this role, individuals use statistical tools and machine learning techniques to analyze health data, discover patterns, make predictions, and provide insights that can improve healthcare services.
  • Health information manager: They are responsible for managing patient health records, ensuring their accuracy, accessibility, and security. They also comply with healthcare regulations related to patient data.
  • Public health informaticist: They use informatics techniques to address public health challenges, like tracking disease outbreaks, analyzing public health data, or implementing community health interventions.
  • Research informaticist: They usually work in academic or research institutions, using informatics techniques to support biomedical research. This can involve managing research data, developing tools for data analysis, or creating databases for genomic or other biological data.
  • Pharmacy informaticist: They work with pharmacy information systems, optimizing the medication use process, developing and managing drug databases, and contributing to decision support systems.
  • Health informatics specialist: These professionals may also be called “health informaticists” or “health information management specialists.” These are catchall terms that generally refer to health information experts who work with clinical data and patient records. Possible employers include hospitals, clinics, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies and medical device manufacturers.
  • Health information privacy and security specialist: They work to protect patient data, ensuring compliance with regulations like HIPAA in the U.S. They also work on cybersecurity measures to prevent data breaches.
  • Clinical informatics analyst: This role is generally positioned at a slightly higher level than that of a health informatics specialist. These professionals are experts in analyzing clinical health data. Seeking to optimize patient care, they use their findings to recommend changes to their organization’s procedures and practices. For instance, a clinical informatics analyst might work to reduce hospital readmission rates among surgery patients.
  • Health informatics consultant: A consultant may work for a healthcare provider on a contract basis, or they may work for a healthcare consulting firm. Their specific role will depend on the needs of the organization. For instance, a consultant may help a clinic make the transition to digitized health records.
  • Health IT project manager: As the title suggests, health IT project managers are responsible for overseeing health IT-related projects throughout the project lifecycle. This is an ideal role for people who are adept at focusing on both the larger picture and the smaller details of a project.
  • Chief medical information officer: A health informaticist might aspire to this C-suite role after earning a graduate degree and gaining many years of experience in the field. This top-level senior position is responsible for managing all of the healthcare organization’s health informatics programs with an eye toward the organization’s long-term growth strategies.

Signs a Healthcare Informatics Degree Is Right for You

Now that you’re familiar with the answers to the questions, What is health informatics? and What are examples of clinical informatics? you may be curious about whether a career in informatics could be the right choice for you. Here’s a look at the top indicators that this subfield could indeed be a good fit for you.

You Are Interested in Technology

What is informatics if not an embrace of advancements in technology? Advancements in technology have greatly impacted our world. By choosing to earn a healthcare informatics degree, you will have the opportunity to learn how to integrate information technology with healthcare. As a result, you can support continuous improvement in patient-care systems, project management, decision-making, quality assessment and healthcare system operations using innovative technology such as AI and machine learning. Some of the topics you will explore in this program include:

  • Healthcare law, regulations and economics
  • Healthcare research and application
  • Healthcare information systems and technology
  • Clinical decision support
  • Interoperability in healthcare systems
  • Database design and application
  • Artificial intelligence in healthcare
  • Project management
  • The history, application, impact and future need for informatics in healthcare

You Desire To Improve Patient Outcomes

In the healthcare field, emerging technology provides an understanding of the value of health informatics and how it can reduce healthcare costs, increase access and improve the quality of healthcare services provided for patients.

For example, healthcare informatics can inform healthcare providers about medications before they prescribe them to patients. Not only does this protect the safety of patients, but it also reduces the potential for mistakes to be made when providing treatment. If you want to make a positive impact in patients’ lives, this may be the degree for you.

You Want To Take Your Career to the Next Level

Upon graduating from a health informatics degree program, you will have been taught to take on a wide variety of roles, such as automating clinical care, building new operational data systems and training healthcare workers in the use of computer systems. In addition, you will have been taught the skills needed to collect and analyze data to improve patient care.

Some of the many settings you may find yourself working in include hospitals, primary care facilities, doctors’ offices or even consulting firms. Please note that additional certifications and/or training may be required outside of the degree program.

What Are Informatics Degree Options?

There is no one universal health informatics degree that all students aspiring to enter the field must earn. Rather, students can choose from a few options. For example, you might earn a Bachelor of Science in Public Health or a Bachelor of Science in Health Information Management

If you plan to focus specifically on public health informatics, then a public health degree could be the right choice for you. This program would allow you to acquire core competencies in both data science and healthcare. Although the specific curriculum will vary from one school to another, you can generally expect to study public health topics, such as the following:

  • The promotion of preventive wellness through health literacy and community advocacy
  • The impact of environmental health issues, including workplace health, emergency preparedness and organizational policies
  • The application of technology to manage health data systems, including surveillance data, disease registries and geographic information systems

Alternatively, you might decide to major in health information management. This type of program offers a stronger focus on data science, health information and computer science. A health information manager (HIM) plays a critical role in managing the patient information systems within healthcare organizations. Their role is multifaceted and intersects healthcare, information technology, and management. Key responsibilities typically include:

  • Data management: HIMs oversee the management of health information systems and databases to ensure accurate, complete, and timely record-keeping. They also help in the migration and integration of data when health information systems are updated or replaced.
  • Privacy and security: They ensure the privacy and security of patient data, adhering to regulations such as HIPAA (in the U.S.), and oversee policies and procedures related to the confidentiality and security of health information.
  • Quality management: HIMs monitor and improve the quality of health data and information. They often implement data governance principles and develop policies and procedures to ensure data integrity.
  • Regulatory compliance: They ensure healthcare organizations comply with regulations and standards related to health information. This can involve staying updated on changes to laws and regulations, developing policies to ensure compliance, and training staff.
  • Coding and classification systems: They manage the coding and classification of diagnoses and treatments for purposes of clinical care, research, and billing. This often involves overseeing a team of medical coders.
  • Electronic health records (EHRs) management: They oversee the use and maintenance of EHRs, ensuring they're used effectively by healthcare providers and are interoperable with other systems when needed.
  • Training and support: They often provide training for staff on the use of health information systems, and may provide ongoing support to users.
  • Data analytics: Some HIMs may also work on data analytics, helping to extract insights from health data to inform decision-making in the healthcare organization.

In essence, health information managers play a critical role in managing, protecting, and utilizing health information to improve patient care, streamline operations, and ensure regulatory compliance in healthcare settings. The role requires a unique blend of skills in health sciences, information technology, management, and law. Regardless of the specific degree you choose, you can further bolster your resume by seeking hands-on learning opportunities during your years in college. For instance, you could pursue summer job opportunities in healthcare settings. During the school year, you might consider volunteering on a part-time basis at a nursing home, hospital or similar organization.

Getting Your Master’s Degree

Although you could break into the field with just a bachelor's degree, a master's degree in healthcare informatics presents you with the opportunity to position yourself for possible career advancement within healthcare organizations. The curriculum of a master’s program can vary, depending on the program you choose. However, you can generally expect to study the following topics:

  • The fundamentals of information technology as it applies to the healthcare field
  • The implementation, optimization and assessment of health information systems including electronic health records, with an emphasis on security protocols for patient confidentiality
  • The application of data analytics to the healthcare field using databases with an eye toward specific organizational objectives

Applying project management skills for the efficient deployment of new technology within healthcare organizations. With a master’s degree in health informatics, you will be taught ways to help your organization streamline its operations, improve patient outcomes, and make data-driven decisions. 

Grand Canyon University aims to provide an exceptional academic experience for every student. If you would like more information about GCU’s nursing and healthcare programs, including the Bachelor of Science in Health Information Management program, the Bachelor of Science in Public Health and the Master of Science in Health Informatics program, visit the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions or fill out the form on this page.

Approved by the program director of the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions on July 25, 2023.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.