Medical Informatics: A Field With Vast Growth Potential
Mention “medical informatics” to the average person and you might get a comment about how computerized records have replaced the bulging folders on shelves in the doctor’s office.
That may be the most recognizable aspect of the incorporation of technology in the doctor-patient relationship, but it’s just a small start. The field of medical informatics — the digital gathering, storing, and using of medical information — has so much potential that it’s expected to generate 18 percent job growth each of the next three years.
The desire to “bridge the chasm between where we are now and the promise of technology” is what motivated Northwestern physician and associate professor David M. Liebovitz to take on the faculty directorship of Northwestern’s MS in Medical Informatics program. Even those electronic records systems are in their infancy, “paper charts shoved into a computer screen without providing additional intelligence,” Liebovitz says. “What we need are effective tools to assess the next steps in healthcare, both from the patient’s and the physician’s perspective.”
The vast potential of the use of technology parallels trends that see patients as more active participants in their own healthcare. Liebovitz mentions three such trends:
• Patient empowerment: “The physician’s office has been the filter through which everything passed. We need to think about medical informatics solutions that empower patients to act independently — tools where patients can make appointments and screen interventions without having to go through the physician’s office. When a recommendation has already been made — for a colonoscopy, a mammogram, or diabetes screening, for instance — why put barriers in place?”
• Increased transparency: “When a patient has tests done, there’s a wait before results are returned to the patient; everything has to go through a physician. Results truly belong to the patient. Cholesterol results can be sent directly to the patient. Even for results that require careful scrutiny — CT scans, for instance — there could be parallel descriptions available, one for the physician and one written for the patient.”
• Shared decision making: “There are possible interventions that fall into a gray zone: do we act or do we wait? There is tremendous potential to use medical informatics to engage patients in this gray zone in a shared decision-making process.”
Leading the field’s development will require more than technological adeptness. “Understanding the workflow, the culture change necessary, and the organizational processes affected is even more important than understanding the technology,” says Liebovitz. “All these aspects are addressed in our medical informatics program.”
Students in the part-time program, offered by Northwestern University School of Professional Studies in partnership with the Feinberg School of Medicine, come from a variety of backgrounds, from healthcare to information technology. They develop skills such as change management and negotiation while studying current and emerging health IT systems, and learn to assess the clinical, financial, and operational aspects of informatics needs, as well as the security, legal, ethical, and social challenges. — Marianne Goss