The systematic gathering and computerized recording of health-related data began in the United States about 50 years ago. By the 1970s, the pioneering work of Robert Ledley, often credited as the founder of informatics, was preparing the way for more elaborate medical projects using computers. The field now known as health informatics grew from these roots.
Heath informatics is a cross section of healthcare administration and is often defined as the intersection of healthcare, information technology and business. It involves not only the capture of medical information itself but the networks and applications that connect stakeholders and allow for the seamless sharing of information such as patient records, lab results and supply chain management data. The proliferation of computers and mobile devices is a catalyst for continuous reevaluation of how to effectively gather and share medical data to improve outcomes and lower costs.
Those rapid advances in digital technology are helping push employment growth. A 2012 study by Jobs for the Future and Burning Glass found that health informatics jobs grew by 36% between 2007 and 2011, compared with 6% for all job postings. Much of the growth in the healthcare informatics field was for positions that required an advanced skill level.
“Health care informatics jobs now constitute the eighth largest share of health care occupation postings,” the study noted. “And that share is likely to continue to grow, given the trends and pressures shaping the health care industry.”
One initiative feeding the job growth is a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services plan that calls for the widespread adoption of electronic medical records by 2014. Proponents say the plan will lead to more efficient healthcare administration, a reduction in doctor and facility errors, and tighter supply chain management. Improved accuracy in patient records also is expected to result in fewer misdiagnoses or complications due to drug interactions, which, in turn, may reduce insurance premiums and healthcare costs.
The U.S. government has appealed to providers to adopt electronic medical records by offering financial incentives. The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act, which was passed in 2009, authorized Medicaid and Medicare incentives for the adoption and use of electronic records, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The law also provided funding for the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, which aids providers in implementing the new record-keeping systems.
Bridging the Healthcare Gap
The extensive use of Web-based applications and the widening availability of smartphones and other mobile devices have many ramifications for healthcare beyond the growth of informatics. For example, text messaging is increasingly seen as a possible way to bridge the often-costly gap between rural populations and quality healthcare.
In the African country of Malawi, a pilot project provided mobile phones to community health workers in an effort to improve care for the area’s approximately 250,000 residents, who primarily survive on subsistence farming. The health workers visited patients and reported on their conditions by sending text messages to a centralized location at the main hospital.
The project’s founder, a Stanford student, said the text-based outreach allowed health workers to double the number of people receiving treatment for tuberculosis, while cutting clinical staff hours and transportation costs. The project, now known as Medic Mobile, has since expanded to serve millions of patients in more than a dozen countries.
Another technology-based project, Asthmapolis, is designed to help asthma patients track where their attacks are happening and under what conditions. The program uses a smartphone app and a wireless sensor that attaches to inhalers to record where and when the inhalers are used.
Doctors can monitor their asthma patients in real-time through a provider dashboard. The system also collects user data from which risk maps are generated for asthmatics. The project’s developers hope the use of such data will lead to fewer cases of uncontrolled asthma and a greater understanding of the disease.
Already changing the face of healthcare, the use of digital technology and the incorporation of health informatics promise many benefits to patients, physicians and public health providers.