Where Medical Data Meets Information Technology

Sue Feldman, RN, MEd, PhD

A couple of generations ago, doctors made house calls equipped with only their skills, a trusty bag, and maybe a notebook. Today, it's a data driven world, and the flood of digital information that can affect treatment decisions, interactions with other health providers and reimbursement is overwhelming.

Managing and understanding data may not have been a topic that came up much in medical school. Fortunately for clinical users of information technology, UAB offers an online certificate program to bring them up to speed, plus a fast track masters program and PhD program to prepare full-time health informatics specialists who can help tame the data monster.

"Students who enroll in our health care informatics program include those preparing for a new career, changing fields or returning to the workplace, as well as physicians, pharmacists and other professionals who want to better understand informatics so they can make more effective decisions in working with patients and managing their practice," Sue Feldman, RN, MEd, PhD said.

Director of the UAB School of Health Professions Master of Science in Health Informatics program, Feldman chairs the accreditation review team for the Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education and conducts research related to health information systems.

"Our certificate program is two years with independent study online and three days of high immersion classes per year, plus a nine month project that students complete using what they learn, which is presented at the end of the year," Feldman said.

In a physician's hands, the skills acquired in a health informatics certificate program may guide diagnostic and treatment decisions in light of research findings in a given patient population. A pharmacist might use an understanding of data to encourage compliance or to watch for signs that patients may be developing a problem with specific drugs.

"There is also the practice management advantage," Feldman said. "Physicians spend years learning to care for patients, but don't get much training in how to run a practice. Those who know how to interpret data can also apply that skill to identify what is working well and which priorities need more attention."

In UAB's fast track Master's program, students can complete a Bachelor's and Master's degree in just four years. This can be helpful to people who are changing direction and want to move into their new career as a health informaticist as soon as possible. After basic undergraduate studies are completed, informatics course work can be done mostly online, so they can continue earning as they prepare for a new field.

"Health informaticists aren't someone you call on the help desk when the printer isn't working," Feldman said. "They are knowledgeable about the technology side, but their focus is on information and how to manage it to help physician practices, hospitals and other clinical settings function more effectively.

"In addition to designing information systems to fit the work-flow and specialized requirements of the practice, health informaticists can refine electronic record systems for a more seamless exchange of data with outside labs, consulting specialists, insurance companies and government agencies. They can also compare the data being collected with the information required for reimbursement, and then build tools into the system so necessary data isn't overlooked, and collecting it is easier. Managing information effectively helps to keep both patients and the practice healthier," Feldman said.

"Those who go into our PhD program may be working toward a career in health administration or as a chief health information officer in a hospital," Feldman said.

Health informatics is one of several career opportunities that have grown out of the expanding role of data and digital technology in health care.

"Every field of informatics has its own lexicon, whether it's banking, technology or health care. Those who specialize in health informatics speak the language and understand the context."

Even within the multiple worlds of medicine, health care informatics and bioinformatics use different skill sets to look at data from the opposite ends of the telescope.

Bioinformatics uses information technology tools to gather epidemiology data and research findings, and mines them for clues to the causes of diseases and then follows clinical studies to determine better ways to treat them. With high throughput DNA sequencing becoming faster and more affordable, its role on the clinical side is growing as we move toward personalized medicine. Physicians are already looking at an individual patient's DNA to help them judge which medications are likely to work best.

Data shouldn't be a burden. When you understand what it means, it can be as powerful a tool for healing as a stethoscope.


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