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Prologue from Dr. Sands: I trained in clinical informatics because of my belief that we needed to better empower healthcare professionals with information technology so they could take better care of patients, and spent many years creating and implementing these tools. But in my practice I learned that information technology can be even more empowering to patients and caregivers, which has driven much of my career, led to my association with Doc Tom, and eventually led me to help create the Society for Participatory Medicine.

This is a post by Jay Spitulnik, SPM member and associate teaching professor and director of Northeastern’s MS in Health Informatics, who shares his expertise on health informatics and touches on the important trend of consumer health and participatory medicine.

It was originally posted at Northeastern University’s website and is cross-posted here with permission.

Health Informatics (HI) is a relatively new, interdisciplinary field. HI (also called Health Information Systems) uses information technology to organize and analyze health records to improve healthcare outcomes. Health informatics deals with the resources, devices, and methods to utilize acquisition, storage, retrieval, and use of information in health and medicine. Tools include medical terminology, information and communication systems, and computer technology. Healthcare informatics provides electronic access to medical records for patients, doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, insurance companies and health information technicians. The health informatics field is rapidly growing in all areas of healthcare and healthcare management.

Health Informatics at Northeastern 

At Northeastern, the HI program accepted its first students in 2007, making it one of the oldest HI graduate programs in the country. The program belongs to both Northeastern’s Bouvé College of Health Sciences and Khoury College of Computer Sciences. Since the program’s inception, the curriculum has required that students develop proficiency in health science, management science, and information science.

In 2009, the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act was created to promote and expand the adoption of health information technology, specifically, the use of electronic health records (EHRs) by healthcare providers. The financial incentives available to providers as a result of HITECH created a job market for HI professionals which is still growing today, 11 years later. Before the introduction of the HITECH Act, only 10 percent of hospitals had adopted EHRs. In order to advance healthcare, improve efficiency and care coordination, and make it easier for health information to be shared between different covered entities, electronic health records needed to be adopted. As a result, almost 100 percent of our graduates are placed within three months after they graduate.

The Future of Health Informatics 

The Northeastern University Health Informatics program is a fully interdisciplinary program that addresses the combined clinical, technical, and business needs of health-related professionals. As the world of healthcare changes, we are now expanding the way we address the needs of patients and healthcare vendors in addition to the health-related professionals. Students gain knowledge of how technology, people, health, and the healthcare system interrelate. In addition, they develop the ability to use technology and information management to improve healthcare delivery and outcomes. Finally, our students are able to develop the skills to communicate effectively among healthcare practitioners, administrators, and information technology professionals. In addition to addressing the more traditional elements of health informatics, there are evolving industry trends that help define what we need to teach. Here are three of them.

Health Informatics Trend #1: Interoperability

Currently, the numerous systems applications of EHRs are not effective at communicating with each other. Interoperability is the ability of different information systems, devices, and applications (“systems”) to access, exchange, integrate and cooperatively use data in a coordinated manner, within and across organizational, regional and national boundaries. This supports the provision of timely and seamless portability of information and optimizes the health of individuals and populations globally. Health data exchange architectures, application interfaces, and standards enable data to be accessed and shared appropriately and securely across the complete spectrum of care, within all applicable settings and with relevant stakeholders, including by the individual.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has proposed an Interoperability and Patient Access Rule which introduces new policies that will expand access to health information and improve the seamless exchange of data in healthcare. This will enable better care coordination, better patient outcomes, and reduced costs. The proposals will help to break down existing barriers to interoperability and empower patients by giving them access to their health information. The policies in this proposed rule touch on all aspects of healthcare, from patients to providers to payers and researchers. The technology and standards will spark new opportunities for industry and researchers while improving healthcare quality for all Americans.

The Northeastern MS in Health Informatics program addresses interoperability in two ways. First, many of our courses that cover the management of health information address interoperability at some level. Second, we have a course that is specifically about how to build and maintain systems that are interoperable. Our instructor for Key Standards in Health Informatics is a member of HL7, the group that is responsible for international interoperability standards. As is the case with the faculty for many of our courses, this provides real-world knowledge that supports students in their networking and job searches.

Health Informatics Trend #2: Consumerization

Younger generations were raised in an online world—from streaming their favorite TV shows to submitting college applications to even grocery shopping. But today, many of them still can’t go online to make an appointment with their primary care physician (PCP) for a physical or a sick visit or see the average wait time for the ER. When today’s consumer-centric options, such as a local pharmacy or urgent care center, do allow for this level of visibility and ease, people who grew up digitally will question the value of maintaining a relationship with a PCP who does not provide this level of visibility.

With this in mind, our curriculum addresses the ways that providers and others use the existing and developing technologies to support open, proactive, two-way communication between all segments of the healthcare world. This includes hospitals, clinicians, patients, vendors, and anyone else who plays a role in the community.

Northeastern’s Health Informatics graduate program is taking a lead in this work through an emerging partnership with the Society for Participatory Medicine (SPM). We are working with the leadership of SPM to develop a course on participatory healthcare and its enabling technologies. Based on this course, our MSHI students will understand the role of each of the essential stakeholders—patient, healthcare provider, payer, pharmaceutical manufacturer, medical device company, pharmacy, and all others in the healthcare environment. This will include their professional obligations and what enabling technology gaps must be overcome for participatory medicine to reach its full potential.

Health Informatics Trend #3: Health Data Analytics

The digitization of healthcare systems in clinical settings, in combination with the explosion of personal data collection devices, provides the opportunity of using data for revolutionizing approaches to care at all levels with an emphasis on precision medicine and person-centered care. The ability to take advantage of this Big Data opportunity requires expertise at the intersection of health informatics, data science, and computational modeling. To address this, we have added a course on Introduction to Health Data Analytics. In addition, other courses have been added or are being proposed to enhance the way we address this issue, including Patient Engagement Informatics and Analytics and Claims Data Analysis.

Graduates and faculty of Northeastern’s MS in Health Informatics program are at the center of how healthcare is improving its use of technology to continuously improve outcomes for patients. To learn more about the program, explore our program page or get in touch with an enrollment coach to get your questions answered.


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