Health Informatics Specialists Are Key to the Obama Health Information Technology Policy

As someone who has been teaching health informatics students for a number of years, it is rewarding to find this discipline finally receiving the attention and interest it demands. Most health experts have agreed for some time that the two academic disciplines of informatics and genomics are the key disciplines that will shape the future of American healthcare by enabling doctors to have access to personalized healthcare information at the point of care.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes specific wording supporting increased funding of health informatics programs around the nation. A recent article in the New York Times has noted that there is a greatly increased demand for “health informatics specialists” who have expertise in medical records, insurance claims, clinical care and computer programming as health care providers look to utilize the $19 billion in stimulus funding directed at implementing and expanding electronic health records.

Health informatics specialists usually start their career or education in computer programming or as health care professionals, and later earn a degree in health informatics and take midlevel or senior jobs at a hospital, doctor’s office, insurance company, drug firm or other organization working with health care data. The experience of the UC Davis Health Informatics program, which I direct, is that most of our graduates have found senior positions in health informatics in both public and private sectors, including a number who have become faculty in health informatics programs, and are now teaching future generations of students.

William Hersh MD, Chair of the Department of Medical Informatics and Clinical Epidemiology at Oregon Health and Science University was quoted in the New York Times as saying , “The health IT people run the servers and install software, but the informatics people are the leaders, who interpret and analyze information and work with the clinical staff.” It is crucial to have highly trained experts in informatics who are able to work across both the disciplines of health and information technology, and who understand and are expert in both. Without these informatics experts it is hard to see how the Obama Administration policies for Health Information Technology can possibly be implemented.

The American Medical Informatics Association is the main professional body relating to health informatics experts and Don Detmer MD, the Chief Executive Officer, said, “My rough estimate is that we need about 70,000 health informaticists” to meet Electronic Health Record goals laid out in the stimulus bill. Prior to the stimulus bill, most experts agreed that just to keep progressing with Health IT implementation at our current relatively slow rate, it would be necessary to have another 10,000 health informaticists by 2012. All that is now changed, and there is an urgent need for many more highly trained health informatics specialists, and programs such as UC Davis are planning to more than double their current output of students within the next three years, assuming extra stimulus funding.

It is interesting how the public has caught on to the need for increased numbers of health informatics specialists. This is demonstrated by the already dramatically increased numbers of applicants to the UC Davis program, where we are currently working with more than 50 applicants to our Masters program, having recently also enrolled 30 students in the first quarter of our new Certificate program.

It is crucial that the health workforce is retrained for 21st Century medical needs, and with health being one of the relatively few expanding sectors of the workforce, training in disciplines such as health informatics is essential if we are to improve the way health services are delivered to the nation. We have to be realistic about the fact that there will be increased needs in future as the current 46 million uninsured are likely to be covered by some form of universal insurance and offered more comprehensive care than they have been able to receive in the past. This can only happen if we use Health Information Technology intelligently, and universally, and for that to happen we have to dramatically increase the number of health informatics experts around the country.