Some of the most exciting developments in healthcare technology are happening in the interdisciplinary field of informatics. Blending information science with core healthcare disciplines — scientific research, patient care, public health — health informatics uses data analysis to improve the quality and efficiency of healthcare services.
The industry’s transition to electronic health records represented a sea change in patient care, but providers are only beginning to tap into the potential of digitized health data to improve patient outcomes. The ability to access, analyze, and share comprehensive patient data improves the safety and efficiency of care and supports better medical decisions.
EHRs: The Foundation of Health Informatics
Designed to contain information from all clinicians involved in patient care, electronic health records (EHRs) store patients’ medical history, diagnoses, medications, allergies, immunization records, radiology images, and lab and test results. They can also include administration and billing data, as well as demographic information. EHRs have become so ubiquitous that their advantages compared to the paper-based files they supplanted can be easily overlooked:
- Availability. Once information is captured in an EHR, it can be easily accessed by another authorized healthcare provider or the patient.
- Centralization. Without the limitations of a physical medium, EHRs can serve as a central repository of information from diverse and geographically dispersed sources.
- Transferability. Updates to health information captured by an EHR can be made available to anyone with access, allowing for real-time updates of important health information.
A common healthcare scenario illustrates the benefits of these features. A patient might see multiple doctors, any one of whom could prescribe a medication. Having shared access to an up-to-date record reduces the likelihood of the doctors prescribing redundant treatments, drugs with dangerous interactions, or medications that have proven ineffective or harmful for the patient.
Adding Tools and Analytics
The development of applications that analyze and act on electronic health information unleashes even more potential to improve patient outcomes. For example, instead of simply providing a doctor with information about a patient’s current medications and drug allergies, an EHR system with clinical decision support (CDS) tools can proactively alert the physician when a prescription or combination of prescriptions poses danger to the patient.
Why Analyzing Patient Outcomes Is Important
The ability to aggregate and analyze information across patient populations can provide additional insights, particularly in the field of public health. For example, analytics can help detect the emergence of an infectious disease, provide data about the treatments that have been most effective for a particular illness, or predict patients who might be at higher risk for a disease.
Additional Benefits of Analyzing Patient Data
A survey conducted by the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions found that while improving clinical outcomes was the biggest driver of investments in data analytics technology in healthcare, reducing operating costs was a close second. Other major factors included pursuing revenue growth opportunities, enabling value-based care, supporting new payment models, and driving innovation and supporting research.
EHR systems have not eliminated the paperwork associated with healthcare services, but they have reduced it by automating administrative tasks in such areas as communication and billing. The integration of emerging technologies such as robotic process automation (RPA), internet of things (IoT), and artificial intelligence (AI) promises even greater opportunities for automation and analysis, particularly as advanced medical devices such as wearables provide additional patient data.
Ethical Use of Health Information
Specialists in health data management and analysis come into contact with a wide range of sensitive data, including individuals’ financial, genetic, health, and personal identification information. They have a responsibility to only use and share information that is authorized for their use and relevant to their purposes. Failing to uphold that responsibility amounts to a violation of privacy, and the misuse of health information has serious implications for patients. For example, a potential employer who gains knowledge of a job candidate’s preexisting or potential health issue could deny a position based on that information.
Deciding how information can be collected; how it should be stored, accessed, and managed; and how it can be safeguarded are all essential to protecting patients’ rights of privacy and confidentiality. As health information technology advances and becomes more powerful, the importance of sound training — including a solid foundation in ethical standards — only increases.