The way most doctors and health care professionals do their jobs has hardly changed over the past thirty to forty years. Contrast this with the enormous changes in, say, transport, manufacturing and telecommunications!
But hang on to your stethoscopes! Despite the fact that some doctors still have their heads buried firmly in the sand, the winds of change are blowing and most doctors are now using electronic communication technologies, if not enthusiastically, then at least regularly. The combination of technological change, the demands of business and the rise of consumerism are causing radical changes in the way healthcare is practiced around the world. Health Informatics experts are poised to revolutionize health practices by implementing the enormous changes needed in the health system, that have already occurred in other industries. These professionals typically have backgrounds in either healthcare, such as nurses and doctors, or information technology, and then receive cross-training so as to be able to work across both areas in the newly emerging electronic health systems of today and tomorrow.
The changes in healthcare will be the 21st century’s equivalent of the public health initiatives of sanitation and nutrition which revolutionized health care in the twentieth century. Integration of online technologies will see doctors and patients working together on electronic health records with patients having much more say in their treatments. The development of widely available broadband networks and video mail will bring electronic health into everyone’s home. Patients and doctors will work collaboratively on the internet as parters with the agreed mutual objective of health improvement.
Look at how fast the average adolescent can send messages on their phone – gone are the days when a telephone was just an audio device. The way we interact with communication systems is radically changing the way we behave and think in ways that are impossible to predict. And the computer literate children of today – the millenials and succeeding generations – will drive these changes. How many doctors want to interact with patients using instant messaging? Not many today, but the doctors of the millennial generation will probably think nothing of this approach. And these sorts of systems will be developed by experts who have been trained in health informatics, and who understand how to apply information technologies of all sorts to change and improve the way that we deliver patient care.
Knowledge has never been as important – and as accessible – as it is today.
Technology, and in particular, Internet technology, is transforming the academic medical landscape. A large number of institutions are moving to digital-only radiography and full electronic medical records. I no longer write any notes on paper – all my clinical work is electronically recorded. Residents now come to rounds armed with a vast array of reference information stored in hand-held personal digital assistants. The iPod is now a platform for lectures presented either as “podcasts” and “videocasts” and is also used as a mobile x-ray image viewer. Continuing medical education is increasingly available through the Internet. The digital revolution has greatly altered how academic health systems pursue education, research, and clinical care, and this is spreading through the rest of the health system.
The provision of clinical care is changing rapidly as health informatics technologies become increasingly used and accepted, with a move away from episodic care to concentrating on continuity of care, especially for patients with chronic disease who will create the greatest disease burden in the future. Care is gradually moving away from a focus on the service provider to that of the informed patient and from an individual approach to treatment to a team approach. Increasingly, less focus is placed on treating the illness and more is placed on wellness promotion and illness prevention: the model of the”Information Age care” first described by Dr Tom Ferguson MD. To move to this future of information age healthcare, the availability and use of information must be strengthened to facilitate changes in health service delivery, and a much greater focus must be placed on developing and refining the information technology infrastructure, and on training experts in health informatics who can create and develop the electronic clinical environments needed by both patients and doctors.
This is all occurring at a time of difficulty in our economy, but America is known for its capacity to thrive on challenges, and to rapidly change its industrial practices in the face of adversity. The health system needs large numbers of experts in health informatics, and training programs are being rapidly expanded. The University of California Davis Health Informatics graduate program, for instance, has doubled the number of Masters Health Informatics students in one year, and has enrolled 76 new students in a fully online Health Informatics certificate program within the last three months. The Obama Administration is putting billions of dollars into health informatics implementation and training with funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and increasing numbers of jobs in health informatics are already appearing. The jobs website, CareerBuilder has just marked health informatics as it’s number one emerging industry job opportunity, and is highlighting a number of jobs in areas as diverse as telemedicine, nursing information officers, clinical information technology liaisons, programmers, analysts, data integration experts and health service managers.
So, as healthcare continues to change and become more electronically enabled, watch out for this whole new generation of professionals trained in Health Informatics, and how they will facilitate the changes in healthcare, and eventually contribute to improving the health of all of us.