Areas in need of improvement in the U.S. healthcare industry aren’t difficult to find. According to the Commonwealth Fund, the U.S. spends more on healthcare as a percentage of gross domestic product than any other country, but its citizens have a lower life expectancy than 10 other high-income nations, including the United Kingdom, Germany and Canada. When compared to its peers, the U.S. also has the highest rates of obesity and chronic disease, the highest rate of avoidable deaths and the most hospitalizations from preventable causes.
Examples such as these illustrate the challenges the U.S. healthcare industry faces, but they also reveal opportunities for individuals with the right expertise to develop new ways to analyze information and open doors for better outcomes. When it comes to the right expertise, knowledge of health informatics couldn’t be more valuable. Combining elements such as decision science, information science, management science and organizational theory, health informatics is an interdisciplinary field that can produce groundbreaking work in healthcare.
So, is a health informatics degree worth it? Students who complete a Master of Science in Health Informatics (MSHI) work at the intersection of technology and health outcomes, applying their quantitative, technical and business knowledge to create innovative solutions that address some of the most difficult problems in healthcare. If that sounds appealing, then exploring the field in detail can help determine whether a health informatics degree is right for you.
What Can You Do with a Master’s in Health Informatics?
Given the extensive range of what you can do with a master’s in health informatics, individuals who pursue health informatics have a significant number of career options.
Public Health Informatics
Public health informatics is used in areas such as disease prevention and preparedness, as well as health promotion. Usually focused on large groups of people, public health informatics jobs can involve responsibilities as diverse as biosurveillance, laboratory reporting and disease outbreak management.
A relatively broad field, public health informatics also can encompass work that goes beyond direct healthcare to focus on topics such as improving the environment, workplaces and places where people live.
Professionals in clinical informatics (also known as operational informatics or applied clinical informatics) focus on healthcare delivery. Clinical informatics involves supporting healthcare professionals by developing systems to assist in areas such as clinical decision-making; clinical documentation; visual imaging, including radiological, dermatological or pathological imaging; or clinical documentation.
A clinical informatics professional might, for example, study the workflow in a physician’s office to help design a system for electronic health records. They also might work on order entry systems for healthcare organizations.
Clinical Research Informatics
Individuals with an interest in research might consider clinical research informatics, which focuses on how informatics can aid in new discoveries related to health. Working in clinical research informatics could entail managing data from clinical trials or managing clinical care data that scientists obtain and use in their research projects.
Working in clinical research informatics also could involve developing data repositories for research data and developing reporting and analytics processes related to that data.
Consumer Health Informatics
Individuals who work in consumer health informatics concentrate on activities that enable consumers to manage their health. For example, they can work on projects related to enhancing health literacy or simplifying consumer health records.
Those working in consumer health informatics may try to find new ways for consumers to access their health information or weave consumer preferences into information systems related to their health. Working in consumer health informatics also could involve seeking enhancements to telehealth delivery.
Translational bioinformatics focuses on integrating large sets of biological data into clinical data to eventually develop clinical products or study and identify related health implications. Working in translational bioinformatics could encompass discovering new drugs, genomic sequencing or precision medicine, which entails identifying the appropriate treatment for an individual by incorporating their individual genomic data into their patient data.
Roles in Data Science with Health Informatics Expertise
When contemplating whether a health informatics degree is worth it, it’s helpful to explore specific roles individuals can play in data science. A 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association analyzed healthcare data scientist job postings and divided the positions into four categories:
- Performance improvers, who work in areas such as decision support or population health and focus on areas such as patient outcomes and quality measures
- Product developers, who forge new products to promote and advance fields such as population health, claims analytics or behavioral health
- Modelers, who use their expertise in data science to advise organizations on the use of algorithms or conduct statistical modeling on healthcare data
- Innovators, who rely on their informatics expertise to make breakthroughs in areas such as health standards, precision medicine or genomics
According to the same study, the skills that the job postings most often required were:
- Machine learning
- Ability to communicate the meaning of data analysis
- Programming languages R and Python
The Benefits of Earning a Master’s in Health Informatics
In addition to achieving personal and career growth, individuals with health informatics expertise have the chance to make significant contributions to society.
Acquiring Valuable Expertise for Career Growth
The opportunity to develop advanced skills and expertise is one of the primary benefits of pursuing a master’s degree in health informatics. Individuals with knowledge of health informatics can put that knowledge to use in a cutting-edge career to solve some of healthcare’s most difficult challenges.
The amount of data available in healthcare is almost overwhelming. From patient records to clinical information to environmental data, a wealth of raw material is waiting to be analyzed, interpreted and translated into meaningful insights. Armed with the ability to make that data accessible and understandable, individuals who know how to apply health informatics can inform healthcare decision-making, improve health outcomes and bolster patient safety; this, in turn, can advance their career.
Working on a project such as developing an effective electronic health record (EHR) system is a good example of how individuals with health informatics expertise can apply their expertise to healthcare. Health informaticists have influenced the design of EHR systems that have been shown to reduce clinical errors and alleviate burnout on the part of healthcare professionals. Having this kind of experience also can be attractive to healthcare employers looking for innovative EHR systems.
Making a Contribution to Society
The field’s societal impacts are also worth considering when weighing whether a health informatics degree is worth it. Few people get to work in a field like health informatics in which they have the chance to improve treatment decisions, influence public health strategies, improve healthcare efficiency, help patients manage their health, prevent disease and lower healthcare costs.
The specific contributions of health informatics during the COVID-19 pandemic illustrate how rewarding a career in the field can be. For example:
- Health informatics contributed to the creation of a self-scheduling and self-triage tool for patients that eliminated unnecessary in-person encounters, decreased patients’ exposure to COVID-19, reduced the use of personal protective equipment and allowed health professionals to concentrate on acutely ill patients.
- Including staff with informatics expertise as part of incident command centers allowed those staff to identify system weaknesses in real time, address those weaknesses and strengthen pandemic response systems.
- Individuals with health informatics expertise contributed to the development of documentation templates for screening and testing, tools to support decision-making regarding who should quarantine and who should be tested, reporting tools such as COVID-19 dashboards and technology enhancements that enabled patients to make video visits with healthcare professionals in lieu of in-person appointments.
Other examples of the rewarding nature of health informatics can be seen in projects conducted by the Task Force for Global Health’s Public Health Informatics Institute (PHII). Specifically:
- PHII and other partners are working on the Child Health and Mortality Prevention Surveillance (CHAMPS) network, whose goal is to identify the most common causes of death in children under age 5 in developing nations. The project is gathering critical data that will inform and strengthen programs to prevent child mortality.
- In Mozambique, where healthcare workers are in short supply, PHII developed a tool to allocate and place healthcare workers optimally to ensure that HIV treatment and testing are accessible to everyone.
An article published by scheduling and referral software firm ReferralMD cites the following ways in which health informatics has led to transformations in healthcare:
- Strengthened the privacy of health information through new methods of encryption
- Contributed to a rise in the use of robotics in medicine, which helps to reduce the chance for errors
- Strengthened healthcare marketing by enabling healthcare organizations to offer more specific and compelling information
- Helped to advance the use of 3D printers to one day have the ability to create tissues and organs
- Enabled more consistent monitoring of the health of patients with serious health conditions
What to Expect for a Master’s in Health Informatics Salary
Reviewing master’s in health informatics salary information is useful in deciding whether a health informatics degree is worth it. According to PayScale, as of June 2021, the median annual salary of individuals with a Master of Science degree in health informatics was approximately $73,000.
Salaries of specific jobs may vary. For example, as of June 2021, PayScale reported:
- The median annual salary of bioinformatics scientists was approximately $96,600.
- The median annual salary of clinical informatics specialists was approximately $77,800.
- The median annual salary of health informatics specialists was approximately $67,000.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t report salary information specifically for health informaticists. However, it offers salary information on health information managers, who are responsible for managing large databases of complex patient records and other data. The BLS reported that the median annual salary for health information managers was $104,280 as of May 2020.
The Health Informatics Job Outlook
The good news for students of health informatics is that the job outlook is bright. According to the BLS, the growing use of EHRs will drive demand for managers who have expertise in informatics systems and health information technology. The BLS projects that employment of medical and health services managers is projected to grow by 32% between 2019 and 2020, which significantly exceeds the 4% average projected growth for all occupations.
At a higher level, a shortage of data scientists has long been challenging for employers. Professional networking website LinkedIn reported that the position of data scientist was the most promising job of 2019 (in terms of salary, job openings, job growth and likelihood of promotion). According to a 2020 report by software firm QuantHub, a shortage of data scientists will continue to challenge employers as they expand data science teams and invest more in big data projects.
Health Informatics vs. Health Administration
When deciding whether a health informatics degree is worth it, it can be helpful to compare health informatics with a related field such as health administration. Both fields offer interesting and rewarding career paths, and while they intersect in various ways, they each focus on different aspects of healthcare. Conducting a health informatics vs. health administration comparison can reveal characteristics about each field that might make one more appealing than the other.
Master’s Degree in Health Informatics: Curriculum and Careers
The curriculum for a master’s degree in health informatics typically includes courses in subjects such as health information management, healthcare information systems, information sources, clinical informatics, consumer informatics, healthcare data analysis and healthcare data visualization.
Students in health informatics master’s degree programs often can choose a concentration such as leadership in health informatics, health data science or consumer and mobile health.
Upon completing a master’s degree in health informatics, individuals can choose to pursue any of a number ofw careers, such as:
Clinical Informatics Specialist
Individuals who work as clinical informatics specialists are responsible for managing medical records for a healthcare organization. Examples of their work could include developing data interfaces for healthcare staff to access and use medical records, or overseeing the conversion of hard-copy records to electronic records.
Health Informatics Consultant
Working as a health informatics consultant involves advising healthcare organizations on issues such as complying with regulations and training employees to work with new technology. One of the most important responsibilities of those working as health informatics consultants is staying up to date on the latest trends and developments in technology.
Chief Information Officer
Individuals in the chief information officer role develop strategies for their organization’s information systems and determine how users will interact with those systems. They are responsible for choosing the best technology for both internal and external users.
Chief Medical Information Officer
Individuals in this position are physicians who also have informatics or information technology expertise. They rely on their unique combination of skills to assess the information technology that a healthcare organization uses and to strengthen the organization’s operations through the analysis of data.
Master’s Degree in Health Administration: Curriculum and Careers
The curriculum for a master’s degree in health administration usually includes courses in subjects such as management, finance, research and human resources, all with a focus on healthcare services. Courses also may be geared toward specific features of the healthcare industry, such as public health foundations or population-based health services planning.
Depending on the program, students who pursue a master’s degree in health administration typically can choose a concentration or participate in a preceptorship to gain experience working in a particular type of healthcare setting, such as an ambulatory care center, a hospital or a long-term care facility.
After earning a master’s degree in health administration, individuals can choose to pursue any of a number of careers, such as:
Medical and Health Services Managers
These healthcare executives oversee administrative functions at healthcare organizations. They are responsible for things such as technology, staffing and compliance with laws.
Administrative Services and Facilities Managers
Individuals in this role oversee administrative employees in an array of healthcare settings. They may also develop budgets, maintain facilities and equipment and oversee inventory.
Medical Records and Health Information Specialists
These individuals maintain patient data for healthcare organizations, both in automated systems and in hard-copy form. They also have expertise in data classification, which is important for insurance and customer billing functions.
Social and Community Services Managers
Individuals who become social and community services managers organize and carry out programs to support the public’s well-being. Programs can focus on a particular demographic, such as seniors or children, or they can focus on a particular issue, such as mental health or nutrition.
Master’s in Health Informatics: A Valuable Degree with the Potential for a Rewarding Career
Pursuing the field of health informatics can be rewarding and stimulating. If you’re interested in how informatics can help transform healthcare, examining the MSHI degree in greater detail might be the next step. Explore the University of Illinois at Chicago’s online Master of Science in Health Informatics program to learn how the program can help you achieve your professional goals, and embark on the path to a fulfilling career in health informatics today.