Applying Technology To Improve Healthcare: What Is Healthcare IT?

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Physician uses health IT to check patient information.Patients and the medical community have reaped the rewards of healthcare information technology as innovations continue to transform how people manage their health. There’s evidence that health data collection and analysis advancements, as well as better  patient access to health information, help to improve health outcomes. For example, according to a national survey, 75% of healthcare providers attributed better patient care delivery to increased use of electronic health records: a system that houses health information, such as immunization records, prescriptions, medical notes and other data relevant to patient health.

What is healthcare IT and how does it improve healthcare? Health IT is a term that describes the use of electronic systems to manage patient health. Physicians use health IT to track patient information, write and send prescriptions directly to pharmacies, and coordinate care with other healthcare practitioners. Health IT enables patients to use mobile apps and other tools to proactively manage their health. Some examples of how apps are being used include tracking wellness and fitness, scheduling doctor visits, facilitating telehealth appointments, and managing healthcare expenses. According to the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, “1 in 3 individuals tracked healthcare charges and costs with a computer, smartphone, or other electronic means in the past 12 months.”

Due to continued health IT adoption, demand for professionals with health information systems and health informatics knowledge is increasing. The American Health Information Management Association describes health informatics as “a science that defines how health information is technically captured, transmitted, and utilized.” For those interested in working at the intersection of healthcare and IT, an advanced degree in health informatics like the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Master of Science in Health Informatics can help them advance in a growing, rewarding field and contribute to improved patient health outcomes.

Data: The Driving Force Behind Healthcare Industry Transformation

The ability to access, review, share, analyze and use patient data with advanced technology is vital in modern healthcare. Gone are the days of filing cabinets filled with paperwork and patients unable to access their health information. Today, health IT provides easy access to digital health information, enabling both patients and healthcare providers to achieve their aims in relation to health management.

As for what is health IT in relation to health information management and health informatics, the dividing line isn’t always clear, because they’re both focused on a key goal: to improve patient health outcomes through data, technology and processes. Health IT professionals are primarily focused on ensuring that technology is used effectively to manage and exchange digital patient data. Situated at the crossroads of business, technology and science, health information management emphasizes data acquisition, analysis and safeguarding. The science of health informatics offers an integrated approach to the application of “information systems, informatics principles, and information technology as it [health informatics] is applied to the continuum of healthcare delivery,” according to AHIMA.

The drive for healthcare innovation comes from a wide range of sources—from market opportunities to government regulations to pressing consumer demand for affordable healthcare. While healthcare providers are becoming knowledgeable of the latest healthcare IT trends, they rely on professionals with skills in health informatics to ensure that patient data in systems like EHRs are accurate, safe and secure. Below are examples of health IT tools, technologies and concepts that are helping to transform the healthcare industry today.

Electronic Health Records

EHRs offer healthcare providers many benefits, including improved patient health tracking and simplified communication with specialists who need access to patient medical histories. The Promoting Interoperability Program (previously known as the Medicare and Medicaid EHR Incentive Program) was established by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to encourage adoption of EHRs and to create opportunities for healthcare providers to meet the informational goals of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act—part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

The Promoting Interoperability Program comprises three stages that incentivize healthcare providers that use certified EHRs in their practices, with the ultimate aim of improving health outcomes. This initiative has helped advance EHR adoption; as of 2017, 86% of physicians have implemented an EHR system implemented in their offices, according to the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology.

EHRs help to ensure complete, accurate patient information, helping physicians make informed decisions.

Under the EHR category is the health information exchange, another healthcare IT advancement that’s showing promise. HIE enables health providers to electronically share vital patient information quickly and securely, which creates opportunities for improvements in patient care quality and costs. HIE can help address patient matching challenges, which is the process by which a patient’s records are housed in multiple  healthcare facilities that are aligned to a specific patient. For example, allergic patients can be harmed if their health data is mistakenly merged with that of nonallergic patients. The Pew Charitable Trusts recently reported that “1 in 5 hospital chief information officers report patients had been harmed in the previous year due to mismatches.”

What is healthcare IT’s primary challenge? Statistics suggest data privacy and security are top patient concerns. Most people trust that their medical records are safe, but 66% are worried about their health information being electronically exchanged, according to the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology.

A willingness among healthcare organizations to share patient data, while keeping the data safe, is key to solving these issues. Additionally, professionals with advanced knowledge of healthcare informatics can help mitigate some of these challenges.

Personal Health Records

People have become acclimated to having information available and within reach with just a few simple swipes, taps and clicks. As a result, patients are expecting the same outcomes from the tools that help them manage their health.

Enter personal health records, which serve a similar purpose to EHRs, but are different in how they’re managed. Only clinicians enter, manage and use EHR data While they may contain similar data found in EHRs, PHRs are tools designed for patients to use and manage.

PHRs enable patients to proactively manage their health and make healthier choices. PHRs enable patients to go beyond the traditional physician-patient relationship. In addition to tracking information from doctor visits, PHRs can track patients’ exercise activity, what they eat and how much, and their blood pressure, to name a few metrics.

Standalone and tethered are two PHR types. Standalone PHRs are typically not connected with other systems, which means that information is typically stored in patients’ mobile devices or computers. Tethered PHRs offer the benefit of connecting to a healthcare provider’s EHR. With a tethered PHR, healthcare providers enjoy the benefits of improved patient engagement, better communication and reduced administrative costs.

Electronic Prescribing

Electronic prescribing means that physicians can electronically deliver prescriptions directly to pharmacies. It replaces handwritten prescriptions. The number of physicians e-prescribing controlled and noncontrolled substances for patients has grown by more than 500% since 2015, according to the 2017 National Progress Report. Why is there a growing adoption of e-prescribing solutions to replace traditional paper-based prescription systems?

For one, e-prescribing helps to reduce medication errors, which improves patient safety. Paper prescriptions also have many inconveniences:

  • The handwriting on paper prescriptions can be hard to read.
  • Patients can easily misplace them.
  • The process of getting a prescription filled can be time consuming and inefficient.

Federal and state agencies are promoting e-prescribing to support the overarching aim of expanding EHR adoption to strengthen electronic health information infrastructure across the country. In some states, like New York, e-prescribing has been mandatory since 2016, with some exceptions. But more than just following regulations, healthcare providers are increasingly seeing the benefit of integrating e-prescribing tools with their EHRs.

The ability to electronically send prescriptions to pharmacies helps physicians improve patient outcomes by eliminating potential risk factors with handwritten prescriptions. For patients, the convenience of simply going to the pharmacy once the prescription is ready is further enhanced by the benefit of knowing that their prescription is accurate and safe. According to the 2017 National Progress Report, there were 1.74 billion e-prescriptions filled in 2017, a 26% increase from 2016. That’s 77% of all prescriptions electronically delivered, up from 73% in 2016.

What Is healthcare IT Without the Right Talent?

healthcare IT trends that offer the promise of improved healthcare include telemedicine and telehealth, secure messaging, increased connectivity of tools, and machine learning. For example, computer vision is a type of machine learning, which enables computers to view and analyze images, such as skin lesions, to help diagnose disease. Students with advanced technical and analytical skills and a master’s degree in health informatics can leverage their knowledge to help drive and support these innovations, while ensuring that today’s healthcare providers take advantage of the wide array of opportunities that healthcare IT provides.

If you’re interested in helping physicians, nurses, clinicians and other healthcare providers leverage technology to improve patient health outcomes, UIC’s MSHI program can help you succeed in this evolving, ever-critical field. The program is designed to prepare you with analytical and technical skills for a wide range of healthcare career opportunities. Find out about a healthcare IT career with UIC’s MSHI today.

Recommended Readings

What Is healthcare Data? Examining a Key Concept in Modern Care

5 Skills Needed To Succeed In Health Informatics

UIC Health Informatics Using Predictive Analytics in Healthcare


AHIMA, What Is Health Information?

American Academy of Pediatrics, Meaningful Use Overview

Beckers Hospital Review, “E-Prescribing Up More Than 500% Since 2015: 8 Things To Know”

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, E-Prescribing

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Promoting Interoperability (PI)

FPM, “Technology Tools and Trends for Better Patient Care: Beyond the EHR”

Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, Health IT: Advancing America’s Healthcare

Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, Quick Stats

Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, “Why Is Health Information Exchange Important?”

HealthIT, “Improved Diagnostics & Patient Outcomes”

HIMSS, “Technology’s Vital Role in Healthcare and Society – National Health IT Week”

New York State Department of Health, Electronic Prescribing, “Health IT (Health Information Technology)”, “Personal Health Record (PHR)”

The Pew Charitable Trusts, “Enhanced Patient Matching Is Critical to Achieving Full Promise of Digital Health Records”