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The impact of
health informatics
looks different
thanks to COVID-19

Author: Megan Williams

The impact of health informatics has been shaping the healthcare industry for years, but COVID-19 is shining a light on gaps and opportunities across the sector. To move forward successfully, healthcare leaders will need to take a fresh perspective on data, how it's used in decision-making, and what it means for the future of the field overall. So, what is health informatics?

What is health informatics?

Health informatics is the space where computer science and healthcare management intersect. The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) defines it as "the integration of healthcare sciences, computer science, information science, and cognitive science to assist in the management of healthcare information." HIMSS also acknowledges how quickly the field is evolving and expanding.

Keeping up with this progress will require leaders who may not come from data backgrounds to understand exactly what's being addressed in healthcare informatics conversations. For example, the difference between data integrity and security. Integrity is the state of data in a database being correct and consistent, with the data satisfying certain rules. Security is the prevention of access to data from unauthorized users. While this is a pressing issue in healthcare that directly affects informatics, it's important to be mindful of the boundaries between these types of concepts as leaders try to fill gaps in data governance practices, manage the collection of growing amounts of external data, and meet expanding reporting requirements.

Smart management of these challenges is critical in reducing costs, improving outcomes and increasing operational efficiency as the demands on healthcare organizations increase. Now that the question, “What is health informatics?” has been answered, we will consider what has driven recent changes in health informatics and what is driving the future.

Has COVID-19 changed health informatics?

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the impact of health informatics into unfamiliar territory.

A disjointed public health response has only highlighted the importance of timely, publicly available data. Take the John Hopkins University (JHU) Center for Systems Science and Engineering's COVID-19 dashboard for example. At first, it was a simple effort to track a new cause of pneumonia in China, but it grew quickly, seeing over one billion hits per day just a few weeks after its creation, as reported by The Lancet. The dashboard was flooded with traffic from the general public looking for information on the pandemic.

Why weren't other systems up to the task? The answer is largely because they struggled at an informatics level, unable to provide timely, open, actionable data at the scale needed. Similar challenges exist across the board in health informatics, slowing opportunities to drive population health, identify care disparities and support clinical research.

In the realm of population health, for example, healthcare organizations are producing enormous amounts of data related to patient admissions, insurance reimbursements and patient outcomes. This type of information is invaluable in supporting decisions in resource allocation and helping clinicians reach conclusions in response to population health trends. But data is only useful if the information is accurate and high quality and supported through programs and protocols that ensure data integrity and shape a complete view of the patient journey.

Even as the pandemic continues to unfold, providers, payers and government agencies still struggle to access critical data that supports vulnerable populations in both crisis and non-crisis scenarios. For example, as of mid-2020, 30% of healthcare organizations struggled "to exchange patient health records with other providers," and one out of every five records were duplicates, according to Fierce Healthcare. They also found that up to 50% of COVID-19 lab reports were "missing key contact information needed to alert individuals to their test results." What's possibly most concerning is that these statistics stand after years of health information initiatives from both the government and private sectors.

What is the long-term impact of health informatics?

Experts predict that COVID-19 isn't going away, according to The Scientist, but likely becoming endemic in the future like the flu or common cold. If COVID-19 becomes a long-term challenge in the US, it will mean growing costs and treatment complications—but it will also increase the importance of sharing information to track the spread and impact of the disease.

The impact of health informatics will only grow as vaccination becomes more common (consider the complications of managing booster shots from a public health perspective), increasing the need for accurate patient communication, compliance and outcomes tracking.

What should leaders do to advance the impact of health informatics?

As the pandemic progresses, many organizations will find increasing value in leveraging informatics and data integrity to support ongoing population and public health initiatives. To maximize outcomes, leaders should focus on overcoming data integrity challenges through actions including:

  • Strengthening data demographic verification using existing systems.
  • Investing in data interoperability, whether or not a government mandate emerges.
  • Enriching commercial lab reporting data with accurate capture of key data elements.
  • Modernizing electronic health records (EHRs) to support public and population health needs.
  • Updating data sharing methods, especially around entities such as pop-up testing sites.

Healthcare informatics will be critical to not only understanding but responding to the pandemic in ways that support providers and researchers, as well as the suppliers, technical entities, and other organizations that operate behind the scenes.

Learn more about how Verizon is enabling a promising future for the impact of health informatics.