Saint Joseph’s machine learning for business applications major, the first program in the region aimed specifically at undergraduates, will prepare students for jobs in the rapidly growing field of artificial intelligence.
This fall, the School of Health Studies and Education will add two options for students pursuing a future in the growing field of health informatics: a master’s degree and a certificate program.
A key moment to incentivize adoption of this technology began around 2008, when the federal government began to require the documentation of health care outcomes in a digital format. At the time, only about 30% of hospitals had an EHR in place. For the most part, records were still kept on paper.
The government, over about 10 years, pumped $29 billion into the health care system to help incentivize the adoption of electronic health care records. This had tremendous impacts on the ability to rapidly look at quality and how health care is being delivered. The EHR has become a key area of focus for not just patient-clinician interactions, but for providing the ability to trend and evaluate health outcomes over time.
The Health Informatics Degree at Saint Joseph’s
The new health informatics program at Saint Joseph’s has several unique characteristics, the first of which is innovation, according to Thomas Martin, Ph.D., assistant professor of health studies, who previously worked in the telecommunications and health care IT industries.
“Health IT environments are becoming a core function, when previously a chart was simply something to manage and move,” says Martin. “The challenge in health care is the same: What’s a quality experience, what’s a good outcome at the end of the day? Now, we need technology to foster that evaluation process. Technology over the past 15 years has played an outsized role in how we deliver health care.”
Another aspect that sets the Saint Joseph’s program apart, is the use of simulated environments. “I bring a very strong focus in my pedagogy to practical and applied situations so it’s not just theory,” Martin says. “It’s the application of technology and presenting that in the classroom to help solve real-world problems.”
In the classroom, students work in a simulated electronic health record environment. They have approximately 4,000 patients in a simulated environment that replicates what they’re seeing in their current roles at work or will encounter in a future job setting.
“We talk a lot in our classes about the design concept of usability. Consumer-oriented technology is something we focus on,” says Martin. The use of mobile applications is one example of this, and how to identify the really good mobile health care applications in this space.
Specialists in health care data are integral to the industry because in many cases, increasingly documentation of quality of care is tied to compensation for providers, and they need to provide data to support the outcomes they are reporting.
The challenge in health care is the same: What’s a quality experience, what’s a good outcome at the end of the day? Now, we need technology to foster that evaluation process.”
However, there is a caveat to this, Martin points out. “Medicare fraud is a multi-billion-dollar problem in health care and so you don’t just have to document outcomes for patients, you have to do it in a way that is ethical and presents data that isn’t cherry picked. So, there’s an ethical component to how you present that data to the federal government for payment.
“Transparency and interpretation of data are important,” Martin continues. Especially now, during the coronavirus pandemic, as health statistics are constantly being reported in the news. “We’re seeing the impacts of data transparency day in and day out.”
The Demand for Health Informatics
The field is growing at a rapid pace. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for health IT employment is expected to grow by 15%, adding over 29,000 jobs between 2014 and 2024. The rate of employment of medical records and health information technicians was expected to increase by 21% from 2010 to 2020, faster than the average growth rate for all occupations (14%).
The career outlook in health informatics is also strong – on the clinical side and the non-clinical, administrative side.
There is growing demand for the roles of health data analyst, health care administrators, medical records specialist and health IT professionals. There is also a need for people with clinical expertise – physicians, physician assistants, nurses, therapists – who have an understanding of how technology plays a role in providing patient care.
What type of student excels in the field of health informatics? According to Martin, “It’s people who want to do process improvement, who want to use and understand data to make decisions.
There are two different populations, he says. "On the one hand, they are clinical people: nurses, physicians and physician assistants; the other is everyone else. It’s the everyone else who can disrupt the status quo in our health care system”.
Students also come to the program from the administrative side, with a non-clinical background, and Martin believes those are really beneficial perspectives to have in health care. Delivering high-quality health care is increasingly about bringing together people from diverse backgrounds.
“As research has shown, having diverse backgrounds improves not just outcomes for people in their delivery of care, it delivers so much value in organizational decision making,” Martin says.