Research in Health Informatics

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Joanna Abraham, PhD

Department of Biomedical and Health Information Sciences (BHIS)
University of Illinois at Chicago

Health Informatics (HI) is an interdisciplinary field that deals with data, information and knowledge related to health and healthcare systems. The field draws on scientific theories and methodologies from a variety of domains including medicine, computer science, psychology and social and behavioral sciences. While the general field of informatics has been around since the 1960’s, its transformation and mainstream scientific predominance is rooted in the progress of healthcare practice.  Recent progress in the practice of medicine has been spurred by, among other things, the rapid development in the health information technology (HIT). The widespread use of HIT has raised a new set of research and practical challenges to the burgeoning field of health informatics. For example, Electronic Health Record (EHR) adoption and use has been fraught with significant challenges including issues related to poor system usability and user interaction, limited integration with healthcare workflows, lack of standardization, inadequate training of clinicians to use these systems, and cost-related issues. Informatics researchers have been actively involved in several of these initiatives that have focused on not only identifying, but also addressing these challenges. Such research endeavors have led to more usable EHR and other health IT systems, better standards for usability of medical devices, development of streamlined clinical workflows and processes, and improved patient safety and quality outcomes.

Another aspect of health informatics research that has grown out of the development of HIT is “big data.” In other words, with increasing number of patient monitoring technologies, electronic devices, and health records, massive volumes of large datasets have been generated. The analysis of such data afforded by a digital healthcare enterprise holds significant promise in terms of data integration, organizational infrastructure, incentives, and better data sharing policies.

The onus on health informatics has transformed the paradigms for informatics researchers from building new state of the art HIT systems to investigating the entire spectrum of health care – from genomic research to organizational practices of healthcare delivery research to population-based research. In the recent years, the impact of HIT use has received significant attention with federal mandates from the Affordable Care Act that incentivizes the meaningful use of EHRs. However, recent reports have suggested that compliance to meaningful use may have limited effects on quality outcomes.

Given the rapid growth of HIT, there exists significant opportunities for future informatics practitioners and researchers for improving processes and practices in healthcare settings. Recent developments such as the approval of clinical informatics board certification increase the opportunities for greater collaborative partnerships between informatics researchers and physicians. Several federal funding opportunities with agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality have solicited research proposals on the socio-technical aspects of HIT use, its effectiveness and utility.