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Winter 2022

Evolving Education: Career Paths Expand for Health Informaticists
By Dorothy O’Hagan
For The Record
Vol. 34 No. 1 P. 26

When health care organizations began implementing EHR systems due to incentives provided through the Meaningful Use program—now called Promoting Interoperability—individuals with experience and advanced degrees in Health Informatics were often hard to come by.

According to HealthIT.gov, in 2017, 9 out of 10 stand-alone physician-based practices had implemented EHRs. Also, 96% of non-federal acute care hospitals had implemented EHRs, and a similar percentage of critical access hospitals had followed suit: Critical access hospitals were at 93%. Considering those data were from 2017, it’s reasonable to assume that those percentages are even higher today.

With the percentage of EHRs implemented for physicians and health systems bearing down on 100%, many industry experts are asking what the job market looks like for health informatics professionals. Is there still work for those desiring a career in the field? And is there enough work for those already working in the field?

The good news is the work is not yet finished, and yes, there are indeed many opportunities.

A Day in the Life
Once an EHR system has been implemented, the role of an informaticist does not cease. In fact, it’s just beginning. Most systems are on frequent and robust upgrade schedules. Many health informaticists spend their work days designing, building, validating, testing, and training for system upgrades. As bad actors continue to try to compromise the security of EHR systems and integrated software applications, informaticists must be testing security patches.

When it comes to informatics and health IT, change is constant. For example, an increasing number of organizations are moving on from their original EHR vendor to a partner that better fits their needs and vision. Some providers have gone through this process multiple times. In this environment, informaticists need to be change agents, displaying the flexibility to adapt to new workflows and help others learn what lies ahead.

Inside the Numbers
According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, while there is a positive outlook for roles in health information, it’s important to note that these positions are not to be considered as pertaining to health informatics. Health information positions are more about managing patient information than managing the systems that manage the information. Nevertheless, a stint as an HIM professional would be a great starting point for someone with aspirations of entering the health informatics profession.

Although The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not have a specific category for health informatics professionals, a comparative position might be computer system analysts. It can be reasoned that because the outlook for computer system analysts is rosy, then demand for health informaticists will remain high.

For individuals with a bachelor’s degree who are seeking a career change, an advanced degree in health informatics from a university that offers a practicum within a health care organization is a wonderful opportunity to gain experience. Considering that many of these practicums require 150 to 200 hours, they can be likened to a semester-long job interview in which students will acquire work experience for their résumé. By gaining real-world experience and networking at the practicum site, students can not only gain invaluable experience but also get their foot in the door at a leading health care organization in a sought-after position. 

Other Options
Opportunities for health informaticists exist in other settings than just in hospitals and health systems. Additionally, many of the skills a health informaticist has are beneficial in roles outside of a health informatics team.

For example, project management roles have expanded in health care organizations. Many informatics professionals are already managing small projects within their teams, so with the right attitude and a solid performance, large projects may become available. Those interested in project management should consider enhancing their skills by obtaining project management certification.

Evaluating how to create more efficient and effective workflows for end users is often on the mind of executive leaders and informatics teams. With this being the case, health informaticists may want to investigate positions in performance improvement. Workflow evaluation and design are tools in the health informaticist’s toolkit, so pursuing a certification in Lean Six Sigma could be a wise career decision.

If there is one thing the COVID-19 pandemic has taught health IT experts, it’s that there needs to be a more efficient method of collecting EHR data. Many in today’s informatics roles are augmenting their experience with additional courses in Python, R, and SQL. Having the ability to create dashboards and help decision-makers access the accurate data they need in a timely fashion will often set an individual apart from others.

Lately, more roles are opening for data science–related positions. Considering this area for an advanced degree is another avenue for individuals without health IT experience to find their niche. Some health informatics programs have specialized tracks in data analytics that might be the perfect fit for someone with a background in statistics.

In addition to a renewed emphasis on accurate, timely data, the pandemic has brought telehealth and remote patient monitoring to the forefront. Many believe the changes to health care delivery and patient access occurring during the COVID crisis will become permanent. For health informatics professionals, this is good news. There’s little doubt that these changes open further opportunity for starting a career or moving a career down a different path.

In an effort to deliver better health care faster and smarter, many health care organizations and software vendors are leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning within their information systems. Learning more about when and how natural language processing is used and the support these initiatives require are other areas where health informatics professionals fit the bill.

And let’s not overlook biopharma and genomics, fields where clinical research associates are gathering patient data from EHRs and studying that information to make decisions about future care. Even working at Google, through its Digital Wellbeing program, is a possibility as a career option. Integrating patient information and exploring interoperability options for patient wellness are among the most pressing issues in the industry today.

Indeed, health care is rife with opportunity for health informaticists looking to make their mark in an ever-changing industry.

— Dorothy O’Hagan is the program coordinator for the University of San Diego master’s degree in Health Informatics. In addition to her role as faculty and program coordinator, she is also a doctoral student.