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What Is Clinical Informatics?

April 28, 2021

As the field of technology and our ability to gather information have grown, healthcare experts have come to depend more and more on data and technology as they treat patients. The quantity of information and the means of collecting it continue to expand, and the crucial tasks of interpreting, analyzing and implementing information in treatment plans falls to clinical informaticists.

Clinical informatics is one of several subfields within health informatics, and this post seeks to define and contextualize it.

Defining Clinical Informatics

It may be helpful to think of the various subfields of health informatics much as we think of various medical occupations: Although each has unique tasks, all are committed to improving patient care and outcomes through the particulars of separate specialties. Public health informatics, for example, focuses on society as a whole, while clinical informatics is centered on the individual patient.

Clinical informatics involves the study and practice of an information-based approach to healthcare delivery. The American Medical Association (AMA) calls it informatics focused on clinical practice, healthcare delivery and patient care plans,1 while the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) defines it as the application of informatics and information technology to deliver healthcare services.2

According to the American Board of Preventive Medicine (ABPM), physicians who practice clinical informatics collaborate with other healthcare and information technology professionals to analyze, design, implement and evaluate information and communication systems that enhance health outcomes, improve patient care and strengthen the clinician-patient relationship.3

The ABPM goes on to say that clinical informaticists combine their knowledge of patient care with their understanding of informatics concepts, methods and tools to:

  • Assess information and knowledge needs of healthcare professionals and patients
  • Characterize, evaluate and refine clinical processes
  • Develop, implement and refine clinical decision support systems
  • Lead or participate in the procurement, customization, development, implementation, management, evaluation and continuous improvement of clinical information systems3

Who Uses Clinical Informatics?

Clinical informatics affects all areas of patient care, and is applied in hospitals, physicians’ practices, military care facilities and other healthcare settings to assess the needs of care professionals and patients.

Think of all the healthcare professionals you and your family members might see in a year: primary care physicians, nurses, dentists, cardiologists, dermatologists, pharmacists, physical therapists—the list can go on. When care specialists can share information about patients, they’re better equipped to formulate, coordinate and manage treatment plans. With efficient systems in place to gather, store, analyze and distribute information, the quality of care improves. This is where the clinical informatician comes in.

Depending on the size of the care setting, the clinical informatician may have many responsibilities, including:

  • Evaluating existing information systems and recommending improvements to functionality
  • Studying data entry or visual image storage systems
  • Serving as a liaison with people who need access to records
  • Training staff on system use
  • Building interfaces and troubleshooting software and hardware issues
  • Working across multiple departments to integrate information sharing
  • Documenting and reporting their findings and working to implement improvements

How Does Clinical Informatics Appear in Patient Care?

Clinical informatics affects the care process in numerous ways, including these:

Electronic Health Records (EHR) Perhaps the most recognized example of clinical informatics is the electronic health record, which is a systemized collection of patient health and clinical data. EHRs allow providers to communicate patient information securely, in real time, between outpatient clinics, emergency departments, peri-operative spaces and inpatient floors.4 By using EHRs instead of paper-based records, clinicians eliminate the delays of receiving information via fax or courier and the inaccuracies caused by illegible handwritten notations—problems which lead to medical errors, poor quality of care and non-adherence to evidence-based best practices.1

Patient Portals Clinical informatics technology also helps patients share information with their care providers and receive information from them. Through online portals, patients can request appointments and prescription refills, see their health records, laboratory test results, x-rays and other imaging, their billing and payment records, and personalized recommendations for their care. Patient portals have also become useful intervention platforms for patient coaching and education regarding chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart disease, or focused on such risk factors as hypertension and smoking.5

Bed Management Systems This application tracks the allocation and availability of beds in in-patient facilities, and monitors the data associated with services connected to each bed. It can help alert support staff regarding preparation needed for an incoming patient, determine the best times for admissions and discharges, and assess the efficiency of the turnover process.

Wearable Medical Devices Used for prolonged medical monitoring or support, these typically small, lightweight devices incorporate physiological sensors with data processing, medical feedback and wireless data transmission. In addition to holter devices, which provide multi-day cardiac monitoring, wearable devices include glucose monitors, insulin pumps and pedometers.

Computerized Provider Order Entry (CPOE) This electronic system for medication ordering has replaced the phone and fax to become the most common means of placing medication orders with pharmacists. Each order can include lab orders, radiology studies, procedures and warnings of drug interactions, and each can be integrated within the patient’s EHR. Use of CPOE in hospitals is associated with reduced incidents of serious medication error and adverse drug events, increases in the use of equally effective and less costly medications, shorter hospital stays and lower total charges.

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