A Guide to Preparing for a Career in Health Informatics

Exploring Career Opportunities, Salaries, Advanced Degree Options, Certification and the Impact of Informatics on Patient Care

“Our longer term vision is that every healthcare interaction benefits from all the world’s knowledge. Every encounter that generates knowledge should add to the world’s knowledge.” — Farzad Mostashari, M.D., National Coordinator for Health IT

The fundamental purpose of health informatics is to leverage information technology to find creative solutions that contribute to advancing biomedical science, population health and the quality and safety of patient care.

As a health science that combines information technology, data analytics and communication, informatics has revolutionized patient care and public health:

  • It has increased transparency and given patients greater control over the care they receive
  • It has allowed researchers and providers to identify and manage healthcare issues in patient populations
  • It has made it possible for clinicians to coordinate care and interact with one another in new and innovative ways
Use data analytics and health information technology to optimize health care delivery and improve patient outcomes. Earn your Master of Science in Management of Health Informatics and Analytics online from the George Washington University and become a leader in the growing field.
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Health informatics may not trend on social media or make the front page the same way other high-tech medical advances like robot-assisted surgery or neuroprosthesis do, but its contributions are no less impactful. For example, seven out of 10 hospitals in the U.S. are now able to provide patients with the ability to access their own health information electronically—that’s a nearly seven-fold increase since 2013, according to the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT.

Healthcare executives, clinicians, and researchers who can effectively collect, analyze, and translate biomedical data into knowledge will be poised to ride the wave as the healthcare industry continues to evolve and generate huge amounts of patient data. And make no mistake; there is power within that data.

The Triple Aim of Health Informatics: Patient Care, Population Health and Cost Control

Health informatics is broad, encompassing everything from clinical documentation to system design and implementation to provider order entry systems.

However, it’s not enough to simply acquire and store healthcare data. Instead, providers, healthcare organizations, and public health officials must be able to find relevant, actionable information hidden within vast volumes of data if they are to make meaningful changes in clinical, financial, and administrative systems.

In the most fundamental sense, health informatics is the process of making use of technology to organize and make sense out of data in a way that can actually improve patient care– and the outcome of that care.

Regardless of the healthcare discipline (nursing, pharmacy, etc.) or the aim of a specific project, the analysis of healthcare data is essentially always focused on three, major goals, known as the Triple Aim:

  • Improve the patient care experience – Health informatics reveals clues for new ways to improve the quality and safety of patient care
  • Improve the health of populations – Health informatics allows researchers and clinicians to spot trends in everything from disease management to drug efficacy to risk factors in specific populations
  • Reduce the per capita cost of healthcare – Health informatics identifies innovative ways to improve efficiencies through such things as interdepartmental coordination

The Affordable Care Act has played an important roll in influencing the scope of health informatics and how it is used. Written into the ACA are mandates for the implementation of electronic health records and other technology solutions, all in an effort to achieve better patient outcomes and improve population health – while at the same time reducing costs.

The Application of Informatics: Consumer Health, Public Health, Clinical Support, Research and Translation

The study of health informatics drives innovation in how we approach everything from pharmaceutical research to clinical care to public health initiatives. This inherently interdisciplinary field of study draws influence from a number of other fields:

  • Management science
  • Cognitive science
  • Organizational theory
  • Computer science
  • Decision science

Collecting, storing, organizing and deriving insights from health data influences decision making that leads to real-world solutions in healthcare settings. Health informatics gives clinicians the ability to collect biologic and genomic data, derive insights from that data, and ultimately use the knowledge gained from these insights to develop innovative approaches to patient care.

The American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) recognizes five, major areas of application for health informatics:

Consumer Health Informatics

Consumer health informatics studies health data with the consumer or patient perspective in mind. Consumer health informatics often focuses on health literacy, consumer education, and other patient-focused areas, with the ultimate goal of helping consumers manage their own health. Consumer health informatics seeks to improve the availability and accessibility of online resources, while also brining patient-friendly language to personal health records.

Professionals working in consumer health informatics may study ways to make information more available to consumers, as well as ways to integrate consumer preferences into the online resources and health information systems made available

Public Health Informatics

The information gleaned from analyzing massive troves of public health data improves our ability to monitor the health of individual communities and larger populations and puts us in a better position to improve population health through education, disease intervention and prevention.

The CDC’s National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (NNDSS) and National Syndromic Surveillance Program (NSSP) serve as the mechanisms for collecting epidemiological data at the national level. These powerful tools help to manage data for large-scale epidemiological research related to chronic and infectious diseases including what risk factors (behavioral, environmental, genetic) are most present in different populations. The results of this analysis has a real and lasting impact on public health policy and funding, and the programs and initiatives that follow.

Clinical Informatics

Clinical informatics is sometimes called applied clinical informatics or operational informatics since it applies to the front-end delivery of healthcare services. Clinical informatics is all about managing the information and data retrieval and entry processes nurses, physicians, dentists and other clinicians use when providing patient care.

Clinical informatics supports the clinical decision making process and is concerned with everything from how radiologic and other medial diagnostic imagery is presented in the clinical environment to the complete design of information systems used in medical settings.

Clinical Research Informatics

Clinical research informatics deals with the collection, storage, interpretation and use of data that comes from medical research and clinical trials of new pharmaceutics and other therapies. Of course, the goal of all research in health and medicine is to uncover new information and develop new knowledge related to health and disease.

Clinical research informatics seeks to optimize this process by studying the tools and methods by which research data is collected and analyzed and by looking at new ways to compare data across different research studies and clinical trials.

Translational Bioinformatics

Translational bioinformatics is all about optimizing health informatics systems and processes. It is the back end process that looks for ways to improve the way biological, genomic and clinical data is collected, stored, interpreted and used. Behind the scenes, translational bioinformatics works to make the very most of the massive amounts of data collected in clinical settings. It looks for new and innovative ways to integrate data from different sources and across different healthcare domains. The information gleaned from translational bioinformatics is often distributed to scientists for the purpose of research and to clinicians for the purpose of improving their methods of data collection.

How Healthcare Leaders are Seeing Informatics Improve Patient Care and the Business of Healthcare

The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society’s (HIMSS) 2015 Executive Survey revealed some very telling trends, and offered a look into what issues are foremost on the minds of healthcare executives: 95% of healthcare executives that participated in the survey recognize the strategic importance of clinically integrated IT. Of this overwhelming majority, the areas where executives felt its impact was most significant was split between a few categories:

  • 73.8% recognized the importance of integrating data across multiple departments
  • 72.3% saw improvements in the efficiency with which primary care was provided
  • 68.4% saw improvements in their mandated quality metrics
  • 67.4% recognized better care coordination

According to the 2015 HIMSS survey, 71% of surveyed healthcare organizations have hired a clinical IT executive in one of the following roles:

  • Chief Medical Information Officer – 53%
  • Other Senior Clinical IT Leader – 44%
  • Chief Nursing Informatics Officer – 19%
  • Chief Clinical Informatics Officer – 14%

Of the organizations that have hired Chief Medical Information Officers, 59% have made them part of the executive team as opposed to the clinical team. Of the organizations that have hired Chief Nursing Informatics Officers, 71% have made them part of the executive team rather than part of the clinical staff.

86% of surveyed healthcare organizations that have hired clinical IT executives believe that information technology in the clinical setting is a strategic tool that is effective in helping their organizations achieve business objectives. Interestingly, only 62% percent of organizations that have not hired clinical IT executives feel that IT in the clinic is a strategic benefit to the business.

Professional Opportunities in Health Informatics

Professionals in health informatics provide medical insurance providers, healthcare providers, government agencies, and public health organizations with meaningful information designed to reduce healthcare costs and improve the health of patients and populations.

Some of the settings in which professionals in health informatics work include:

  • Hospital systems
  • Physician practices
  • Health insurance companies
  • Health maintenance organizations (HMOs)
  • Government health agencies
  • Public health agencies
  • Healthcare consulting agencies
  • Health IT and software companies

According to the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), the industries with the strongest demand for health informatics professionals include academic institutions, consulting agencies, government agencies, and healthcare software companies.

Professionals with undergraduate degrees in health informatics hold positions that include:

  • Health Information Specialist
  • Health Information Management Technician
  • Clinical Informatics Coordinator
  • Data Analyst

However, health informatics professionals with master’s degrees more often hold positions that include:

  • Epidemiologist
  • Nurse Informaticist / Chief Nursing Informatics Officer
  • Data Integrity Analyst
  • Chief Clinical Informatics Officer
  • Director of Clinical Informatics
  • Chief Medical Information Officer
  • Clinical Data Analyst
  • Health Data and Information Resource Manager
  • Health Information System Application Designer

Salary Expectations and the Benefits Health Informatics Professionals Enjoy

The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society’s (HIMSS) 2015 Executive Summary Report found executive IT managers with master’s degrees earned an average of $196,472, as compared to just $86,294 for health information staff with bachelor’s degrees and lower.

The overall national average for professionals in health informatics was $111,388 that year.

A look at annual income by region revealed the following average salaries:

Location Annual Salary
Pacific $127,117
Mountain $109,959
West North Central $102,522
East North Central $103,109
New England $113,493
West South Central $101,281
East South Central $107,966
South Atlantic $116,388
Mid Atlantic $121,178

77% of survey respondents reported getting a raise in 2015, enjoying an average salary increase of 3.91%. What’s even more impressive is that 47% received a bonus of between 3-4% of their total annual salary in 2015.

The survey went on to show how the profession is rich in benefits:

  • 96% receive medical insurance
  • 95% receive dental insurance
  • 94% receive paid time off
  • 94% receive 401(k) or 403(b) retirement plans
  • 89% receive life insurance

According to the Nursing Informatics Workforce Salary Survey published by HIMSS in 2014, the average salary among nurse informaticists that year was $100,717.

An examination of annual income by region revealed the following average salaries for nurse informaticists who responded to the HIMSS survey:

Location Annual Salary
Pacific Reigon $117,629
New England $109,154
Mountain Region $105,463

The survey also found the following average salaries for nurse informaticists based on employment setting:

Employment Setting Annual Salary
Consulting firms $141,432
PPO/HMO $122,567
Information systems vendors $115,845

Perhaps the most interesting findings in the survey were in the value of earning a graduate degree. Nurse informaticists who held a master’s degree or graduate certificate earned an average of $107,215, compared to those with a bachelor’s degree who earned an average of $90,801.

Master’s Degrees in Health Informatics

Master’s degrees in health informatics are often structured as executive programs designed to prepare healthcare leaders to collect, analyze and translate healthcare data and to use the insights the data provides to improve efficiency and influence policy. In an effort to accommodate the schedules of busy, working professionals, distance learning programs that make use of the latest in online course delivery systems are now widely available. On-campus immersions add to the richness of the learning experience and complement on-line programs by providing students with an opportunity to participate in projects and presentations and engage in discussions with faculty and fellow students.

Master’s degree programs in health informatics are often designed as:

  • Master of Science (MS) in Health Informatics Administration
  • Master of Science (MS) in Management of Health Informatics and Analytics
  • Master of Science (MS) in Health Informatics and Analytics
  • Master of Science (MS) in Health Informatics

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Many colleges and universities that offer master’s degrees in health informatics require applicants to be experienced clinicians or administrators who currently work in the healthcare industry. In many cases, this means a minimum of three years of healthcare experience.

A master’s degree program consists of about 45 graduate credits, which can be completed in about two years of full-time study or four years of part-time study.

Coursework in a master’s degree in health informatics includes such topics as:

  • Management and strategy
  • Health informatics and decision science
  • Population and community health analytics
  • Business intelligence
  • IT project management
  • Predictive analysis
  • Leadership and ethics

The goal of these programs is to instill certain competencies key to effectively managing a healthcare organization:

  • Leadership in introducing new technology solutions that address complex issues affecting healthcare
  • Using health informatics to enhance clinical care and research
  • Using information technology to support clinical management and the decision-making process
  • Ethical decision-making
  • Knowledge of issues affecting population health, healthcare policy and applicable laws
  • Organizational change management
  • Strategic and technological initiative management
  • Improving business efficiencies as well as clinical outcomes

Professional Certification for Health Informaticists

Professional certification allows informaticians to demonstrate their advanced knowledge and skills in health informatics and achieve industry recognition. There are two organizations that offer widely recognized credentials for health informatics professionals at every level:

American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA)

The Commission on Certification for Health Informatics and Information Management (CCHIIM), the commission behind the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), establishes, implements, and enforces the standards and procedures for certification and recertification of health informatics and information management (HIIM) professionals.

The CCHIIM offers the following designations for HIIM professionals:

Registered Health Information Technician (RHIT)

The RHIT designation signifies a health information technician’s ability to ensure the completeness, accuracy, and entry of medical records into computer systems.

Candidates must have completed an associate’s degree program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education (CAHIIM) to qualify to take the RHIT exam.

Registered Health Information Administrator (RHIA)

The RHIA designation signifies an HIIM professional’s ability to serve as a link between care providers, payers, and patients. Candidates must have graduated from a bachelor’s or master’s degree program accredited by the CAHIIM to qualify to take the RHIA exam.

The CCHIIM also offers a number of specialty certifications:

Certified Health Data Analyst (CHDA)

The RHIA designation signifies an HIIM professional’s ability to serve as a link between care providers, payers, and patients. Candidates must have graduated from a bachelor’s or master’s degree program accredited by the CAHIIM to qualify to take the RHIA exam.

The Certified Health Data Analyst (CHDA) designation displays a health informatics professional’s ability to:

  • Formulate validation strategies and methods to ensure accurate and reliable data
  • Integrate and interpret data to provide analyses and reporting for clinical, financial, and operational processes
  • Validate results to confirm findings and provide recommendations in order to improve business outcomes

To sit for the CHDA examination, candidates must possess at least ONE of the following:

  • RHIT credential and at least 3 years of healthcare data experience
  • Bachelor’s degree and at least 3 years of healthcare data experience
  • Healthcare information management credential (RHIA)
  • Master’s degree in health information management or health informatics from an accredited school
  • Master’s degree or higher and at least one year of healthcare data experience
Certified Documentation Improvement Practitioner (CDIP)

The Certified Documentation Improvement Practitioner (CDIP) designation displays a health informatics professional’s competency in the clinical documentation of patient health records.

To sit for the CDIP examination, candidates must possess at least ONE of the following:

  • Hold an RHIA, RHIT, CCS or CCS-P (coding designations), RN, MD, or DO and possess at least two years of experience in clinical documentation improvement
  • Hold an associate’s degree or higher, possess at least three years of experience in clinical documentation and improvement, and show proof of the completion of medical terminology and anatomy and physiology courses
Certified in Healthcare Privacy and Security (CHPS)

The Certified in Healthcare Privacy and Security (CHPS) designation denotes competency in designing, implementing, and administering privacy and security protection programs in healthcare organizations.

To sit for the CHPS designation, candidates must possess at least ONE of the following:

  • Associate’s degree and at least six years of experience in healthcare privacy and security management
  • RHIT credential and at least four years of experience in healthcare privacy or security management
  • Bachelor’s degree and at least four years of experience in healthcare privacy or security management
  • RHIA credential and at least two years of experience in healthcare privacy or security management
  • Master’s degree or related degree (JD, MD, or PhD) and at least two years of experience in healthcare privacy or security management

Soon AHIMA is launching a new informatics credential for informatics professionals working in health informatics and information management. More information about this upcoming credential can be found here.

Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS)

The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) offers two certification options: CAHIMS (Certified Associate in Healthcare Information and Management Systems) for new professionals with limited industry experience. The CAHIMS designation is available to anybody with a high school diploma after passing the 115-question Associate Exam.

CPHIMS (Certified Professional in Healthcare Information and Management Systems) for experienced healthcare information and management systems professionals. The CPHIMS credential is granted after passing the 115-question Professional Exam. CPHIMS exam candidates must meet ONE of the following:

  • Bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university and
  • Five years of experience working with information and management systems, three of which must be in a healthcare setting

OR

  • Graduate degree or higher from an accredited college or university and
  • Three years experience working with information and management systems, two of which must be in a healthcare setting

Additional Health Informatics Resources

As with all technology-driven professions, a career in heath informatics requires a commitment to life-long learning. A career in health informatics is one that requires the ability to adapt to advances in technology and the ever-changing nature of public health, health policy and healthcare delivery.

These are among the organizations that have been key players in leading advances in healthcare technology and its implementation. They serve as resources for informaticians and executive leaders looking to keep up on the latest developments in the field: