Essential Skills for Today and Tomorrow’s Health Informaticists

Health informaticist in actionThe field of health informatics is growing ten times faster than healthcare jobs overall, and accounts for the ninth largest share of all healthcare job postings. Big data, electronic records, and value-based payment are just some of the things pushing demand for health informaticists.

But while the opportunities are plentiful and growing, many students, job seekers and employers lack a full understanding of what these professionals actually do and the skills they need to be successful. So what do they do and what skills and training should health informaticists have?

Two Points of View on the Field of Health Informatics

We thought we’d get some perspectives from a couple people working in the field. We talked with a physician informaticist executive and a recent college graduate who just entered the field.

An Often Misunderstood Field – The Seasoned Executive View

Dirk Stanley, MD, MPH, is Chief Medical Information Officer at UConn Health where he leads development of clinical content and engagement in health IT and informatics. He is board-certified in both internal medicine and clinical informatics.

“While health informatics has been in place for decades,” Stanley explained, “the profession remains poorly understood.” At a former job, he recounted “When I told people I was there to build a health informatics team, I was accused of making the term up.” Even today he said many of those who call themselves informaticists don’t necessarily understand the breadth of the role.

UNE’s Health Informatics former Program Director Megan Landry, BSN, MHA-Informatics, couldn’t agree more. “You can’t describe these jobs in simple one-liner titles,” she said. “Further complicating things, companies use different words to describe the same job. One may advertise for a Data Analyst, another for an Associate in Informatics, while both job descriptions list the same job responsibilities.”

But perhaps what is more clear are the skills needed to do the job right, no matter what the title of the position is.

Essential Skills for the Health Informaticist – From a Fresh Perspective

Amanda Howard is Senior Analyst for the Chartis Center for Rural Health, her first job since graduating college in 2015. “My role is very data-driven,” she explained. “I’m involved from start to finish loading, processing, manipulating, interpreting, and presenting data to help hospitals with a wide range of operational and improvement needs.”

While Howard did not study health informatics specifically, she credits a number of skills she learned in college as preparation for her job today. First, her chemistry major gave her both a technical and analytical mindset, and second, hard science and math courses prepared her to work with data.

Health Informatics Done Right

For Stanley, health informatics means getting five things right: the right information, the right person, the right place, the right time, and the right way. He said this requires a number of skills, but perhaps most foundationally systems engineering, and workflow and infrastructure design.

Stanley does not downplay the importance of computers and technical skills: “At some point, someone is going to ask you what’s going on inside the medical record.” He recommends informatics students have an understanding of SQL, descriptive statistics, and some type of analytics package. And because, as he pointed out, health informaticists do a lot of clinical workflow design, familiarity with flowcharting programs is also helpful.

Both Stanley and Howard cautioned students not to ignore the soft skills like change management, project management, and presentation and writing skills. Howard said, “Communications and critical thinking skills are essential for success in a role like mine.”

Perhaps less obvious, Stanley noted, is the importance of linguistics and interpretation. Growing up in a German-speaking household he often acts as interpreter between German and English speakers. He finds parallels in his work as an informaticist where he performs a similar type of real-time interpretation between the technical and clinical staff he works with. “While they’re both speaking English, they are certainly not speaking the same language. This is the root failure of many projects.”

As far as clinical training, Stanley points out that great informaticists don’t need to be clinicians, but he stressed they do need a basic understanding of healthcare roles, operations, policies, and regulatory environments. In concert, Howard said that while she’s received a good amount of on-the-job training, she wishes she’d had a bit more exposure to the business of healthcare. “People starting off in roles like mine would benefit from some healthcare business background,” she added.

If Nothing Else, Learn These Top Skills

To summarize, we pressed our two interviewees to choose just a few top skills anyone starting a career in health informatics should have. Stanley quickly replied, “My axe is workflow design and change management. Sometimes a simple workflow change has a lasting impact.” For Howard, her top of mind skills were a foundation in statistics so students are ready to work with data, coupled with a basic understanding of the business of healthcare.

Both also counseled anyone getting into health informatics to have an eye to the future. “As health informatics continues to be an integral part of healthcare operations,” said Howard, “students must stay abreast of changes in the healthcare environment.”

How do you explain health informatics and what skills do you think are more important?


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