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From electronic health records (EHRs) to digital prescription transmission to remote monitoring devices, information technologies are enabling us to collect and store more data about our health. This information includes our health history, what medications we take, our heart rate, and even how well we sleep at night.

As technologies advance, the vast accumulation of data grows. But what can we do with it? How can we leverage these insights to empower providers and patients and to improve health outcomes universally?

Health informatics can help

That’s where health informatics comes in. Health informatics is defined by the U.S. National Library of Medicine as

“the interdisciplinary study of the design, development, adoption, and application of IT-based innovations in healthcare services delivery, management, and planning.”

In simple terms, informatics integrates information technology, communications, and healthcare to improve the quality, safety, and outcomes of patient care. This involves collecting, storing, analyzing, and presenting data in a digital format to drive problem-solving and enhance decision-making among doctors, patients, and even researchers and insurers. Tools used in health informatics include not only technology devices, software, and systems, but also the resources, standards, and methods used to optimize the acquisition and use of data.

How are we using health information technology?

When it comes to informatics, data is collected in a variety ways through an array of technologies. During a routine physical exam, for instance, a physician may be typing patient information into a tablet in real time, which then becomes part of that patient’s EHR. At a hospital, discharged patients are handed a tablet and asked to complete a quick survey about their experience. This data is instantly uploaded to a server and processed to create a clear, up-to-the-minute view of patient satisfaction at the facility.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is also revolutionizing the way health data is collected. According to Gartner, the IoT is the “network of physical objects that contain embedded technology to communicate and sense or interact with their internal states or the external environment.” Wearable fitness trackers, such as the Fitbit, collect information about how many steps we take each day and how much food we eat. This information is then sent to a device (such as a smartphone) to give us a “big picture” understanding of our behavioral habits.

Other wearable devices can remotely monitor, for example, a patient’s blood glucose levels and heart rate. This data is delivered electronically to a physician, who can interpret the information and respond with the appropriate intervention.

Although most wearable devices today are for personal use, that is expected to change. Experts predict that within the next two years, there will be 80 million wearable health devices. And the next generation will be capable of much more than tracking steps.

How can health data be used going forward to improve outcomes?

Informatics is already affecting the healthcare industry in a big way. But since this specialization is still in its infancy, we’ve merely scratched the surface. Here are some ways data is and will continue to impact healthcare quality and outcomes.

Patient empowerment. With health informatics, patients are able to take charge of their own health in ways never before possible. Remote monitoring devices and specialized software can help people with chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes keep an eye on their health without the need for constant in-office appointments. In addition, interactive communications technology like video conferencing makes it easier for patients to stay in touch with their doctor and be proactive about seeking treatment and follow-up.

Devices are being developed that will allow patients to control their own pain remotely. One example is a transcutaneous patch with Bluetooth connectivity that uses gentle electronic currents to reduce discomfort and connects to a smartphone app so that patients and doctors can track and manage pain together.

Improved monitoring and diagnosis. When real-time data on a patient’s blood pressure and vital signs is sent directly to a doctor’s office, providers can identify early warning signs before a crisis strikes. Another example of the power of wearable technology is the Freescale KLo2 chip, which can be swallowed by a patient or embedded in a diseased organ. From there, it transmits biometric readings back to the physician, who can monitor and diagnose a condition based on data being collected from inside the patient’s body.

Enhanced research. The ability to monitor patients in clinical trials through wearable devices could potentially accelerate the drug approval process. It might also help providers better pinpoint patients who will benefit from prescribed medications.

Better coordination. When teams of doctors can share data about test results, physical therapy, pharmaceutical concerns, and more via technology, it improves diagnosis accuracy, reduces risk, and enhances clinical decision-making. Efficiency is also improved, freeing up physicians and nurses to spend more time with patients.

Cost savings. Since health informatics helps automate previously manual tasks—such as scouring paper files to find a patient’s medical record—it increases productivity and saves time and money. This cost savings not only applies to doctors and hospitals, but also carries over to insurers and patients.

A new frontier

One thing is clear: As health informatics continues to bring positive changes to the industry, the field will continue to flourish. And according to Sam Hanna, Program Director for the online masters in health informatics program at The George Washington University, health professionals must keep in step. “Informatics and healthcare are becoming one, in a way, just like health IT and healthcare became one,” he said. “So we’re going into this era, whereby, to be truly valuable to your organization, if you’re a clinician, you have to understand the clinician side and you have to also understand the data and decision-making side.

“Informatics still has its challenges, because not everybody has fully bought in. But we’re going to get there, and I think how we’re going to get there is by disruption. Whether it’s a new mobile device or a new wearable device, it’s just going to give us that ‘aha’ moment,” Hanna said. “This is the new frontier.”

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