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Choosing a Health Informatics Path
By Sandra Nunn, MA, RHIA, CHP

Like many HIM professionals, I have toyed with the idea of entering a health informatics specialty. While researching this topic, I discovered there is a wide range of options available for those seeking to expand their educational and career horizons in this direction.

The health informatics field is not new; it began decades ago with the discovery of the potential value of the data that would be generated from EHRs. The professional association AMIA emerged in the late 1970s from a merger of three other information management groups. There are members of the HIM field who belong to both AMIA and AHIMA because of some of the overlap among the groups.

These groups have created the term “biomedical informatics” to describe the overarching domain covering all health informatics subspecialties currently pursued. Thanks to this overlap, AMIA and AHIMA decided to better define the career options likely to be addressed by each. They jointly embrace the following brief definition of biomedical informatics: “the interdisciplinary field that studies and pursues the effective uses of biomedical data, information, and knowledge for scientific inquiry, problem solving, and decision making, motivated by efforts to improve human health.”

Careers in biomedical informatics generally fall into the following four areas:

Those already pursuing HIM degrees would be most interested in certificates or more advanced degrees in the latter two areas.

In a discussion with Carole Okamoto, MBA, RHIA, CHPS, FAHIMA, a senior lecturer at the University of Washington in Seattle and a seasoned HIM professional and consultant, I gained an understanding of some challenges of distinguishing an HIM graduate-level program employing the word “informatics,” which is a specialty construed by many to require bedside or nursing exposure.

Taking a tack away from the “in the weeds deep medical analytics” programs targeted to nurses and allied health professionals, Okamoto says Gretchen Murphy, MEd, a senior lecturer at the University of Washington who serves as director of the health information administration program, has built a program to help HIM innovators move into a graduate program that develops strategic levels of thinking. Her program partners with the master’s in health administration track to develop enterprise-level strategic thinkers. Okamoto says this program “sets them apart in the marketplace.”

This type of program would be valuable to those HIM professionals who are already advanced in their careers and want to move upward in healthcare organizations or other businesses. Those in HIM need to determine the direction of their interests and abilities when considering one of these informatics programs. The University of Washington program has strength for those wanting to move into enterprise management roles. Other programs, such as the one at Kent State University in Ohio, offer health informatics certificate programs to add on to a bachelor’s degree or an MS degree more focused on classes regarding clinical decision-support systems, business process management software, and knowledge organization structures, systems, and services. Essentially, this master’s degree leads more to positions related to data analytics or statistical analysis that could lead to roles in Six Sigma- or data warehouse reporting-related positions. Applicants need to know what opportunities they hope to gain from further education.

Kim Baldwin Stried-Reich, MBA, MJ, well known for her work in eDiscovery, has become the first RHIA to earn a postbaccalaureate in clinical informatics (PBCI) from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Clinical Informatics Certificate Program. She took the time to discuss her path to this certificate. Challenged by some about not having the clinical background to perform case management or become a certified case manager, Stried-Reich said that “after listening to a lecture given by Harold Lehmann, MD, PhD, given to members of the Public Health Data Standards Consortium, I knew immediately that the Johns Hopkins PBCI was for me.”

Contrary to the thinking of those who had questioned an RHIA’s lack of clinical qualifications, Stried-Reich achieved a 4.0 GPA in the Johns Hopkins program and has found her newly gained knowledge to be of great benefit to her work.

Having a PBCI has enhanced Stried-Reich’s career in several ways. First, it has provided a greater understanding of clinical informatics and the role of relevant clinical metadata in eDiscovery. As compliance and case manager at Lake County Physicians’ Association, she has helped the organization achieve perfect compliance scores. Also, she provides education and training in case management and compliance to nurses and others.

The practice’s physicians also benefit from Stried-Reich’s expertise, seeking advice on how best to exchange data between clinical information systems and providers.

Along with determining what type of informatics program you need to enroll in to achieve your desired career path, know you aptitudes. Are you a strategic thinker who wants to do high-end management or are you someone who would be most happy doing analytics with data coming from an EHR?

Also consider the cost and accessibility of informatics programs. Many offer online classes, but some require classroom time. Kathleen Blake, MD, MPH, vice president for the Physician Consortium for Performance Improvement for the American Medical Association, says that when selecting a program, it’s important to ask questions about the “composition of students” and to make sure the program is “interdisciplinary,” meaning there are representatives from a variety of communities, such as physician, nursing, social work, and philosophy, who can bring additional knowledge to the program.

Lynne Thomas Gordon, MBA, RHIA, FACHE, CAE, CEO of AHIMA, will lead a panel at the International Federation of Health Information Management Associations’ 17th Congress and General Assembly in May in Montreal on HIM/health informatics competencies, and workforce transformation. She likely will reference AHIMA’s new Career Map (hicareers.com/careermap), an interactive tool to guide those pursuing HIM careers. Health informatics options are certain to be among the many choices on this map of the future for HIM professionals.

— Sandra Nunn, MA, RHIA, CHP, is a contributing editor at For The Record and principal of KAMC Consulting in Albuquerque, New Mexico.