Informatics has been around for quite some time, though it became much more commonly known in recent years as technology continues to make an impression on the health care industry, business practices change the way the health care industry operates, and stimulus funds are spent to create electronic patient records.
Conferences, newsletters, blogs, and education programs dedicated to health informatics abound. The American Medical Informatics Association has been around for more than 30 years. It is dedicated to "promoting the effective organization, analysis, management, and use of information in health care to support patient care, public health, teaching, research, administration, and related policy." This is just one of many organizations concerned with medical and health informatics.
The 2009 federal stimulus package pumped millions into informatics development, including funding for President Obama's goal of having electronic health records for all Americans by 2014. According to the Oregon Healthcare Workforce Institute, the electronic health records will "increase efficiency, decrease costs and medical errors, improve communication across providers and allow for better medical studies to help the advancement of health care. Combined with other reform efforts, this has wide-scale transformation effects and has a huge impact on Biomedical and Health Informatics workforce needs." Also, grants to educational institutions totaling $118 million are helping develop short-term training for informatics professionals.
Jobs in health care held steady through the Great Recession, and those in biomedical and health informatics were no exception. Incentives for developing electronic health records and stimulus funds are driving the field, but Bill Hersh, Professor and Chair of the Department of Medical Informatics & Clinical Epidemiology at Oregon Health Sciences University, believes the jobs will still exist once electronic records are in place. He noted that as electronic health records are developed, there will be a long-term need for coordination, integration, and maintenance.
Medical and health informatics is a general term covering all disciplines in the field, including bioinformatics, or the application of informatics in cellular and molecular biology; medical or clinical informatics, or applying informatics to individuals; and public health informatics, or applying informatics in public health.
Entrants to this field can take shorter-term training through a community college to get their foot in the employment door. However, it is not uncommon to see a bachelor's or master's in medical informatics, computer science, public health or any degree related to health sciences as a job requirement.
Several Oregon institutions offer informatics programs. Central Oregon Community College offers a Health Records Technology program,Chemeketa Community College offers a Computer Information Systems Health Informatics program, Lane Community College has a Health Informatics, Data Specialist Associate program, and Rogue Community College offers a Computer Support/Health Care Informatics program. Southwestern and Linn-Benton both offer a health informatics program.
Universities in Oregon also prepare students in the biomedical and health informatics field. The University of Oregon's Computer and Information Science department offers multidisciplinary tracks that include bioinformatics. Graduate study in biomedical informatics is also offered. Pacific University also offers a program in bioinformatics.
The Oregon Institute of Technology prepares students for a career in health care as an information and computing specialist. Students earn a bachelor's degree while taking courses in business management, health care, computer science, and information systems.
Oregon Health Sciences University's Department of Medical Informatics & Clinical Epidemiology, with 20 full-time staff and many part time, offers advanced training in biomedical informatics as well. Larger hospitals with research programs such as OHSU utilize many informatics workers.
Informatics training programs provide a solid foundation, but related work experience can play a key role in gaining the necessary skills for the job. Some students who enter an education program already have either a computer or a health care background. Individuals who are very IT savvy need to get up to speed on health care while those with a health care background need to gain computer science knowledge. Many higher level positions require a combination of education and experience. Individuals entering graduate level programs may have backgrounds as health care professionals, natural and life sciences, computer science, health information management, business, or other disciplines.
A day in the life of a biomedical and health informatician may include solving complex problems; prioritizing work; applying health care knowledge; using interpersonal and communication skills; organizing computer development and support; developing, implementing, and maintaining systems and technologies; project management; and much more. These jobs require self-motivation, strong analytical skills, ability to interpret data, and an understanding of how information can be useful for health care professionals, patients, and policy makers.
In addition to large hospitals with research programs such as OHSU, informatics jobs can be found in health care facilities, government, insurance, software production, Internet companies, and academia. Telemedicine - a rapidly growing means of providing medical services by using communications and information technologies - is another area where individuals with an informatics background may work.
Job duties vary depending on the work setting. Informaticians may be asked to analyze cancer research data, develop new software for checking for potential pharmaceutical drug interactions, set up an automatic prescription system to send prescriptions directly from the physician's laptop during a medical exam to the pharmacy, or assure that patient records are easy for physicians to access as they quickly move from one patient to the next throughout the day.
Biomedical and health informatics salaries range from entry level in the $30,000 range to six-figure salaries for high-level biostatisticians. There is definitely room to move up. Starting with a community college certificate, gaining experience over time, and perhaps going back to school for an advanced degree provide strong career ladder opportunities and great income potential.
Employment estimates for this field are spotty. The U.S. Department of Labor's O*Net program does publish data for informatics nurse specialists, rating the occupation as growing faster than average for 2010 to 2020, with employment of 544,000 in the U.S. in 2010. The 2011 median wage is listed at $78,770. O*Net also breaks out bioinformatics scientists and shows 36,000 employees nationwide in 2010 with a median wage of $70,790.
According to the Oregon Healthcare Workforce Institute, there are currently no state or federal licensing or credentialing requirements for biomedical and health informaticians.