The technological advancements that have exponentially increased the amount of data collected in healthcare are both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, these mass quantities of data have almost limitless possibilities in advancing the efficacy and efficiency of patient care. However, the sheer volume of the numbers collected from sources such as electronic health records (EHRs) brings about its own challenges. Rising prominent among them is the question of simply how to store, sort through, analyze and leverage such huge quantities of information in a way that has an actual meaningful impact on the care and outcomes of patients in health organizations across the country.
To keep pace with this rising tide of data, healthcare organizations are hiring health information management professionals to ensure that these large amounts of data are collected and protected effectively.
Though much of the role of an HIM professional rests in the storage and protection of sensitive patient data, the impact of these positions does not end there. At the heart of HIM is the practice of applied informatics, the aspect of information science that maximizes the impact of health information technology and big data.
What is applied informatics?
To put it simply, applied informatics is the process of taking big data and applying it to health care in meaningful ways. The process is closely related to the collection and storage of this data, which HIM professionals deal with on a daily basis. This is why it is critical for HIM professionals to have a solid understanding of this component of data and how it relates to their own responsibilities.
There are many levels to this type of application. Some professionals use the analysis of collected data to make decisions that impact policy at the national level, while others leverage it to find solutions to regional or organizational challenges, or even to improve care and outcomes for a single person.
“Applied informatics has the potential to provide patient-centered care, patient involvement, and appropriate healthcare delivery for every patient—at the right time, and in the right amount,” Barbara Andrzejewski, executive director of the Veterans Health Administration Informatics Council, told the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA).
In the healthcare setting, there are many professionals who are dedicated to working purely with the data itself, and those who take this information a step further to find practical uses for it.
So what exactly is the process of transforming ones and zeros on a page into meaningful change in a healthcare organization? First the information needs to be collected. The data can come from a variety of sources, including physicians’ notes, patient histories, medical studies, EHRs and much more. Whatever the origin point, HIM professionals play a key role in this process, working with the systems that collect the information and ensuring that it is stored securely and efficiently, protected from hackers and other online threats. The data is then organized and analyzed, creating quantifiable results, which are translated into a format that can be leveraged by other professionals in the field to improve current best practices.
Consider a wearable device that measures blood pressure. Pages and pages of readings have little impact on their own. But by collecting and storing information from a large number of users, sorting the numbers into data sets based on medication use and then analyzing the results, healthcare professionals can create actionable information that, for instance, can help determine the efficacy of certain prescriptions.
When big data is applied in challenges in a practical manner, it can impact healthcare in a number of ways, including to:
- Increase the efficiency of administrative processes.
- Manage staffing levels and responsibilities.
- Eliminate wasteful practices or spending.
- Improve current best practices for patient care.
- Measure the efficacy of pharmaceutical products.
- Decrease patient wait times.
- Reduce unnecessary testing.
Without practical applications, even the largest of data sets are meaningless.
The application of informatics in HIM
A number of healthcare professionals use applied informatics to improve patient care and increase the efficiency of their organization. Those in health informatics roles are particularly active in this approach, However, the practice is also a component of the responsibilities given to HIM professionals.
AHIMA defines HIM in two ways:
“A scientific discipline that is concerned with the cognitive, information-processing, and communication tasks of healthcare practice, education, and research, including the information science and technology to support these tasks.”
“A field of information science concerned with the management of all aspects of health data and information through the application of computers and computer technology.
As these definitions illustrate, application is a significant component of the HIM role, which means that if you are interested in pursuing a career in health information management, it should also be a focus of your professional responsibilities. These positions do not end at collecting and protecting data – they extend into education, clinical practice and more.
Applied informatics will play an especially significant role in your career if you decide to pursue an HIM role that involves EHRs. Professionals in these positions are responsible for not only protecting this information, but ensuring that it is correct and available whenever the data is needed by other staff members in the organization. Understanding the big picture applications of the information will help shape the day-to-day responsibilities of these roles.
Applied informatics and your HIM career
If you work – or hope to work – in HIM, developing your understanding of applied informatics is critical, whether you plan to stay in healthcare for your entire career or later transition to a role outside of the clinical setting.
“HIM supports and intersects with informatics at its base and across many applications,” Jennifer Teal, MS, RHIA, CCS, CPC, an HIM specialist for the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Informatics and Analytics in San Antonio, Texas, told AHIMA. “HIM professionals are the custodians of the health record, regardless of the technology used. If anything, health informatics has expanded our roles. We utilize informatics to assign clinical codes, ensure patients have access to their own information, and a variety of other applications … HIM professionals are also uniquely suited for non-clinical informatics positions, because the core skill set for both positions is very similar.”
If you are interested in advancing your career in HIM, consider enrolling in the online Bachelor of Science in Health Informatics or Post-Bacc Certificate in Health Information Management through the University of Illinois at Chicago. Through these programs, you will complete courses on the storage systems, management and analysis of health information, gaining valuable insight into current best practices and strategies. Contact an enrollment advisor today to learn more about how advancing your education could be the right next step in your HIM career.