Guide to College Majors in Medical Informatics

I was brought up to believe that the only thing worth doing was to add to the sum of accurate information in the world.
--Margaret Mead

What is Medical Informatics?

Medical informatics professionals use information technology to benefit the health and human services industry. They create and maintain new ways for hospitals to keep records, making essential medical information as accessible as possible. Medical informatics specialists create new ways for hospitals and research centers to communicate with one another, while streamlining the interpersonal communication between staff members and patients.

Though every industry employs informatics specialists, they are particularly important in the medical field. The speed and accuracy with which medical information is conveyed can be the difference between life and death. For instance, if a doctor prescribes a common medication that the patient is allergic to, the effects could be devastating. But if the doctor has access to detailed medical records, indicating allergies and medical history, this sort of situation can be avoided.

This young and growing field offers many opportunities. As a medical informatics major, you may enjoy the opportunity to enter an industry that is poised to expand rapidly. Healthcare, already the nation's largest industry, is also its fastest-growing. The graduates of today's degree programs in medical informatics will be the pioneers of the field.

Informatics grads work in a variety of environments: hospitals, medical research laboratories, health insurance companies, Internet companies, health information technology suppliers, consulting organizations and more. They serve as database administrators, project managers, project designers, computer programmers, researchers, and systems analysts.

What medical informatics specialists do within these areas depends entirely on their concentration. Generally, they provide technical support for databases, design new systems, and make purchasing decisions for new equipment. They also evaluate usability, figure out ways to enhance systems, check data for accuracy, and train staff members to access the database.

Students in medical informatics degree programs can choose to specialize within any of these areas:

  • Bioinformatics
  • Public Health Informatics
  • Organizational Informatics
  • Social Informatics
  • Clinical Informatics

Bioinformatics specialists concern themselves with biomedical information. Figuring out how to store, retrieve, share and use this information is critical for solving problems and making decisions in biomedical science. This field also encompasses the specialties of chemical informatics, nursing informatics, and dental informatics.

Public health informatics involves using information technology and computer science to influence the way the public learns about health and health care. It focuses on providing public access to the latest medical research, as well as supplying public health practices with the information they need.

Organizational informatics specialists try to bring an organization together through the use of information technology and computerized systems. They focus on resolving electronic communication issues between different branches of a medical organization or company.

Social informatics specialists study the ways in which information technology affects social environments and vice versa. Social informatics specialists study all the social aspects of computer science and information technology.

Clinical informatics deals with the use of information technology in clinical research and patient care. It also involves the use of information technology in medical education, playing a role in educating at-home patients as well as future medical practitioners.

The career opportunities for an individual with a health informatics degree are numerous, and the industry continues to grow. A career in medical informatics can be an excellent opportunity to bring your specialized computer skills to medicine, helping to make medical professionals more effective and providing a valuable public service.

Is a Career in Medical Informatics Right for You?

Choosing to enter a degree program in medical informatics is a big decision. Because of the specialized nature of the field, it requires serious commitment. Computer science or information technology (IT) majors can make the transition quite easily, since both career tracks require many of the same computer skills.

Successful health informatics specialists have the following skills:

  • Attention to detail
  • Excellent verbal and written communication skills
  • Problem solving
  • Troubleshooting
  • Ability to approach computer problems in a creative manner
  • Ability to work independently
  • Ability to apply technology in a practical, real-world way
  • Ability to explain complicated material in a way that anyone could understand
  • Intimate knowledge of computer hardware and software being employed
  • Grace under pressure
  • Customer service skills
  • Ability to work with a wide variety of associates, including programmers, managers, designers, and administrators
  • Sincere desire to help people in the medical community, including patients and doctors

If this sounds like you, then a degree in medical or health informatics might be just the thing! If you are still unsure, consider some basic computer science or IT training to test the water before diving in. This can also increase your chances of excelling in an informatics program once you decide to go for it.

Career Education in Medical Informatics

Degree programs in medical informatics range from the certificate level (graduate and undergraduate) to bachelor's and master's degrees in the various disciplines of medical informatics, including health information technology and health administration.

Online degrees in health informatics have become increasingly common, often conducted in coordination with several intense summer sessions. Since the Internet is at the heart of information technology, this makes a very appropriate and effective forum for teaching informatics. Online degree programs in medical informatics also allow participants to continue their professional careers while getting their education, instead of having to put their work lives in professional limbo. Online degree and distance learning programs also allow working parents to get a quality education while fulfilling their important obligations to their family.

Medical Informatics Certificates

Most certificate programs in medical informatics are designed for professionals already working in the field who wish to expand their knowledge or specialize in a certain area. Introductory certificate programs are also available for students who wish to gain an overview of the field in preparation of an undergraduate degree in medical informatics.

Many graduate-level certificate programs take fewer than three semesters to complete. Most are offered online or through distance learning programs. There are many options for students wishing to specialize in a branch of medical informatics. These include:

  • Nursing Informatics: These certificate courses focus on how information technology can be applied to the decision-making processes and working practices of nurses. These applications are discussed in the context of hospital patient care, medical education, and medical research.
  • Healthcare Informatics: Healthcare managers and professionals rely on accurate data to make decisions about how healthcare can be more effectively administered. Healthcare informatics specialists streamline the technology that processes this data, to make it more practical and relevant to the professionals utilizing it.
  • Healthcare Data Security Management: Focusing on protecting the privacy rights of patients, these programs teach informatics specialists how to maintain systems that help healthcare professionals comply with all legal regulations, as well as maintain ethical standards in their business practices throughout their organization.

Bachelor's Degrees in Health Informatics

Bachelor's degree programs in health informatics are typically four-year programs focusing on the ways that the health and medical fields acquire, store, and utilize data. These programs emphasize computer science, biology, chemistry, and mathematics. The curriculum covers everything from genetics to artificial intelligence.

The first year of a medical informatics degree program usually consists of general biology, chemistry, and introductory computer science classes, as well as some algebra and calculus. The second year begins the integration of these disciplines, combining mathematics with computing and moving into the more elusive and experimental field of genetics research. Students also begin to learn about how information technology affects all these subjects.

The final two years usually consist of more specialized study in medical sciences and computer science. Statistics and database management are covered. Often, these programs will require the completion of some sort of undergraduate project, similar to a graduate thesis. Each program is different, so prospective students should get in touch with the informatics department of the college they will attend.

A bachelor's degree in health informatics is usually required to work professionally in this field. Some students move immediately into a master's degree program after graduation, while many others proceed directly into the workforce.

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Medical Informatics?

Medical informatics is a growing field with excellent career prospects. Medical informatics specialists work in a variety of environments, including hospitals, clinics, healthcare and insurance agencies, medical information technology firms, research institutes, and universities.

The demand for specialists in medical informatics is on the rise. While other types of IT jobs are being outsourced to overseas companies, medical informatics specialists continue to hold firm in the U.S., due to the complex nature of the field and the high level of contact required between the informatics specialist and his employer. Physicians and administrators need the specialist close in case problems or questions arise, so job security is one positive aspect of a career in medical informatics.

Some job titles in medical informatics include:

  • Medical Informatics Project Manager: These specialists oversee a team of other informatics specialists to create databases for hospitals, schools, research institutes, or clinics. They may also train the staff of their organization to use databases effectively.
  • Medical Informatics Project Designer: Designers tailor different types of systems to an individual client's needs by figuring out the most effective way for them to collect, store, and access data.
  • Medical Informatics Researcher or Research Assistant: Working at the forefront of their field, medical informatics researchers attempt to discover new ways of utilizing technology to benefit medical professionals and their patients.
  • Medical Informatics Systems Analyst: These specialists analyze existing systems and recommend ways to update or streamline them to maximize efficiency.
  • Teacher or Professor of Medical Informatics: To teach the next generation of medical informatics professionals, these educators must be skilled at communicating difficult and complex concepts to students.
  • Medical Database Administrator: Once a database has been set up, someone must be around to maintain it, foreseeing and avoiding problems, as well as troubleshooting for the users of the system. This person must be able to answer the users' questions quickly, solving problems as soon as they arise.

Certification and Licensure

A career in medical informatics requires no special certification or licensure. However, it is a competitive field. Graduates without at least a bachelor's degree in medical informatics will have a difficult time finding work. It is also wise to choose a specialization within informatics to give you an edge over other job candidates.

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