Career Watch: Health Informatics

Career Watch: Health Informatics

Definition: Informatics is a combination of two ingredients. The first is a set of methods relating to information, including but not limited to its management and the understanding of how both humans and organizations process and interact with information and information resources. The second ingredient is a domain, such as public health, to which those methods get applied. Public health informatics is the field that seeks to improve public health practice by putting information to better use.

In Practice: Public health “informaticians” are at the forefront of developing new methods for early detection and tracking of disease outbreaks. Informaticians also contribute to the maintenance of registries and vital statistics; the Internet-based exchange of information among local, state, and federal public health agencies to support decision-making and resource allocation; the maintenance of accurate information about health care safety and hospital-based infections; and the development of effective informational resources to help the general population understand basic hygienic and other steps to improve health.

Current Job Opportunities: Public health informatics is a relatively new field. Most jobs now are in public health agencies at the local, state, and federal level—and tend to be filled by people who were not trained for them and learned on the job. Public health informaticians also work in research and development settings, including universities and private industry. People with expertise in public health informatics can also work to improve health on a global scale through NGOs and the World Health Organization.

Future Job Opportunities: As health care in the United States moves increasingly toward the use of digital and computable medical and health records, the employment opportunities for health informaticians of all types, including public health informaticians, will soar. The public health component of this transition is enormous, as digital records can facilitate the widespread implementation of best and more efficient practices.

Skill Set: Public health informaticians must have a reasonable mastery of both informatics methods and the public health practices to which those methods are applied. Because informatics is about helping people be better at what they do, informaticians should be both “people people” and “technology people.”

Takeaway Quote: “We can’t predict exactly what will happen, but clearly information technology is transforming the way we do everything. Health has trailed other sectors in this change process, but we’re starting to see the transformation of health into a digital practice. Like so many things that happen in the U.S., when this transformation finally takes hold, it will happen very, very fast. My concern is that we are not going to have the workforce we need to do this right. So let’s get ready for it. If you have an interest in this area, get involved.” —Charles Friedman, Director, University of Michigan Program in Health Informatics

Note that UM will launch a two-year master’s degree program in health informatics in the fall of 2012. Current SPH students can now enroll in a certificate program in health informatics. More information on both programs.

This is the first in a new and ongoing Findings series about emerging trends in public health jobs and careers.