Healthcare organizations have loads of data, but what they really need is knowledge. One person who can help them find the way from data to knowledge is an informatician, sometimes referred to as an informaticist.
Ed Hammond, director of the Duke University Center for Health Informatics, says he's called himself both at one time or another, and he's one of the founders of the field. Though the definition has changed over the years in tandem with technological developments, Hammond offers a boiled-down meaning: “It's someone who deals with data, who deals with knowledge. I distinguish between the data, which is the raw material, and information, which reduces uncertainty, so an informaticist is someone who works on reducing uncertainty in decision-making."
To turn their data into knowledge, healthcare organizations can call on informaticists, sometimes called informaticians.
Informaticists are responsible not just for analyzing data, but for determining how it is created and gathered.
Informaticists often have advanced training in both a clinical area and computer science.
In some ways informaticians/informaticists are similar to data analysts—a function discussed in two recent articles, 3 Reasons Your Healthcare Organization Needs an Analyst Group and Building Your Analytics Group: Four Critical Steps. But they have a more global function: Rather than simply mining the data for insight, they play a key role in determining the nuts and bolts of data-gathering on the front end, making sure it's consistent and relevant and will be able to yield knowledge later. Being an informaticist requires being grounded not only in computer science but in the field that's generating the data.
Peter Gershkovich, director of pathology informatics at Yale University Medical School, stands as a perfect example of the breadth and depth of expertise that informaticists (or informaticians) must have: He holds both a medical degree and a master's degree in health administration, and he completed a fellowship in medical informatics at Yale. He has also worked extensively in medical software development. “Our role is to speak both languages—to know the domain of medicine and the domain of information technology and programming, software development, and various methodologies," he says. Informaticists often specialize in the same way clinicians do. Gershkovich, for instance, zeroed in on pathology, and there are specialists in lab, radiology, surgical, and nursing informatics, among others.
Informaticists are trained to think through the process of acquiring and using all kinds of data including clinical data. For example, the way orders and test results are entered into a lab system or an electronic health record can determine whether they can be compared later, and comparability is the lifeblood of all kinds of clinical, operational, and financial research. “One of the most difficult things we do is bringing lab data [into large cross-institution databases] because it's mapped differently in different places," Hammond says. It will fall to informaticists to analyze the challenge and standardize the way lab data is created.
Hammond believes that the next generation of medical students should be required to take at least one medical informatics course during their education. This will provide them with essential skills to understand the role of health informatics professionals. Duke offers a weekend course in health informatics for practicing physicians to teach them the most important skills and help improve their delivery of patient care.
“I watch what they've been able to accomplish after they've been through that course," he says. “Totally different attitude. The future of medicine demands that kind of exposure to the concepts of information management."